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Redesigning Skype for Android Chat

The third World Information Architecture Day took place on February 15 by organizing local events around the world. UX Passion organized it for the first time in Zagreb. I was invited to speak about iOS and Android design guidelines.

I presented a few examples of good and bad navigation decisions on both platforms. Skype for Android chat was used as a “somewhere in the middle” example where I suggested another (IMHO better) solution. I would like to expand on that example and explain my thought process. Please note that my only focus is layout and navigation of the chat screen, not overall performance and user experience.

Here is the current chat screen for reference:

Current Skype chat on Android.

Problems

  1. Action bar looks out of place with a non-standard Up arrow and a centered title. But that’s just a minor detail.

  2. The bottom blue bar is a continuation of the Action bar, but it has only two icons that could fit at the top. Official guidelines allow this pattern, but it has been avoided because it often shows too many icons not needed at the moment. Also, with the on-screen navigation menu (like here) it’s easy to accidentally press Home or Back button.

  3. That blue bottom bar hides itself when you start typing, but if you select any text, contextual actions are rendered in the same bar which then overlays the actual selection. Those actions are usually present on the top Action bar.

    Text selection shows a toolbar with actions that hides
   all other content and makes it unusable.

  4. Send and Emoticons buttons are too close, made more problematic by Emoticons icon being very small.

  5. Something not visible from the screenshot is navigation. Up and Back buttons do the same thing, get you back to the list of chats. That’s OK if you came from there, but if you’ve landed on a specific chat from a notification or somewhere else, Back button should return you where you were before, even if it was a different application. To make matters worse, top right Chat icon—that turns orange when there are new messages—also returns you to the list of chats. Now you have three controls on the screen navigating to the same destination.

    Three navigation controls leading to the same screen.

  6. When you tap three dots in the current chat, you get contact actions. I’m not sure why they are needed here; it makes more sense to have them on the contact’s profile screen or list of contacts.

    Unnecessary actions.

How did all of that happen? Let’s try to find out.

Influence by other platforms

Let’s look at Windows Phone and iPhone.

Windows Phone and iPhone versions of Skype chat.

Both versions are conforming to their respective platform guidelines. But does iPhone’s top Navigation bar looks familiar? Or Windows’ bottom blue bar with video and audio calls? Or even the “plus, type a message here, emoticons” row?

No wonder Android looks like Frankenstein’s monster assembled from spare parts. Let’s try to fix that.

Action bar

  • Use Up button with an icon that changes when new messages are present.
  • Screen title is to the left leaving some space for main actions. If the screen is smaller, they will be pushed to action overflow.
  • All action overflow items should be removed except “View profile”.
  • Old Chat icon is not needed anymore.

I didn’t modify any visuals on purpose; I just wanted to change layout and information architecture. That being said, having a blue or light gray background and switching from Segoe UI Bold to a lighter typeface—or even system font—could look better and less clutered on Android.

Before:

After:

Message input area

  • The bottom blue bar is obsolete and can be removed.
  • Everything can be pushed down leaving more space for content.
  • Leave the input area a bit higher to make the touch target bigger.

The plus icon is problematic. It opens a pop-up with actions like “Send file”, “Take photo” or “Add participants”. It doesn’t seem to me they are used regularly, especially on a mobile phone. But I’m not sure, I’m just assuming. It’s there on Windows Phone, but hidden on iPhone (top right icon).

If this was a real redesign and I had enough time, I would wire up some analytics and wait until I get statistically significant results. Let’s assume for now users don’t use those actions too much. In that case, we can push it to action overflow. Emoticon icon can be enlarged and moved to the other side; there shouldn’t be any accidental taps now.

Before:

After:

Complete solution

Here is the complete solution with the action overflow opened.

Redesigned Skype chat on Android.

Conclusion

Transferring patterns from other platforms is the cause of many problems. Some of them are:

  • Users don’t find the app familiar and have to invest more time to learn navigation and behavior. And it always stands out like a black sheep.
  • It’s usually harder for engineers to recreate non-standard patterns in code. It takes more time to develop with more bugs—both mean more money wasted.

There are so many ways to positively impact user experience and innovate without messing with navigation and information architecture. For a communication application it could be speed, sound and video quality, resilience to crashing and dropping calls, cross-platform and cross-device usage.

The general advice is to use what platform provides in 95% of the cases; it’s easier not to make a mistake that way. If you need to deviate, do it with a purpose and a valid reason.


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