With Android 12, we’re finally seeing some resemblance of system-wide theming… Finally! Being able to customize the look of a computing operating system has long been one of my favorite things to do. Windows 95 was great at this as its appearance customizations would apply to all of the applications installed thus making for a beautifully or hideously consistent user experience throughout the whole system. That’s how things should be! Google never got the importance of really being able to personalize their Android smartphones on a system-wide basis.
I know, people say that Android is the most customizable smartphone operating system, and that’s true if you only compare it to Apple’s iOS… but there are still so many inconsistencies in Android. Sure you can change the launcher and the background picture and the icons in a launcher, but what about the apps themselves? Can I fix Facebook’s poorly designed user interface? Only if you build a completely different app (See: “Frost” makes Facebook almost tolerable).
Can I get consistent colors or user interface elements across all of my installed apps? Nope, not at all. Android app UI designs are extremely inconsistent, and there’s nothing you as a user can do about it.
Android 12 aims to bring theming closer to the level of Windows Phone 7 from 11 years ago with a new ability to bring accent colors to other parts of the operating system in an attempt to get some more consistency to the platform. (See: Android 12 automatically themes your UX from your wallpaper).
Android 12’s new theme system automatically chooses accent colors based on the wallpaper image chosen by the user. That may be fine in most cases. It’s certainly easy from the user’s perspective.
What about those of us who know more about color harmony than an algorithm that selects a prominent color from an image and applies different shades to user interface elements? (For more about Color Harmony, see this video.) Android 12’s theme capability looks monochromatic. Sure, most apps won’t support the system-wide theming at first, so we’ll still have awful system color harmony as Android has always had, and a monochromatic color harmony is better than that, but maybe there’s a better way.
Windows Mobile did it better 20 years ago
Back around the turn of the century, when smartphones were first invented, my favorite smartphone operating system was Windows Mobile. One of the things that it did better than any of the others, and still does better than any of the others, was its theme capabilities and themes were very popular.
Pocketnow actually used to have a Themes Library where people could download smartphone themes to install and switch to on their PocketPC’s whenever they want.
There was a full theme editor available that let you easily choose colors for almost every aspect of the operating system… not only the home screen, but system-wide elements that were used by all of the apps installed. This was far more customizable than Android is today. Sure the style is dated as this was 20 years ago, but the customization options are far superior.
Look at how great I was able to make this LG Expo look in 2009 on Windows Mobile. Consistent colors throughout the system and all of the apps! This was all in one file that I simply had to select in the settings. I could transfer this whole theme to any other Windows Mobile phone, just by copying it over.
Why themes are so good.
Different people have different tastes. That right there is the big advantage of design customizations. You may like Android’s default system design where all of the apps use clashing colors and have completely different inconsistent user interaction methods, but others may see that as a crutch that impairs usability and reduces cognitive ease. Being able to apply a theme that globally changes the systems interface to something that improves cognitive ease and is pleasant to you, in particular, is a huge advantage. (See: Customization of UIs and Products (nngroup.com)).
Google Android 12’s theme capabilities are a step in the right direction as a good “default”, but they have a long way to go before finding system-wide consistency.