Making Android Phones More Usable, With HTC's UX Designer Drew Bamford

By Kat Hannaford on at

Many designers cite Charles and Ray Eames as the motivational hook into the field in which they toil, but HTC's Associate Vice President of User Experience Drew Bamford pays respect to his design heroes by ensuring the architectural frame of the products he's working with are as comfortable to use as one of the Eames's padded lounge chairs.

Talking to us over email, Bamford outlined why the American husband-and-wife team push him in his daily work, commenting that it was through their use of "new technologies," such as bent plywood and fiberglass, coupled with "the amazing breadth of their work and their human-centric approach," which he finds so inspiring.

Having joined HTC at the tail-end of 2006 from the design consultancy company Teague (known for working on the Polaroid camera; Pringles cans; the Xbox, and the interior of every commercial Boeing plane to date), Bamford is currently tasked with leading what he calls "the scrappy team of world class user researchers; interaction designers; visual designers; sound designers, and prototype developers who create HTC Sense." Holding patents for HTC's ubiquitous flip clock widget; the sliding tab filter control, and various others, his impact on HTC -- and the industry -- is obvious.

Talking to us about why he took the road less travelled by, choosing to design UX over hardware, Bamford said he "saw a lot of the lecturers in my design program in the heart of Silicon Valley designing cases for computers that go underneath your desk and thought, "why would I do that when I could design the stuff that appears on the screen?" So, I taught myself Macromedia Director and enrolled in some Human-Computer Interaction courses to learn how to apply design thinking to digital experiences." It was these courses, plus hours spent in grade school and junior high learning to program his PC Jr. in Basic, that steered him towards working with the digital medium which has, as he told us "a malleability that physical products lack, and an added richness that stems from interactivity and the opportunity for the interface to change over time."

A lot has changed since Bamford joined HTC. At that time, the Taiwanese company was yet to see the iPhone, and was very close to launching the Touch; a WinMo phone that ran TouchFlo (an earlier UI iteration of TouchFlo 3D, and Sense, which was introduced on the Hero). As we said in our Sense 5.0 review this week, "HTC’s Sense UI has evolved over the years from a laggy train wreck in its early incarnations to something quite lean and serviceable in Sense 4.0."

For Bamford, the proudest moment of his career came just two years ago, when HTC was named as Interbrand's top 100 brands of 2011: "What makes me proud is the hand that design had in the ascent of HTC's brand. When I joined HTC in 2006, HTC was an unknown Taiwanese ODM, making products under other companies' brands, like the Palm Treo and the T-Mobile Dash. At that time, user experience design did not exist at HTC. I'm proud to know that my team played a key part in a design-led transformation of HTC's culture and products from an ODM style manufacturer into a global consumer brand," Bamford wrote to us.

Having met Bamford several times myself, it's his unassuming, modest nature which you first encounter. While his VP of Design counterpart Scott Croyle is no stranger to the stage, helping present new products such as the One in front of thousands, all while sporting neon-bright trainers, Bamford appears to be the sort of chap who just gets on with his work quietly, happy to let his products take centre-stage. It's his easy-going, trusting personality which makes his retelling of one of the more challenging moments in his career even easier to believe:

"In the early 2000s, I spent a couple of years building an Internet startup with some friends in San Francisco. We had a great product, and we had just launched a fully functional site. But still we failed miserably. Not only did we not have enough legitimate users, but we found that there were a lot of people using our site in nefarious ways that we had not intended."

The ability to eke a life lesson out of a hurdle like that no doubt set Bamford in good stead for his years at HTC, with the designer going on to add that "there were a lot of lessons in that experience, but that one has stuck with me: you can never predict all of the uses that people will have for your product or technology, so you have to be quick to respond to the creativity of your customers."

Many people who are passionate about their work can quickly become hoarders -- as a journalist, I have stacks of magazines, and notebooks full of scribbled phrases that have caught my eye or acted as inspiration. An illustrator friend can't help but store up old children's books, collecting them as he relentlessly searches charity shops and car-boot sales. Bamford, meanwhile, was taught early on to "keep a 'bug list' of things that aggravate [him], as these little aggravations are golden opportunities for design and innovation," quipping "I have a long list." One of those bug-bears is "the public user interfaces that millions of people are confounded by daily: ATMs, parking meters, and public transit ticket machines, for example. There are a lot of cost and durability constraints around these products, but I think a thorough design process could eliminate hours of frustration for people all over the world."

I'm sure many people would love to see Bamford or other equally talented designers try their hand at overhauling these public UI systems, but as Bamford himself says, "experience design is still a very young field that is evolving quickly," adding that "the most important factor in your success is your passion to create the best possible experience for the people who use your product."

This week, we're celebrating unsung heroes and the people who dared to dream big, with The Dreamers. Bookmark this page for all related stories, or contact us here with tips.