Exclusive interview: Gabor Vida from Teknision talks about Chameleon, developing for Android, and user experience

August 3, 2012
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Chameleon, the innovative Android launcher developed by Teknision (creators of the Blackberry PlayBook UI), made quite a stir in the Android community. The intelligent overlay promises to change the way we use our devices, by offering “a better home screen for your Android tablet, designed to fit your lifestyle”. The project got successfully funded on Kickstarter (after some misadventures) and is currently in beta stage. In fact, if you backed Chameleon on Kickstarter, you should soon receive your invitation for the beta test.

We sat down with Gabor Vida, President of Teknision, to discuss about Chameleon, Kickstarter, and user interfaces. Check out the interview below. In addition, our resident Hangout host Derek Ross will be talking with Phillipp Motuzas, a developer working on Chameleon, during our Android Authority On Air Hangout show. Make sure to check our Google Plus page tonight at  9:30pm EDT and prepare your questions!

Tell us a little about yourself and Teknision – how did you get into UI design?

Teknision started in 2001 in response to the growing demand for more engaging and interactive web site experiences. We were an early adopter of Adobe Flash, often creating experiences based on technologies still in beta. I think it was the move from marketing driven experiences to application development that made the transformative change in Teknision. It was a time when you had two different kinds of designers – the academic and the artist. We were a fusion of both. From the very beginning we believed that the user experience is the embodiment of the brand, which means that marketing and usability both have to be in harmony.

At Teknision, you’ve worked with companies like RIM, Intel, Sony, or Adobe. How important is UX for these technology giants? What are some trends you noticed in this area?

UX has definitely taken the center stage. The move to mobile as the dominant computing experience – over the desktop – has fuelled the need for UX talent. From the application perspective, we now have a glut of mobile applications and the successful ones are the ones who provide valuable functionality with a compelling user experience. The focus on UX is even more important from a hardware perspective. Consumers don’t really care about performance specs anymore and most devices are practically the same. The only real difference is the user experience.

People are excited about Chameleon! How long did it take you and your team to get to the beta stage?

Chameleon has been in production in one form or another for the last 9 months and we are really excited to see it get to the beta stage. It started as a technology prototype for Texas Instruments and was met with so much acclaim that we decided to make a product out of it. Since then we have had a dedicated team working on making the best product we can.

What is the philosophy behind Chameleon?

The philosophy behind Chameleon is twofold.

First, Android homescreens are a great idea but poorly executed. A homescreen should be a digest of the information you are interested in. For example, how often do you pick up your tablet and check your email, social feeds and news? Often you do all three. However, you do so by launching individual applications one at a time. The information you are looking for should be on your homescreen instead of being accessible only through an application. Chameleon makes it easy to create multiple homescreens each with multiple widgets that give you the information you are looking for.

Second, your information needs change depending on your context. Chameleon’s context engine makes it easy to automatically display the proper homescreen at the right place and time. For example, you may have a different homescreen for weekday mornings, work, weekday evenings, weekends, vacation. Chameleon can automatically change your homescreen depending on your needs.

When will it be released to the public? When do you think you will support smartphones and more tablet form factors?

We are planning for a September 1 release. So far, it looks good but this month will be dedicated to getting it out to our early backers and extensive beta testing. Chameleon is already designed to support as many tablet form factors as possible. Unfortunately, due to the incredibly large variety of Android tablets, we couldn’t test it on every tablet, but it should work on the vast majority. As for smartphones, we have a roadmap for the smartphone version, but no firm release date yet.

Why did you choose Kickstarter and how would you characterize your experience with crowdfunding?

We chose Kickstarter because of the huge and unique audience it has. People on Kickstarter are actively looking for new products and are willing to pay to pre-order them. Kickstarter has been an incredible experience. Obviously, the sales we made were great but the press attention and connection to the Android community has been almost overwhelming. I would suggest crowdfunding to anyone. The biggest word of advice I could give is to focus on communication. We updated our backers often and they have been very appreciative. When you pre-order something based on a great demo, it goes a long way to actually see it in development to build faith in the product.

Why would consumers want to give Chameleon their time and screen real estate?

Every Android tablet has a homescreen. You may as well make it the best one.

What are the biggest challenges you are facing in the development of Chameleon?

I think we are finding the typical challenges of software development: performance testing, usability testing, hardware testing, trying to make deadlines, staying in contact with the community and customer support. The hardest part for us is that we are doing all of this with a very small team. It’s been a lot of late nights!

Smart Agents is a very exciting concept – tell us more about it.

Smart Agents are the next iteration of the context engine. We plan on adding more and more contexts so that Chameleon can respond intelligently. Currently, we have homescreen based contexts of time and location. We will be adding more homescreen based context and the long range roadmap includes making widgets themselves contextually aware and be able to talk to each other.

What is your favorite mobile platform and which platform do you think is the “best” in terms of UI?

It’s really hard to pick a favorite. As a designer, I come from the Apple world and still think that the simplicity of iOS is the key to its success. Trust me, anyone can make something complicated but it’s really hard to make something simple. The PlayBook is my baby because we designed the OS. However, creating Chameleon has shown us the vast potential of Android. Going forward, I think that Android will be the source of the most innovation in both UX and technologies.

What do you think about Android 4.1 Jelly Bean in terms of UI? What are the areas you think Google could improve?

I think it’s a great step forward, but I think that Google still has a lot of room for refinement. The Jelly Bean UX is still more complicated than it has to be.

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