How OnePlus designed OxygenOS 11 to make bigger phones easier to use
Android 11 is here, and it brings along the waiting game for updates that Android users have grown accustomed to, in the past 11 years. The update situation has certainly improved though, thanks to efforts like Project Treble. Google is also sharing the Android source code with OEMs before release, allowing them to prepare an update to roll out to their users right around the time when Google rolls it out for the Pixels. If you have the OnePlus 8 or OnePlus 8 Pro, you can install OxygenOS 11 Open Beta 1 on your device to experience not only the latest version of Android but also the latest version of OnePlus’ custom UX skin.
OxygenOS 11 brings along a fair few changes to OnePlus’ famed skin. There’s the widely requested Always On Display feature that has finally made an appearance with this update. You also get Android 11’s Conversation separator in the notifications shade, a redesigned weather app, a mistouch prevention feature in Game Space, improvements to Zen Mode, and UX changes to all other stock apps that make them easier to use with one-hand.
While users finally get to enjoy the Always On Display on their flagship phones, the initial reaction from many in the community was that OxygenOS 11 resembled what Samsung has been trying to do since One UI 2.0. One UI 2.0 shifted the design philosophy in favor of a larger “focus” block towards the bottom of the display while keeping the “viewing area” at the top, making the interface easier to use. OnePlus’ redesigned stock app experiences come close to the same lines, as a lot of people argued.
We had the opportunity to interview Mr. Sam Twist, Senior Product Manager for the OxygenOS team at OnePlus, to whom we put forth the same thoughts.
“With OxygenOS 11, we set out to continue doing what we have been doing since its inception in 2015. It’s about creating a fast, lightweight, highly customizable, and yet a simple user interface and operating system, and pairing that with simple aesthetics that people can use and understand. With OxygenOS 11, it’s is a bit more about smart and intuitive features that users from our forums, people in the media have been demanding for some time.
We’re aware of the comments early-on regarding the comparisons. But for us, to reach where we are right now, the journey was data-driven, community-driven, and also driven by the intuition of the great team at OnePlus — talented designers, product managers, and software engineers.”
OxygenOS 11 and One-Handed Use
Sam offered to give us a better look at the journey. It begins with hardware, as one would expect. Phones have become bigger through the years, coming through as a natural demand from consumers who now use them for tasks beyond just calling and texting. Beyond this, there is also a rise in content consumption and interaction — more than what it was a year or two ago. The hardware team believed that the screen is the king, but there was a pretty obvious problem in that vision: people’s hands aren’t really growing. So settling on a comfortable width became an important decision, one that then gets supplemented by a change in height and aspect ratio to fulfill the demands of a bigger screen and larger content area.
The software team joins the journey at this stage, and they do so by looking at anthropometric data, which refers to data related to human measurements. The team collects data related to measurements like the average hand size across key regions, and then further expands into how this correlates to touchpoints and interactions areas on the device’s display for both the hands. As one would expect, you can figure out how far someone can reach with their thumb with their dominant hand, which can be either left or right. This becomes the building block for OxygenOS 11’s update and its focus on better one-handed use.
About 65% of the display is within easy reach, Sam explained, so it makes sense to have most of your interactions within this area. The rest of the display is better utilized for displaying non-interactive content and information. As OnePlus’ research suggested to them, a lot of people use their phone in a flow that goes like: pick up with one hand -> interact for a short period -> put the phone down. Obviously, there are going to be instances when you need to get tasks done with both the hands (and thumbs) available, but a fair few of these use cases also go through the first flow — only once you have realized that you cannot comfortably reach all interaction areas, does the second hand come into the picture.
With OxygenOS 10.5 on the larger displays, we realized that one-handed use was not very intuitive, and we wanted to make something that people could use really easily with one hand.
The design team then builds upon this philosophy and pairs it with the simple aesthetics and the demands of the people. This is how OxygenOS 11 came to be in its current form.
One-handed reachability beyond landing pages
With this being said, we raised further questions. If OxygenOS 11 places prime focus on the ease of one-handed use, why not extend this driving philosophy across the UX and not just restrict it to landing pages? What we noticed in the new update is that a lot of these reachability changes remained restricted to the first page of the app. The philosophy did not percolate further below, and interactions beyond the landing page would bring back the need for the second hand coming into the picture. For instance, the new Weather app has the option to change the city placed on the top app bar, along with the overflow menu that contains the Settings option. The Notes app has a reachable landing page, but when you go to create a note, other options rest on the top once again. The experience feels incomplete, we argued, as the intention to go one-handed does not flow through the whole app.
Sam responds to this by firstly accepting that since this is still very much a beta release, the team at OnePlus is actively gathering feedback. Sam also concedes that this break in one-handed usability flow was a decision that needed to be made. Picking up the Notes app as an example, the top-level (landing page) is intended to be one-handed. The top-level is often accessed when the focus of the user is split between using their phone alongside other tasks — the phone is just a momentary tool in that instance, and information needs to be easily viewable and touchpoints quickly accessible with one-hand. If the user chooses to engage further, the focus shifts in weight towards the phone, and the second hand coming in is a stronger probability.
As for the Weather app, Sam pointed out that you can swipe on the display to cycle through the set locations. We didn’t know that, so that’s neat. For tasks like adding a city or going into the settings, OnePlus determines this to be the tipping point for user engagement, where the user is comfortable interacting with their phone in a more concentrated and focused fashion, and wouldn’t mind bringing in their other hand.
We suggested bringing down the buttons on the app’s bottom bar. There are a few touchpoints on the bottom bar on the Notes app, for instance. OnePlus has played around with layers during their designing process, with plenty of A/B testing across various designs, and this is what they settled on when taking into account their data-driven approach. Flipping the whole UX to be bottom-origin also doesn’t make complete sense either — users have come to expect certain interaction points, like the hamburger menu and the overflow button, at certain locations, and a completely radical overhaul will be jarring to a lot of users. The sweet spot is in the balance.
A dedicated one-handed mode?
With that being said, why doesn’t OnePlus consider adding in a dedicated one-handed mode instead? Several OEMs in their custom UX skins have a dedicated one-handed mode. Once activated, the entire content and interaction area shrinks down, making it easier to reach even the top app bars with one hand. A dedicated mode like this would make sense with the direction that OxygenOS 11 is taking.
Sam believes that a more bold approach to one-handed reachability was the need of the hour, rather than simply shrinking every UI element down into a smaller area. The changes in OxygenOS 11 present more information and give it greater visibility vis-a-vis the same on OxygenOS 10.5. So the space that other OEM solutions left blank when shrinking down the entire content area, can be better utilized to show information in a better and clearer format.
The bolder approach opened the door for OnePlus to go for a different font that made it easier to glance through the information, without necessitating engagement if the user did not want to engage. This means bigger titles, contrasting colors, and more on landing pages. And for pages at the second level when a user chooses to engage, the UX can adapt to expect that engagement. A simplistic shrink-down would not be able to achieve this.
But why not just make smaller phones then?
If a simplistic shrink down leaves out so much empty display space, why not make smaller phones? Smaller displays and device dimensions would remove the need for software to adapt to one-handed solutions. If you can already use your entire phone with one hand, you wouldn’t need a one-handed mode or a bold refocus.
Sam agreed that this was a good question. The industry is engaged in an arms-race on phone sizes, with every new generation superseding the previous when it comes to size, and there’s no clear end in sight. A larger display brings with itself tangible benefits that cannot be overlooked, and the OS (/UX) needs to adapt to better serve the needs that change every hour. It’s about finding the balance that brings about the burdenless experience towards the best of both worlds: a large display and the ability to comfortably use the phone.
OnePlus Sans font
The conversation turned to fonts. On OxygenOS 11, OnePlus has introduced a new font called OnePlus Sans that replaces the previous OnePlus Slate from 2017. Google actually mandates that OEMs ship their phones with Roboto as the default font on Android 11 as per the terms of the CDD. We inquired on what brought about the decision to switch over to the OnePlus Sans, considering that the OnePlus Slate was included already and Roboto remains the default anyway.
OnePlus Sans is part of our logo change, and part of bringing our brand into the 21st century and making an impact with users. It hadn’t changed for a long time, and if you look at other tech companies and forward thinking companies, we were feeling a little bit outdated. So this move [shift to OnePlus Sans] was part of the whole refresh package and future-proofing the brand and bringing it more in line with what people expect out of a leading tech company.
What is OxygenOS, really?
This question that we posed requires some context. It is no secret that Google has been chipping away functionalities from AOSP and delivering them through proprietary solutions like the Google Play Services framework instead. The move was borne out of a need to do something concrete about Android’s fragmentation problem, but the resultant solution invariably involved taking away the OEM’s role in Android as an OS and the changes that their “skin” could make to the OS. Further, OnePlus itself has been pushing more and more of its apps to the Google Play Store, making it easier to deliver updates and bug fixes to these apps without needing to roll out an entire system OS update for all the phones involved. With these two situations intertwined, the question remains — what exactly is OxygenOS really? And what does its future look like?
“In my opinion, putting everything on the Play Store isn’t about forcing fragmentation. It’s about giving people an option to try out apps for themselves. It’s empowering the consumers, even those that who want a taste of OxygenOS even when they do not have one of our devices. Download the Weather app, and check it out. Maybe you’ll love it, maybe you’ll hate it – and that’s what you discover for yourself.
What OxygenOS is, it is the umbrella around all of that. It’s the glue that brings the experience together. We believe, and we hopefully we demonstrate that too, that all of these apps run the best on our devices. We believe in Android, but to get the best experience, you have to get a OnePlus device in your hand. It’s about the optimizations that we make, the streamlining that we do, the smooth experience that users have come to expect from us.”
“Android is the Mercedes platform, and we are the AMG. We tune the OS for performance, and we empower the customer with the things that they do want.”
“Stock Android is a great platform to build on. But people have kind of lost sight of what pure AOSP and stock Android is. People have an image in their mind of what stock is, but they may not be really in tune with what stock is right now. You wouldn’t want to use pure stock Android, but it’s the perfect platform to build on. Stock Android is lightweight, and fast, over anything else, and really performant. And we at OnePlus can add in customizations on top of this. Building upon the platform, we aim to deliver on those pillars.
To circle back to the original question, it’s not about fracturing everything up and putting a divide between apps. It’s about empowering the consumer and giving people the option. And OnePlus’ OxygenOS 11 is the glue that brings everything together and provides the best experience.”
Why is OxygenOS called lightweight?
One of the prevalent emotions related to OxygenOS has been its “lightweight” characteristic. This was true in the early days of the UX skin, especially compared to the burdened experience on other OEM UX skins of that time. Early OxygenOS took Google’s Android (not to be confused with pure, stock AOSP) and sprinkled in some goodies on top. The end result in that time period was an OS that evoked “lightweight” as an emotion across everyone, unanimously.
But a lot of people would disagree on calling OxygenOS as lightweight in 2020. There has been a lot of pushback on bloatware added on top of devices like the OnePlus 8 series and the OnePlus Nord. Not all of them can be easily uninstalled — some of them require a step and two, extra. There are plenty of extra monetization surfaces that have been added onto the phone, and this comes in the backdrop of the devices rising in price across the generations. In the end, the overall idea starts going against the “burdenless experience” that OnePlus is aiming for. Why is OxygenOS still referred to as lightweight despite this whole scenario?
“On the user side, calling it lightweight would be a reference to OxygenOS being fast. It’s a phone that works out of the box and throughout its life in a very fast way. For a consumer, it’s just speed and performance. And I like to believe that we are delivering on that.
On the topic of pre-installed apps, with the disclaimer that I am not privy to the Indian business as much as I am to the global business, with OxygenOS 11, we are trying to rely more and more on APIs. This empowers users to engage better with what they want, rather than bundling in APKs everywhere. We look towards the future, and we believe that our model is the model that we really believe in.”
Sam narrated some comments from Qualcomm made in the context of the 5G push. At the very top end of 5G with mmWave, it will be faster to ping a satellite than it will be to access something internally. Would a user actually want apps in such a scenario, or would they be content with responsive and fast loading websites, web pages, and web apps?
To come back, for a customer, OyxgenOS might be lightweight, and for an advanced user looking under the hood, it might not be. If you look at us compared to other manufacturers, I still think we’re at the very bottom of how much code we have added on top of Android. People might think that we have done a lot of changes to bring about a change in looks, but usually, that’s still the same code that we have just modified slightly. The commitment to this general philosophy of “lightweight” is unwavering from our side. It has always been and will always be about putting phones in people’s hands and deliver on both performance and customizations, while still delivering an experience that is considered lightweight to the end-user. Features like AoD, Dark Mode 2.0, these are obviously features on top of the stock experience, but we do think these are worth adding. We could add so much more, but we also have to maintain a balance — what are the features that people will love, what are the features that the majority will engage with, what are they demanding. Can we add them while being lightweight, or do we skip the addition and risk users complaining that we do not have many popular features? There’s always a balance to be maintained, and we talk to the community and actively gather feedback on it.
The magical appearance of the OnePlus Buds APK in OxygenOS
Recently, OnePlus pushed the OnePlus Buds APK to its devices. This move was not very transparently done, and the result was a fair bit of vocal pushback from users who were perplexed by the appearance of this APK on their phone. If a user did not intend to purchase the OnePlus Buds, the APK bore no utility and becomes a burden. We asked Sam to shed some light on the same.
For this particular issue, I do not work that closely with this particular team, but I can fairly assess the implications of this push onto the user. I accept — it is stuff on your phone. But hopefully, users can understand that in the grand scheme of things, it is so little. I understand — we could chip away all the time, and if we made that decision for everything, you’d fill up the phone in no time. But for us, we also need to balance the user experience. So when you open the case of the OnePlus Buds, you get the smart features that go with the buds, and it won’t be something that you would need to install yourself. The user gets a nice connection journey, so it is a considered choice. The team that made that decision pushed that out in the hope that people understand that it is very lightweight and the impact is small — it’s not nothing, for sure — but hopefully the benefit for people that do want to engage with it, they get that lovely user connection experience. I do get the other side too — if we take that decision for every single thing, it will just spiral and spiral. That feedback is always valued and challenges us at every decision we make and we do appreciate it. But hopefully, you can also appreciate our side as well.
Don’t Kill My App!
One of the more frequent complaints on OnePlus smartphones and OxygenOS by extension is the surprisingly aggressive app killing/”optimization” behavior. It’s surprising because the hardware on these phones is on the upper end of the spectrum, so a lot of the erstwhile arguments that were usually expected for such behavior, such as low memory and limited battery, do not hold true anymore. However, there is a separate problem that Chinese OEMs that sell in China face — the lack of Google control essentially means a lot more rogue apps, more rogue app stores, and more rogue background persistence that stops the phone from going to sleep. Aggressive behavior becomes the duty of the UX in such a case, but the same brush cannot be used to paint the rest of the world where Google operates with a good degree of control (for the most part).
DontKillMyApp is a project that is meant to highlight how aggressively different manufacturers freeze background apps. It’s meant to provide context and relation to how well a phone handles background apps.
OnePlus is rated as one of the worst offenders in this regard, with the background limitations rated as being one of the most severe on the market, dwarfing the likes of Xiaomi and Huawei. Users need to enable extra settings to make apps work properly (turning off Battery Optimizations, turning off App Auto Launch, turning off Advanced Optimization). And for users who do not understand what is happening, the blame for an app not working gets pushed onto the app developer, even though they may not be the one to blame in this situation (i.e they follow best practices and have a foreground service with a notification, but still end up getting killed).
Does OnePlus take cognizance of the aggressive app killing and plan to address it in some way?
“It’s something that we have received feedback on. Ultimately, our job is to deliver the best user experience. And if that app killing or optimization is creating a negative user experience, we will look at addressing it and look to understand what’s happening. You’re right, there is a balance between what some apps demand these days and what the user is willing to give up. It’s hard for us to classify all applications, and start to tune our code to suit that. I’ve seen a few examples, and I’ll personally raise that with the team and try and look into it more and deal with it better. I’ve seen the DontKillMyApp service, I’m sad that they don’t do a thumbs up for any service, it’s all negative. But yeah, still something to look into, for us to find that balance in delivering the best user experience. It is a negative for us, it is negative for the consumer, and definitely something for us to consider for the future. We are asking so much from the chipset and the battery these days — what phones can do has grown exponentially, what batteries can do has grown in a more linear path, and the chipset is in the middle trying to keep up. Our job is to balance all of these three elements to deliver the best user experience. Something that people know us for is the smooth, fast, lightweight, snappy performance — and I’ll definitely bring this to the attention of the team. We gather feedback, and I don’t know right now if it’s better or worse in OxygenOS 11, but we are in the feedback stage of product development, and we’ll definitely deal with this better.
More usable Always On Displays?
OnePlus had briefly introduced Always On Display functionality back when the OnePlus 6 was released, but the feature was removed in May 2018 once users began complaining of poor battery life. OxygenOS 11 in 2020 finally, finally, finally brings along an Always On Display feature to new OnePlus smartphones, with the first AoD co-created with the Parsons School of Design and Art in New York City. However, the initial set of feedback on the feature was the fact that the AoD was a little too dim, making it difficult to view in higher ambient light situations.
Sam noted that they have taken feedback from users, and that changes are being done to make the feature better. There’s another AoD that is in the works, so that is something to look out for, as well. OnePlus’ AoD implementations aren’t just sticking to the standard format — the company hopes to deliver utility beyond just the time. For instance, the Parsons AoD mixes in elements of Digital Wellbeing, making users subtly aware of how many times they have unlocked their phone in a day. AoD serves as the gateway to the phone, and it’s rightly placed to make users aware of their habits without being distracting or condescending.
“We’re creating products and experiences that people love, and it is a window to their world.”
AoD implementations, as Sam notes, is a complex problem with a lot of moving parts that can influence how much battery the feature sips away, and consequently, how it impacts user experience. AoD is a further balance between distraction and information. And there’s more to come from OnePlus on this end.
USB Passthrough Charging for OnePlus?
One of the features that flew under the radar this year is USB passthrough charging. Sony introduced it with the Sony Xperia 1 II under the name H. S. Power Control, and ASUS also enables the same for the ASUS ZenFone 7 series and the ASUS ROG Phone 3. USB passthrough charging essentially allows the phone to accept power directly from the charger rather than the battery, once a certain battery charge level is reached (usually between 90% to 100%). This prevents the battery from being trickle charged when the phone is actively getting used for intensive tasks like gaming. The end result is that you get lower overall heat generation during intensive tasks (since the battery is not charging), fewer charging cycles, both of which in turn help prolong the overall life of the battery and consequently, the phone.
While OnePlus does not explicitly advertise its smartphones as predominantly “gaming” smartphones, they are pretty good at gaming. And considering the push on faster charging, it just makes sense to have USB Passthrough Charging available as a standard feature in the near future.
While Sam is not responsible for hardware decisions, he does concede that passthrough charging is an interesting technology, especially for power users and gamers that make up for a good part of OnePlus’ target demography. No promises were offered, but at least we know that OnePlus is aware of this. Perhaps we can expect to see this on the OnePlus 9 series? A man can hope.
OxygenOS, and Battery Health and Longevity
The conversation also turned to battery health, a topic that is now seeing some more focus in these years. USB Passthrough Charging is marketed as a feature within the software, usually residing in setting areas concerned with battery health. With phones now being more expensive than ever, it is a natural expectation from consumers that their device will last for a fair few years, and battery health plays a good role in such an expectation. What does OxygenOS 11 do that helps battery longevity on OnePlus devices?
“I think we at OnePlus build devices to last, hopefully, more than any other brand. We invite users to use their devices for long periods of time. And this is true now more than ever, with the increasing cost of devices and the actual utility of these phones also increasing. We recognize that longevity is really important and for that, we do have a few optimizations that we did implement. With Li-Ion batteries these days, battery cycles are an important part of the conversation on longevity. OxygenOS has smart charging, which attempts to learn your schedule and tries to figure out when you are going to get up. For cases of overnight charging, the smart charging feature will charge your device up to 80% and let it sit there through the rest of the night. And about 2 hours before your alarm or first calendar appointment, your phone will charge to 100%. So that is something that we have implemented quite recently. We are obviously trying to put in the best hardware, and we can also try to manage the battery cycles adequately to have this balance between the best user experience and getting the device to last long as well. It’s not a perfect science, it’s really hard to control everything. But our values add up to what is accepted as a good user experience overall. We look around in the forums, and we can see people still using the OnePlus 2 and OnePlus 3, and our data also shows a significant number of people upgrading the OnePlus 8 series from the OnePlus 2,3, and 5 series. Fair play, they are making their devices last, and they are getting the most out of what they have spent their hard-earned money on. So I hope that our values actually deliver on that.“
OnePlus 5 and the cursed Android 10 update
We had the opportunity to bring up the OnePlus 5 and OnePlus 5T’s cursed Android 10 update. Ever since the Android 10 stable rollout, OnePlus 5 and 5T owners have complained about a number of issues, ranging from poor battery life to broken EIS. The update had been so problematic that OnePlus themselves did not even list the build for download on its support website. The software release also featured outdated security patches (the April 2020 Security Patch Level, to be exact), despite the fact that the OnePlus 5T is still covered under the OxygenOS Software Maintenance Schedule (the OnePlus 5T was released on November 2017, so regular software updates ended by November 2019 but bi-monthly security updates should continue to November 2020).
Sam noted that this is handled by a completely different team, but he would nonetheless, highlight it internally. True to his word, OnePlus came out with an acknowledgment within 12 hours of the conclusion of our conversation/interview. While the answer may not be what users were looking for, getting some communication and assurance from the company is certainly appreciated. We hope they maintain proactive communication on this end.
A big thanks to Mr. Sam Twist for the interview opportunity and a shout out to the OnePlus team for helping coordinate this.