How OnePlus Builds OxygenOS Around User Feedback
In a little over 2 days from now, OnePlus will announce its next product line during 3 simultaneous launch events held in the United States, Europe, and India. In a first for OnePlus, the smartphone brand is set to unveil two smartphones: the OnePlus 7 and OnePlus 7 Pro. This is a brand that took to Reddit to promote its first smartphone just 5 years ago, yet is now partnering with T-Mobile in the U.S. for the second time. Despite its growth in offline channels, OnePlus remains at its core an enthusiast brand for the connected consumer. The development of its OxygenOS software exemplifies OnePlus’ approach to its products: It’s all about user feedback.
For anyone following OnePlus since its early days, you’ll remember that the company once had a partnership with the now-defunct Cyanogen Inc. to ship the OnePlus One with Cyanogen OS. Disputes over licensing and exclusivity deals forced OnePlus to develop its own in-house, Android-based operating system for the global market called OxygenOS. Several months later, the company ditched OPPO’s ColorOS in the China market for its own in-house HydrogenOS.
Screenshots of HydrogenOS based on Android 5.0.2 Lollipop, released back in June of 2015. Both Android and OnePlus have come a long way since then.
Fast forward 4 years and OnePlus still maintains both HydrogenOS and OxygenOS for the Chinese and global markets respectively. The latest versions of each OS are based on Google’s Android 9 Pie release, and both OSes, once wildly different in design and features, have largely converged save for a few differences in pre-installed apps and region-specific services. While the company was finalizing its launch preparation for the OnePlus 7 series, I had the opportunity to speak with Gary Chen, Head of Software Product Operations at OnePlus, about the company’s philosophy toward OxygenOS and especially how the company incorporates feedback from users into feature development.
New ideas come from all over
Like every smartphone brand, OnePlus doesn’t just have one person coming up with every new feature in OxygenOS. There are multiple teams working on new features or iterating on the design of the OS, teams to squash bugs, teams to do bring-up on the next Android release, and so on. Since new ideas can come from many different places internally, OnePlus occasionally puts its software developers together in one place to brainstorm.
Mr. Chen told us that OnePlus holds a semi-regular, multi-day workshop for its product and design teams where OnePlus employees bring up ideas of their own or from users online. The typical result: over 50 ideas get collected. After picking the most usable and practical ideas, the company decides which ideas to bring to market. That’s where the most important process in OnePlus’ feature development cycle comes in: user research.
OnePlus regularly collects feedback on its ideas from users, both online and in-person. Every few months the company holds its Open Ears Forums in places like London, San Francisco, New York City, and most recently, in Goa. Online, the company typically turns to social media or its own forums. Most of the time, the company approaches users with a feature or two already in mind, but sometimes the company directly solicits users for new ideas.
Depending on the reactions from users, OnePlus then decides if they want to implement the feature into OxygenOS. If the reaction is muted, then it’s back to the drawing board. If there’s genuine excitement in the feature, then the company must decide on the exact feature implementation. To do so, they ask themselves why users are requesting the feature so they can better understand how to implement it in a way that satisfies their needs. Once they have a good idea about what users want in the feature, they design a product wireframe with 1 or 2 ideas to go along with the wireframe. Then, they turn to their beta testers.
Beta testers are the gatekeepers of new OxygenOS features
Few smartphone brands are as open with their feature development as OnePlus is. Google has a beta program for new Android platform releases, but their betas are mainly focused on fixing bugs with AOSP rather than Pixel. Samsung’s beta programs are a recent development, but their betas only last until the stable release is available. Motorola and Huawei also have beta programs, though both brands only allow a few users to apply for testing. OnePlus, like fellow smartphone brand Xiaomi, offers both closed beta and open beta programs.
The OxygenOS closed beta channel is only for adventurous users who like to live dangerously; closed beta testers sign an NDA to get the chance to try out new features in-development while also helping OnePlus fix bugs. Leaks from this group are taken very seriously because they jeopardize the trust that OnePlus has built up with its beta testers. From the millions of users who own a OnePlus device, only about 400 users are part of the OxygenOS closed beta group. A similar number of users are part of the closed beta group for HydrogenOS.
On the other hand, the OxygenOS open betas are available for any user to install. OxygenOS even allows the user to sideload update packages from the internal storage. The open beta is where most of us can check out the new software features OnePlus has worked on.
The latest OxygenOS Open Betas for the OnePlus 5, 5T, 6, and 6T added several new features and also redesigned the system updater.
Initial prototypes of new features, what Mr. Chen calls “product wireframes,” are served to users in the closed beta groups. The company surveys and talks to their users about the feature until they’re satisfied that beta testers are satisfied with the feature. This is an iterative process—roll out a feature in the closed beta group, survey or talk to users directly about the feature, make changes, roll it out to open beta testers, rinse and repeat. OnePlus also monitors feature usage during beta testing to see if the feature is high-value for users, or if it’s not appropriate to bring to their global or Chinese markets. Mr. Chen says the company tests new features about 3 times in this manner to make sure they’re ready for production.
Overall, Mr. Chen estimates that the entire process—from research to testing to re-testing—takes about 3-6 months on average. By the time a feature reaches an OxygenOS stable release, OnePlus has had months of preparation to achieve a high level of confidence in the feature. Despite the months of effort that OnePlus puts into any given feature, the company is still at the mercy of whatever Google cooks up in the next Android release. OnePlus doesn’t see that as a bad thing, however.
Preparing for the next OxygenOS release
Google I/O just ended last week, giving us a pretty good picture of what to expect for the upcoming Android 10 Q release. For consumers, we have new features like a system-wide dark mode, fully gestural navigation, privacy enhancements, desktop mode, and much more to look forward to, while the OxygenOS software team is trying to figure out how to merge the latest changes and add new features on top. Adding new features in OxygenOS sometimes results in modifying core behavior in the Android framework; any such changes could cause conflicts with the next Android release if Google changes the behavior themselves.
OnePlus has to decide how to resolve this conflict—do they stick to their guns and use their own implementation or do they use Google’s? In general, Mr. Chen says that OnePlus looks for a compromise that allows them to offer their own features alongside the new Android features. It was this view that led the company to offer their own full-screen gestures and the two-button Android Pie gestures in OxygenOS 9. OnePlus will be investigating each and every new feature in Android Q, and if they decide Google’s implementation is better than their own, they’ll try to keep both versions so everyone is happy.
When the next OxygenOS version comes out, we’ll see just how many new Android Q features OnePlus managed to keep. Users feel quite strongly about Android Q’s new dark theme, but OnePlus has been ahead of the curve in offering a built-in dark theme. However, there are many other features coming to the Android platform that aren’t guaranteed to show up in OxygenOS. It’s up to users to express their desire to see these and other new features make their way into OxygenOS. Voice your support for new features on social media, on the OnePlus forums, and on XDA, and your idea could end up as a headlining feature on the next OnePlus smartphone. It’s easy to be cynical about the effectiveness of giving feedback online, but keep in mind that OnePlus is the company that used Reddit for feedback on the OnePlus One and even the new OnePlus 7 Pro.
Feature image credits: OnePlus.