The illuminati: How Lightbox showcases great Android app design

by Marty Gabel

It’s an all-too common complaint levied against Android apps: They just don’t look as good as those on the iPhone, and many apps are just plain ugly. Yet, there’s perhaps a little bit of truth to this.

After all, Android offers free rein for Android app designers. This is great at encouraging people to come up with anything, but at the same time can lead to some pretty nasty results. Factor in hundreds of different devices sporting different screen sizes (including smartphones and tablets), some running Froyo, some running Gingerbread, some still even on Eclair perhaps, and you’ve got yourself a bit of a mishmash.

The downside of digital diversity

With the iPhone, all your customers will see pretty much the same app, with the same interface elements across all devices -- it’s a definite bonus. But don’t get me wrong: that ‘cookie-cutter’ look and feel on iOS can also lead to some pretty plain and uninspired designs too. Also, the lack of software buttons can sometimes mean certain options are hidden away (or worse, only accessible from the iOS ‘Settings’ app).

Android offers a lot more flexibility, but it still has its own look to some extent. So how come no-one’s really been taking advantage of what the UI is capable of? Well, look no further. The designers behind photo-sharing app Lightbox Photos are here to prove a thing or two: and they designed this app from the ground-up for Android before they’ve even considered developing for another OS.

Out-of-the-box thinking from Lightbox

Upon opening the app, a series of selected user images are shown in a slideshow, reminiscent of something slick that Apple would do. Once you’ve logged-in or signed-up (a fairly painless process because it uses the Gmail address associated with your device), you’re given the option of connecting to a variety of social networks like Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr to share your creations and you can choose a profile image.

The app’s general interface and appearance is not necessarily unique or different, but it isn’t the clunky Android text-heavy UI we’ve often seen in photo-editing apps. As far as the app’s features go, well, I’m looking at this app more for its UI and style, but it’s certainly no slouch in the photo-editing department either. Take a photo with Lightbox and you can instantly apply a number of filters such as “Lomo,” “B&W” or “retro” (a bit like Instagram on the iPhone). I’m not keen on the fact that I can’t edit previously-shot images from my camera roll, but I’m guessing Lightbox is more about sharing what you’ve just shot. Personally, I’m a bigger fan of apps like Vignette and PicSay Pro (both cost, but do offer free versions too) when it comes to heavier photo editing.

The news section in the app makes it stand apart, however: Open that and a slideshow of various people in the news from a number of different sources begins, complete with captions. It’s a nice touch.

Work needs to be done, but a step in the right direction

So sure, as we mentioned, Lightbox Photos won’t necessarily win any originality points (and apps like Instagram on the iPhone have already shown how it’s done), but it’s definitely encouraging to see an app designed with a slick interface that was pushed out on Android before any other smartphone.

Has Android app design finally caught up with its chief rival? While not all the design elements in Lightbox Photos will appeal to everyone, and while it’s not necessarily the best photo app out there, it’s a step in the right direction in the often fractured Android app experience, especially from a design perspective.