Mendeley for Android – An interview with Product Manager Steve Dennis


We made it! Mendeley for Android has been out for 2 weeks, allowing you to read and annotate PDFs, sync your annotations and documents across all your devices, use Mendeley offline during your commute, search your library and edit document details, and download or remove PDFs on demand! On top of that, not only have we already issued an update, but the team are still working hard to get even more features included in the App!

Despite being really busy, we managed to grab Steve Dennis, the Product Manger behind Mendeley for Android…

Q: Hi Steve. Could you tell us a bit about what you do, and your history with Mendeley?

Sure. I started working at Mendeley as an interaction designer and front-end developer in 2010, and mostly worked on the website, small projects here and there, homepage and dashboard improvements, and a bit of work improving the catalog. After a year or so I got involved with the Desktop App, and worked on features like Deduplication, Journal Abbreviations, the Visual CSL editor, and others.

Then, when we decided to re-launch our iOS App, I came on board as the product manager & designer, working initially with a remote team in Austria, before bringing development fully in-house in 2013.

Currently I’m the Product Manager for Mendeley’s native reference management Apps (Desktop, iOS, and Android).

Q: Mendeley for Android has been requested for quite some time. Now that it is already out, do you think you’ve matched the researchers’ expectations?

Not a chance, heehee. You can never please everyone, especially not with a version 1 of an App that’s been anticipated for more than 5 years. I’m expecting it will meet the needs of a lot of Mendeley users, who want to read and annotate when they have a spare moment on the train, the couch, or wherever they are.

I think that as long as we continue to be transparent about what we are doing and why, people will mostly be reasonable, and appreciate the work we’re putting in.
There are a few things I’m expecting people to ask for as soon as we go live (folder management, tag search, better metadata extraction), and those things are already in our backlog.

Q: Do you think researchers will be able to go completely mobile using Mendeley at some point?

It’s certainly more possible now than it has ever been. I know people who no longer have a PC and just use their tablet. What I think is more likely though is that we will see the lines between mobile and desktop blur, and operating systems become more consistent between experiences.

Q: What are you most excited about with Mendeley for Android?

Honestly I’m looking forward to having people use it and engage with us (constructively, of course) about new features, improvements, and fixes. I build tools like this for users, and I can’t wait to hear what they think.

Q: What was the greatest challenge during the development of the Mendeley for Android App?

The whole development process has actually gone really smoothly. The biggest challenge would have been during the period from announcing the June launch date, to the actual release. It was 2-3 months of tough decisions about which features to include, or drop from release due to the timeframe.

A curveball (but a welcome challenge) was towards the end of last year, when Google announced Android Lollipop, and their material design guidelines. We’d already done a lot of mockups and user flows based on KitKat, and had to do a bit of rework to get the App feeling more sleek and modern, but it was a fun process and we’ve definitely got a better App as a result. I’m looking forward to experimenting with more of the animations and user interface elements from material design in future, though their guidelines for tablets could use some work.

Q: How did you deal with the differences in designing for Android vs iOS?

When we started, I hadn’t designed an Android App before, or actually even really used one. You can’t design well for a system you don’t know, so I immediately replaced my iPhone 5 with a Nexus 5, and just started to immerse myself in it daily.

I knew I didn’t want the Android App to feel like a lazy part of the iOS App. A lot of the basic structure, the way you navigate through folders, download PDFs, and stuff like that made sense to bring to Android.

Other things we approached from scratch. Having an interface that adapts to a huge range of screen sizes. Having access to the file system, to add or attach PDFs. Having an explicit “Back” button, vs the “Up” arrow, and how to handle the differences (though there’s still some work to be done here).

A lot of the Android design approaches are actually informing what we’re doing on iOS now too, so I expect them to become more similar over time as we discover patterns that work well regardless of the platform.

Q: With so many variations of Android devices and operating system versions, has this made developing Mendeley for Android more difficult than for iOS?

It’s actually really difficult to say how much of a problem this will be until the App is out in the wild. So far, its actually been an easier process then the first year of iOS development was, but that’s largely due to our team and tools having matured, and the lessons we learned from iOS.

Q: Now that the Android App has  been released, is it going to be actively improved on a regular basis?

Absolutely. We have a well staffed mobile team across iOS and Android now, and a well prioritised backlog that I’m hoping to share at some point. In the meantime, see the bottom of the launch blog post for a short list of things coming up.

As much as possible, we want to work towards a consistent and coherent feature set across our Apps. Soon we’ll be launching our new Recently Read feature on iOS and Desktop, but have it locked in the backlog for Android and the Web Library a bit later this year.

Q: Have there been any plans to exploit mobile specific features (i.e. camera) to implement mobile-only features into Mendeley (e.g. OCR of DOI)?

We’ve done some hack-day projects with barcode scanning for books, which worked quite well, but this wasn’t prioritised for the V1 release. I’d expect features like this will make their way to users in the medium term, once we’ve sorted folder management and improved the reader a bit. We had some difficulty finding an ISBN resolver with both good quality results, and rate limits that would account for the number of users we have, so that search is still ongoing.

Q: How many people worked on making Mendeley for Android?

Two developers full time, but loads of people across Mendeley contributed, and we couldn’t have done it without everyone pulling in the same direction. Our two core Android developers Elad Schwarz and Sergio Torres are responsible for the user facing App, with David Ingram contributing hugely to the SDK it’s built on. Myself as the designer and product manager, and our mobile team lead Peter Schmidt helped support the team, organising sprints and planning, as well as hiring. Ricardo Fonesca joined us recently as a full time QA engineer, helping us improve our automated testing. Then there’s a huge number of people who helped build the new API, with Joyce Stack and Matt Thompson being key in making the API what it is today. Huge thanks to everyone I didn’t name also 🙂

Q: What features are you most looking forward to developing in the near future?

Improving the accuracy of document details when you add a PDF to your library. We have a really promising server-side metadata extraction service built by our incredible data science team, but it still needed a few tweaks before we could put it into production, so we’ll be working towards that soon, and people should see a significant increase in the quality of document details when that lands.

I’m also looking forward to improving the usability of the annotation features and the PDF reader in general, better support for stylus input and that sort of thing.

We have no shortage of things to do, that’s for sure. So I better get back to work…


Mendeley for Android is available on the Google Play store.