Your smartphone is a mess of buttons and menus. While the hamburger menu and settings cog have become ubiquitous, dig a little deeper and you’re still presented with an eclectic grab bag of options. With the release of Android P, Google is trying to change that. Again.
Material Design, Google’s attempt to make sense of the unrelenting mess that is software design, launched in 2014. It brought with it new guidelines for how not just smartphone and tablet apps, but all software, should look and feel. More importantly it tried to formalise how they should behave when a human used them. For developers, it provided handy tips and tools for making software easier to use. For users, it was meant to make smartphones, tablets and laptops more intuitive. It didn’t.
So now, four years after Google launched its Material Design vision, it’s having another go. And it’s a vision of the near future that is particularly important for the success of Android P.
Material Design might not be the solution to how we design apps, but it is at least a solution. As Matias Duarte, the head of the Material Design group at Google, told The Verge: “A lot of both the designer and developer community took it as a ‘gospel’”. Since its launch, failure to adhere properly to Material Design on Android has made your app look like a mess.
The most common complaint from developers, which ultimately translated into you getting confused while using an app, was that Material Design wasn’t flexible enough. Companies that were happy to abide by Google’s strict design rules ended up with an app that looked too generic, which created a sea of interfaces that looked flat, boring and bland. As a result, many apps – especially those from larger companies – eschewed Google’s design wisdom and ploughed their own furrow.
”We spent two years telling people ‘this is how to make Material yours’, and it didn’t work,” Duarte said shortly after Google lifted the lid on its updated vision for software design. And its new guidelines for Material Design make the reason for that failure abundantly clear: to make apps, and software in general, easier to use, it is important that buttons and menus have a similar form and function – it isn’t important that they look exactly alike. And that’s where Material Theming comes in. Google calls it a “roadmap for future redesigns”, but you can call it “making Android less of a confusing hellscape”.
Google’s renewed drive for design consistency is based on making apps work in a similar way while retaining their own individuality. In short: two calendar apps might look totally different, but you should immediately know how to make an appointment in either of them without having to learn a whole new interface.
Material Theming is Google’s attempt to help this way of thinking along. Change the colour or typography of the app you’re working on, for example, and the rest of the app’s design will change accordingly. In practical terms, it means that developers can make their app feel distinct without chucking buttons and options all over the place. As Google readily admits, the restrictive nature of Material Design made adding flair and identity to an app without sacrificing its ease of use and consistency “tedious and inefficient”. A new tool called Material Theme Editor lets developers change one theme value and have it change throughout the design.
And Google is even practicing what it preaches. The new versions of Gmail, Google News, Google Play and Google Home all use Material Theming to create a “cohesive, branded experience”. As the new-look Gmail shows, Google has been using Material Design to change how its apps and services work on all types of devices. On the all-new Google News, which uses artificial intelligence to curate lists of relevant and related stories, the new Material Design tools have been used to formalise and set font types to make it easier to draw people’s attention to the most important headlines.
The original Material Design guidelines had a single theme that was applied to all apps. The new version has the same design principles behind it, but lets developers add their own flair and identity. It was an important lesson for Google to learn. As its developer documents make clear, the new tools in Material Design are there to make it easier than ever to make the look and feel of an app or service consistent across Android, iOS, Flutter and the web. In the coming years, as Google likely moves from Android to the in-development Fuchsia operating system, this work in standardising design will become all the more important.
As Duarte told me in 2015, shortly after he helped Google launch Material Design, software remains in quite a “raw, industrial state”. And while Google’s attempts to introduce new guidelines and tools for developers will help, software is still wedded to a decades-old graphical user interface (GUI) that feels increasingly unfit for purpose. “It cannot be that the optimal solution for 30 years ago is going to be applicable for all time,” Duarte told me.
And so the next big leap in software design won’t be visual, it will be technical. And it is this technical problem that’s the real focus for Google, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft over the coming years. Right now, apps still live in silos. The app-ification of software sliced everything up, hiding your holiday booking in Airbnb, your plans with your friends in WhatsApp and your budget in a Google Doc. The vision for Duarte and Google at large is to free up all that data and make the interfaces that lock it away disappear. The first inklings of this already exist in Alexa and Google Assistant, but there’s a long way to go.
Three years ago, Duarte lamented software’s continued addiction to the much-maligned GUI. And he set himself a ten-year target to completely change how we interact with technology. The clock is ticking.