Unstable Material & Inconsistency in Design
One thing that was a source of criticism towards Android for years was the appearance of its UI. While each iteration brought newer and more modern elements to the interface, the biggest changes were arguably made in the past few versions. Design languages like HOLO and Material Design have distinct looks that set them apart from the competition. Whilst many manufacturers want their interface to resemble popular models (like several Chinese OEMs and their themes “inspired” by Apple), Google and its snazzy-dressed designer Matias Duarte made a daring jump with Material Design.
Upfront I want to say that this is aimed towards the development teams of Google Apps and the physical manifestations of Material Design up until today. It is not a rant towards the design language itself, which I think is excellent on paper.
I remember watching that original I/O keynote with one of the few friends that I had that cared about Android, and when Google began speaking about “Quantum Paper”, depth and surfaces we immediately got excited at the possibilities. It was brilliant, and a clever way to make the user interface an actual user space, not just a user surface. The promises of seamless transitions where every element’s origin and departure makes sense had us impatient. And such impatience drove me to buy a Nexus 5 on a trip to America (that I didn’t go on for the phone, mind you!), so that when the promised “developer previews” of the then-dubbed Android L came out, I would be ready.
The developer preview on my Nexus 5 was impressive, and the smoothness of the card stack multitasking had me swiping up and down just for fun every time I opened the multitasking menu. At that point, our expectations were high and we were not disappointed, given that what we had was just a preview. The second developer preview also impressed me, and the refinements made me so complacent with the software that I actually didn’t flash the official Lollipop until a week after it became available, as by that time the material craze had died in me.
The application updates to Material Design were the first signs of concern to me. Initially they felt unpolished, and the early versions were extremely disjointed and stale. They were pretty in the sense that the iconography was updated and the color palette was pleasant, but at that time I was one of the few that complained about how they weren’t really “Material”, but rather materialized HOLO apps, with the same underlying behaviour and flow. The essence of the applications remained kitkatish, as did many of their elements.
Fast forward a few months and Material Design is still majorly inconsistent and undone. Remember the Google Play Music animations of the original conference? I remember forums being wowed by those, and we foolishly believed those would become the standard for what was to come. But now, many Google apps still feel like HOLO apps with a coat of Material paint, and the pretty animations are usually reserved for cut-and-paste iconography and card elements.
But what’s more baffling to me is the inconsistency between many of the Google apps and their elements’ look and behavior. Navigation drawers, for example: the panels have different banner sizes, and action bars have different shadow lengths – some don’t even have shadows at all. The action bars themselves are inconsistently sized, and some like the one in Hangouts look extremely outdated. You could argue that the guidelines’ focus is dynamism and that different shadow lengths could enhance the scrolling experience by adding depth as seen here, but when you go scroll through Google apps you see this isn’t quite the case. No matter how much you scroll, no shadow is going to appear in your Hangouts contact list.
There’s also the fact that some applications simply have outdated elements. The menu that pops up when you get rid of a tab in Chrome, for example, is HOLO. This bit makes little sense, given that before we had the option to undo the tab closing through a toast-looking menu (meaning they consciously added HOLO into Material). Other elements, though, simply haven’t changed. Many checkboxes like those of Hangouts and Google Now not only retain blue hue from HOLO, but also look terribly fuzzy on my 1440p display. The bug report menu is HOLO as well.
A lot of elements have a feeling of redundancy to them as well. Take the case of the Hamburger Menu animation, everyone’s favorite spinny meat-icon thing. When that fellow was originally added to the Playstore, I couldn’t resist pressing it over and over. But in many applications through many updates, Google decided to keep the animation yet cover it entirely with a navigation drawer slide-in. What’s funny is that it was rolled back in the Playstore, but now it cover the menu again. And that’s not even the only inconsistency the navigation drawers and the menu faced. Make up your mind!
The redundancy carries on to conscious navigation decisions of Material Design. My two main gripes on this front are the FAB (floating action button) and the multitasking menu. Now, this complaint might be a little opinionated, but I see them as inefficient. The placement of the FAB means that content gets covered, even if it’s content at the bottom (and thus, probably outdated). The animated behavior of the FAB as well as its look is also not fully consistent. The multitasking menu, on the other hand, is a less optimal way of multitasking due to the insane number of cards one can amass, as well as the nature of the cards themselves and their unequal triggering distribution. We talked about this in our feature on Android navigation, and since then solutions to the card problem have been created by our devs, like XDA Senior Moderator and Recognized Developer Chainfire’s app “Recently”.
There’s many, many more problems with Material Design in current apps and we will touch upon them in a future in-depth article. But these inconsistencies truly show that Google’s development teams are disjointed. Why can’t they, for example, use the same refresh spinning icon for Chrome and the rest of the apps? Or share the rest of the resources? Why are the guidelines so loosely followed and why do some apps simply lack the attention to detail that the core apps should have? How come that the original creative inception is not quite here yet, and why should we expect it when updates show no clear common goal?
To be fair, a consistent design across a system as expansive as Android is no easy task. When we covered Duarte’s AMA a few weeks back, we realised just how hard of a job coordinating the enormous design and development teams of Google can be. Material’s design focus on real-world material behavior means that a lot of testing and simulating must be done to obtain the right results on paper, and the theory coming to fruition can also be quite a complicated procedure. I’d go as far as saying that Material Design is a much more ambitious redesign than any other competitor has put out, as it was meant to transcend a mere re-skinning. We’ve seen similar trends across operating systems like the glass-like transparency and shadows in the UIs of Windows’ Aero, OS X and many mobile ROMs. And those are arguably easier to achieve than what Google set out to create, from both a design and computational perspective.
At the same time, there’s so much more that Google could explore. There’s hundreds of designers that fell in love with Material Design, and many create extensions to the design language that are as beautiful as Google’s. But an even worse problem with Material Design right now is that many of its beautiful elements depend on Lollipop’s framework, and while there are APIs to come around the problem and make older devices get some of the treats, the slow adoption of Lollipop and its inconsistent rollout (I am still waiting for the update for my T-Mobile Note 4, where as my Note 3 has had it for over 3 months!) means that many users are not even experiencing Material Design the way it is supposed to be experienced anyway.
Material Design is beautiful, but what Google set out to achieve with was a unified look across all platforms. So far, they are struggling to get a unified look across one platform, and perhaps the most important one for them. I love Material Design, but even on my Kitkat TouchWiz daily driver I don’t necessarily die to go back to either Note 3’s Lollipop nor my Nexus 5’s Stock Lollipop. Perhaps I am simply one of the users that cares more about how a phone performs and what it does rather than how it looks when doing it, but Material Design brought Android many downsides that are being addressed too slowly. And for that reason, I now know better than to bite into hype schemed through flashy renders. Come the next redesign, I’ll be a little more skeptical… But even then, Material Design and Lollipop did bring Android the breath of air and revolutionary hope that it needed to keep up in such a competitive software world. And for that, I too praise Duarte.
I invite you to rewatch the introduction of the Google 2014 I/O Keynote to see how much different our current Material Design looks from those enticing renders. Many things have improved, but in a way, the “could have been” feels too different from what we have now.