Google I/O 2015 Special: Material Design, one year later

Material Design

When developers walked into Google I/O last year they were probably expecting updates to Android and some additional tools, but the introduction of its Material Design guidelines was something of a surprise. This year, however, may be the moment when Material Design starts to make a material difference to the way Android apps are created.

Described variously as a philosophy and a set of rules, Material Design was intended to help Google coach developers in the visual cues, style and content that make for the ideal Android app user interface. This also includes the flow of an app experience (i.e., one that is not interrupted) and consistency in the elements being used. The spirit of Material Design was incorporated into Android Lollipop: Tabs, for example, act as a navigation element, but they can be purpose-filled with other features such as a search, overflow menus or the ability to scroll through an app in helpful ways.


Among the early adopters of Material Design is Francesco Azzola, an indie developer based in Italy who created an Android app based on the principles. He said that what might have seemed like a slow start to embrace Material Design should not be mistaken for developer resistance.

"Naturally, the first group of people who got really enthusiastic about it were designers, not developers," he said. "Six to eight months ago, the web was flooded with mockups and concepts, but it was really hard to find fully functional websites or Android apps based on it. But now that situation is changing at meteoric speed. I believe developers finally understand what Material Design is really about."

Michael Mace, vice president of mobile at Mountain View, Calif.-based user experience design firm UserTesting, agreed. Similar to how Microsoft moved to a more streamlined, flatter approach to software design with the "Metro" version of Windows (and later Apple followed suit with iOS 7), he said Material Design is a way for Google to help developers drive greater engagement with Android apps.


"When you look at an app created with Material Design, it just makes other apps look bad," he said. "It's like kitchen appliances when the manufacturers start to change all the standard colors. There's a bit of keeping up with the Joneses."

Besides giving Material Design time to spike developer interest and raise fears of looking obsolete, having good examples from which to draw inspiration is also helpful. That was the thinking behind Material Design Blog, which was founded by Mantas Malukas, a designer based in the Netherlands. He said beyond mere aesthetics, Material Design has brought some consistency that Android badly needed.

"Developers have a set of rules to follow. They are clear and they are not so difficult to implement," he said via email. "Also, the 'old' UI patterns have a new place when they are used with Material Design rules. All this creates a unique identity for Android apps, which helps with coding a more clear and defined UI. These rules are common to all apps so that users have a clear and standard way to interact with UI."

This also makes Android apps more competitive with their iOS counterparts, Azzola added. "Google is aiming to do what Apple has been able to do for a long time: to develop brand based off of a single principle of a unified experience," he said. "Regardless of which device, how large or small, your application would work the same exact way."

Although Android's reach has historically been vast, particularly in emerging markets, Mace said Material Design's gradual adoption could also bring more quality to the performance of the apps found in Google Play.

"There's a lightbulb going off where developers are saying, 'If I test at the prototype stage, I can ship more confidently,'" he said. "Launching an app is like premiering a movie. If you've got good reviews in those first few days, you have a chance of succeeding."

Google is widely expected to release Android M at this week's I/O, before Android Lollipop has fully taken root among app users and device makers. That's not a reason to put off Material Design, though, Azzola said.

"This is the big challenge all developers have to face," he said, explaining that the issue stretches across different versions of Android, as well as different screen sizes and resolutions. "So in my opinion, developers shouldn't wait until Lollipop will be more widespread."

Since Material Design was first launched, there has been a huge demand for libraries, components for Android L or CSS/JS/HTML frameworks for web development, Malukas said. It's possible this will become a talking point as Android developers gather in San Francisco.

"Interactions and motion should be the area Google will target the most. Google's I/O 2015 audio experiment seems interesting and we can expect to see more color, motion and interaction interpretations," he said. "Bootstrap's rival Material Design CSS framework is coming. Whether it will be announced at I/O '15 or later is hard to say."

In some respects, however, the best news about Material Design that could come out of Google I/O 2015 may be simply that the company is staying on course.

"I guess there will be some improvements in the Material Design rules, maybe making them even more clear and simple. But I hope there won't be a big change because when the rules change too often, they can't be considered rules," Azzola said. "Developers need time to move to this new UI paradigm and therefore I hope that the main rules will remain stable."