What Will Android’s New Design Guidelines Mean for the Platform?

Android has long been criticized for its lack of a focused user interface design language. Apps running on the platform often don’t feel like they’re apps for the same platform at all, lacking a sense of coherence and uniformity. While Apple’s clearly stated design language documentation and arduous review process have given rise to an app ecosystem that provides a seamless, integrated, uninterrupted user experience through consistent UI elements, Android has fallen behind. Google hasn’t put enough weight on the importance of a consistent design language — until now.

With Ice Cream Sandwich, much of Android’s design was overhauled. A new font, Roboto, has replaced the Droid Sans and Droid Serif pairing, which Google must have been pretty sure is an improvement as the Droid fonts had become Android design icons all of their own.

And late last week, Google finally launched the Android Design site which introduces a new set of guidelines for app design, complete with style advice, patterns and ready-to-go building blocks.

While Apple has always taken a rather heavy-handed approach to enforcing its guidelines, it appears that Google approaches the Android Design guidelines as just that — guidelines. If (despite the lack of enforcement) the majority of developers take the company’s advice to heart, this can mean only good things for the platform.

Android’s fragmentation problems lie in inconsistencies in various versions for different devices that make development harder than it should be. But for the consumer, the real problem is the fragmentation from app to app. Apps that behave differently because there’s a lack of standards for interface design makes for a steeper learning curve and a lack of that intuitive cohesion that makes every app on the iPhone easy to grasp once you understand the basics

iOS design rules even fit in well with Mac OS X — despite the completely different input mechanisms. The Jobsian ideal of end-to-end integration works wonders in this environment, and given Android’s dependence on the Google web service ecosystem, should be a no-brainer here.

Which leads us to one of the problems with the Ice Cream Sandwich look and the new Android guidelines: Android’s design language does not fit with the rest of the Google ecosystem very well. Android isn’t the only Google product to receive a major overhaul in recent times. Starting with Google+, a new design language for web products was rolled out app by app in 2011. But for some reason, the look and feel of Google web services and the Android platform don’t share much, if anything, in common. To provide end-to-end intuitive, cohesive design, there should have been more coordination between design teams.

While there are evident problems, it is still early days and Google’s new efforts to keep app interface designers on the same page is an encouraging sign. It may be a number of years before we see Google embark on a design overhaul as big as the web services overhaul or Android’s — and rightly so, as it is better to stick with these disparate looks for now than confuse users with overly frequent changes — but we can hope that the company’s future efforts will be more consistent.

Since mid-2011 Google is focusing on design as an important aspect of its products for the first time in its history, and we can’t expect them to get it all right in the first go.

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  • AmicableNinja

    “The Jobsian ideal of end-​​to-​​end integration works wonders in this environment…”
    “But for some reason, the look and feel of Google web services and the Android platform don’t share much, if anything, in common..”

    I think you miss the point of Android completely. If I wanted Jobs telling me how to interact with my devices I’d buy iOS. As I like to do things my own way, I go Android.

    Google is the facilitator, not owner, of the Android movement. CyanogenMod exists for many reasons, one prominent is that someone had a different vision, albeit similar.

    When I search for an App I’m looking for my sort of interaction method, not Apple’s or Google’s. I’ll go through multiple to find the one I like, which may very well be the one my friend hates. Its okay, we’re different, we tell our devices to work for us, not the other way around.

    With this perspective, the differences in App interfaces is a strength, not a weakness that needs fixing.

    • http://methodicstudios.com Joel Falconer

      I may not be on board with the point of Android, but as you say, its a matter of perspective — both are probably valid, but as this is an opinion piece it is written from the perspective of someone who believes in the benefits of coherent UI guidelines.

      I think it works with your opinion to some extent, though; if someone’s going to use buttons in their app, I think it should be consistent with other buttons on the platform. If someone wants to develop a completely different type of interface that isn’t catered for by button guidelines and things like that, throw it all out the window.

    • themilkman

      You make an interesting point here in relation to this post, but I don’t think consistency necessarily goes against diversity, quite the opposite in fact.

      I am both an iPhone and Apple user and a designer, and I do appreciate that, when I get a new app, I will know pretty much how to get my way round it, because it follows a number of rules. It doesn’t mean that all the apps I have look the same, or behave in the same way, simply that they all pretty much follow a few simple rules which make using them straightforward.

      Even the few HTML5 apps I have on my phone, which don’t conform fully to the Apple way of doing things, usually stick to the same rules, even if they don’t necessarily use the standard Helvetica font for instance.

      I have deplored the lack of consistency on Android devices for some time as I do interact with some in my job. I often find that even the desktop looks messy and all over the place on Android, where it is too regimented on iPhone and iPad.

      Google though have never demonstrated a great understanding of design. Yes the basic Google page works very well because it focuses exactly on why you come to it in the first place, but most of their other apps or sites look so blend and uninviting that I never want to spend much time on them. This is a personal thing, I understand that, but I think Android could benefit from getting things a bit more together, and it wouldn’t necessarily mean clipping the wings of developers, just give them a little of direction.

    • Csongor Fabian

      Jepp, the Ninja has right if we look at the interface from Android user perspective. However the coherent UI is very important in – at least – one another point: people learn what-is-what and they’ll be able to use new apps much faster and easier.

      There are many-zany different Apps for iOS, too – with different design and function still using Apple Guidelines – these guidelines are well designed to provide a broad variation of interfaces, still remain in boundaries of so to called “Apple quality”. Look at eg. Penultimate for iPad – it doesn’t look like any Apple applications still somehow it’s similar and usable form the first start.

      Android still misses something however – look at those default icons in tray – there is no consistence and these are just 4 most important ones. Look at the iOS tray icons to have a comparison…

      The last point: visual coherence is _good_ for usability, visual incoherence is _not_good_ for usability. A very easy rule. Android and iPhone users are different: Android users love to experiment and try 10 or more variations of the same app. iPhone (iOS) users try and use just 1, but that one must be effective in every sense – that’s what Apple supports with consistent UI and they are doing it – most of the time – perfectly…

      My point of view: the right app for the right job. I don’t want to spend hours with trying out tons of apps to find the right for what I need. It’s completely against effective work and focus…

      That’s it… in my opinion

    • AmicableNinja

      Excited about the site, BTW! :D

  • themilkman

    In addition to my previous reply, I think bringing a bit of consistency to the Android OS as a whole (at OS level, not apps level) would make it a more enjoyable OS to use. It is a very good phone OS from my small experience of it, but it feels very clunky. A little bit of TLC in its overall look and feel would make it all the better.

  • http://www.greenapplestudio.eu d’

    I’ve recently bough a Galaxy S2, upgraded the android version and I must say that I’m extremely pleased with it. Once you understand Android, you love it.

  • AmicableNinja

    I started programming TI graphing calculators way back in the day (TIBASIC, ASM, *then* C++ :). Part of TI’s programming guide were coherent UI guidlines. “Menus are to look like this” “Users should expect this”. However, MirageOS (among others) came along and blew that model away. Games, liberated by native ASM code, created sprite-ful menus, icons, etc that TI hadn’t intended or foreseen.

    Was there discontinuity? Yes. Some worse than others. Did it confuse people? Some. Was every program (aka “app”) well-designed? No. Was it a fertile ground for the development for the next wave? Oh yes.

    I’m all for continuity in the user experience (nothing frustrates me more than poor design…except perhaps poor code ;) but to stick rigidly to one or two groups’ ideas of the ideal stifles the innovation that is so evident on the web.

    Google has a lot of good guidlines to follow (ex: http://developer.android.com/design/patterns/pure-android.html) but thankfully they aren’t named “rules”.