In case you missed the epic in length Google I/O keynote yesterday, one of the core features was Google’s announcement of a new design standard, material design. One that not only covered android (as holo had in the past) or reflected a design trend (like cards in Google now) but one that covers web and mobile applications. The idea is that users will have a unified and familiar experience across all their devices and that developing for this system will be made easier by using Google’s design standard and framework.
A different solution to the same problem
This echoes Apple’s new continuity features, certainly they are both seeking to address the friction between switching devices. Google have sought to help developers create a greater sense of familiarity between device while using the same services (and even between services). Meanwhile, Apple has sought to help make the hand off of data between devices to become more simple.
Together these features should make for users to be able to start work on whatever device they have at hand and finish on whatever device they should, be that mobile or desktop. Of course, Apple’s continuity features will only be for iDevices and Macs (though there are some similar elements via third party services) but there are some potential problems.
The difficulty with Universal design
Universal design sounds like a great idea, until you have to do it. There are two pulling forces when you design a mobile app for your service, the service and the form factor. The service demands that you highlight certain functions and bits of information, where as the form factor dictates that it is/isn’t a good idea to make the user scroll, that columns are/aren’t okay, that gestures are/aren’t okay etc.
Responsive grid systems can be useful for general guidelines, but sometimes guidelines should be broken in light of the service.
What about iOS design standards?
With iOS another problem is thrown into the mix, iOS design standards. iOS 7 brought about a whole new direction of design language for iOS and with the previews of iOS 8 we can see a hint at the reason why. Making these design elements familiar between apps helps when extensions maybe lying overtop of the app in use. It’s important for keeping a sense of place within the app and yet knowing that you are using a third party element too (just remember the example of using VSCO filters with the stock camera app).
Obviously, this doesn’t have to be an either or choice. Developers may well be able to adapt and take elements from both design systems but this will require a lot of judgement on the developers parts.
It’s great to see companies seeking to make a user experience which makes it easy to use whatever device you have at hand and not have a radically different experience. My only concern is that iOS may see a split between iOS apps, and google ported apps, but even now there are iOS 6 apps so a similar problem is present. Personally, as a user, I am more excited about seeing continuity features than material design.