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If you keep up with tech news, you’ve probably heard about the announcement of a new version of Android, so far only referred to as Android L, and a new design philosophy to go along with it called Material Design. What you may not have gotten is a satisfactory explanation of what exactly Material Design is, or why anyone cares.

Today, we’ll be talking about what Material Design actually changes, when you can expect to see it, and why it’s actually pretty cool.

Android’s Android Problem

Material Design, at a glance, represents an enormous departure from the traditional Android aesthetic — the origami-inspired layout looks more like a pastel and paper version of Microsoft’s Metro theme Why Microsoft Should Not Be Pushing Their New Metro UI Onto Their Other Products [Opinion] Why Microsoft Should Not Be Pushing Their New Metro UI Onto Their Other Products [Opinion] With the introduction of the Windows Phone platform in 2010, Microsoft unveiled the Metro user interface, designed to make accessing information quick and easy. Rather than litter their new mobile platform with endless rows of... Read More than anything else.

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In order to understand why you might want such a radical shift from what’s come before, let’s look at what’s wrong with Android today.

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For starters, you have to specify which Android you’re talking about. There are versions of Android in active use going back four versions. Each of those operating systems has a half a dozen variations, as carriers seek to brand themselves by bolting their proprietary interface layers on top of the Android backbone.  Google’s been making efforts to pressure manufacturers into standardizing, but it’s an uphill battle.

There’s no user interface (UI) consistency going from one Android device to another — even the little things (like what happens when you swipe to the left on the homescreen) can differ depending on exactly which flavor of Android you’re running. As a platform, because of its open nature, Android is by far the most fragmented of the big-three phone operating systems. The more totalitarian platforms like iOS and Windows Phone are able to enforce a much more consistent interface and aesthetic across the board.

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Even within the same operating system and interface layer, Android is a mess. For example: arranging apps on the homescreen uses a set of touch gestures (hold to select, drag to move) that you will never use anywhere else in the operating system. The behavior of the back button is wildly unpredictable between apps (sometimes it takes you back to the previous screen, sometimes it exits the app, and sometimes it does neither).

Android apps largely ignore the Google UI guidelines, leading to sharply differing control schemes between apps. When a user moves from one task to another within Android, they’re entering a new world with new rules, and they have to remember or learn how to interact with the new paradigm. It’s a lot of small inconveniences, adding up together to a messy, unintuitive user experience. It’s not just Android, either. Here’s what one of the creators of Material Design, Jon Wiley, had to say in his Reddit AMA.

I think a big challenge with Google Search in terms of experience is that it has often felt like a series of jump cuts in what is actually continuous. Material design gives us a framework we can use to do something closer to a scene change in a play, continuously moving from one state to the next. This can make it feel much faster and can also provide cues as to what happened when you touched something in the UI. It’s another step towards removing any speed bumps along the way to getting a good answer.

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Material Design is A Trust Exercise

If you go through Google’s Material Design guidelines for app makers, it becomes clear that Material Design is designed to build trust between the user and the software. Material design has a strict set of rules dictating every detail of the way the user interacts with the operating system: how dragged objects accelerate, how items can be added and destroyed, and what kind of interactions are allowed to take place on UI elements.

Material design is an effort by Google to drastically restrict the kinds of things that can happen in Android UI’s, in an effort to establish a degree of trust with the user.   The thinking goes that users interacting with Android should be able to trust the operating system to behave in a predictable way — when they touch an element in a certain way, they should know exactly what’s going to happen. When they encounter a new part of the interface, they should be able to figure out how to interact with it with no fuss and no surprises.

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Smart Paper

The core metaphor of Material Design is that of Smart Paper — a fictional material capable of moving and changing shape, which has depth and can display content. Material Design interfaces are made from layers of cards, which are made from Smart Paper, as though the app were a magic notepad inside your phone.

You can tap a card to select it, at which point it might rise and grow to display its information more prominently. You can swipe to the right to discard. You can drag cards to rearrange them. At no point do cards do anything that couldn’t take place within the thickness of the device (zooming around, or flipping over). Their behavior is flexible but predictable.

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Virtual Physics

Google’s Material Design guidelines contain instructions, in excruciating detail, about how virtual objects should move: how they should accelerate and decelerate, how they should bounce, how fast they should change size, how to get them off the screen when it’s time for them to go.  Smart Paper may not be present in these cases, but users still need a consistent experience in every app.

Look and Feel

Material Design enforces a consistent graphic design across apps and OS components, down to color schemes for which they give a variety of color palettes to choose from, and guidance on creating your own (they recommend taking inspiration from road signs and architecture).  The fonts are standardized (to a set of variations on Google’s “Roboto“), and so is the level of text contrast at different brightness levels and sizes — the theory being to make the text readable without dazzling the user with high-contrast patterns.

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Next Steps

Android L is scheduled to launch later this year. Google has already begun updating several Android apps to get them closer to a Material Design aesthetic. Over the following year, Google plans to roll out Material design not just for Android, but across all Google products on all platforms, including their web apps, iOS app, wearable gadgets, and Google Glass. This kind of unified, uncompromised aesthetic across platforms will be nearly unprecedented for a software company, and it’ll be interesting to see how the public reacts.

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Material design could also significantly change the balance of power in the mobile operating system space. Windows Phone has been making steady inroads into the market on the strength of their Metro UI (which, in my opinion, is a good deal cleaner, simpler, and more distinctive than that offered by either iOS or Android). Material design may leapfrog Android ahead of Windows Phone in terms of UI, and help  to prevent Windows Phone from seriously eating into Google’s market share.

Either way, Google has publically committed to Material Design in a big way, and I’m looking forward to picking up a smartphone running Android L later this year to try it for myself.

What do you think of Android L? An improvement for the Android ecosystem, or a step backwards in terms of design? Let us know in the comments!

Images courtesy of Google’s Material Design Guidelines

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