Exploring Android L: What Exactly Is Material Design?

Andre Infante 06-08-2014

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] 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.


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.

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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.


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

Related topics: Google, Web Design.

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  1. Devin
    July 25, 2018 at 7:35 pm

    Well, it's been four years, MD has long rolled out, and it's absolutely *awful*. The worst part is that the only people are devs and Google fanboys who would rah rah anything Google does.

    I appreciate the advantages of consistent control actions, and the advantages of having a consistent look and feel across platforms, devices, and apps (Facebook is a good illustration of this need, all of their apps have wildly different aesthetics and controls, and this disjunctive is particulary stark between the main FB app and the Messenger app, looking at and interacting with them you'd assume they were from two entirely different outfits).

    That basic idea is solid. The implementation is trash. The entire aesthetic of MD is awful. A bland, ugly, insipid, characterless wasteland. Animations waste time and resources and they serve no valuable function. Swiping as the standard is a pain because far too easy to swipe things accidentally, to overswipe, swiping often doesn't work properly because, when paired with animations, the one cancels out the other, so you're left waiting for the animation the end once it's stsrted before you can swipe again, especially pronounced when you need to make multiple swiping actions to do what you want to do. Swiping as also dependent on a fairly strict direct, and too much perpendicular deviation (which is, more often than not, only a slight deviation) prevents the swiping action for occurring. Floating buttons obstruct the screen. The entire aesthetic concept causes too much real estate to be taken up with empty space, causing too little information to be displayed on too much of a screen. The precedence placed on portrait mode, often to the point of rendering use in landscape mode virtually impossible, simply so people can gaze at and admire the MD aesthetic, is profoundly frustrating (especially when coupled with forced disabling of full screen text entry).

    All in all, though the basic operational concept of Material Design is good, the whole "Smart Paper"/gestured/limited pallet/portrait mode approach they've strapped to it is terrible, and makes the whole thing a frustratingly, eyes strainingly, wretched inducingly horrible experience.

  2. Anonymous
    July 16, 2015 at 12:08 am

    I'm in the same boat as David. I think the "flat" look is a step backwards for the most part. More specifically, everybody seems to think that washed-out, virtually colorless icons are somehow better than the 3D shaded, colorful, stylish ones.

    Apple has taken this design to the farthest extreme with their new OS icons. The colors are so muddled and washed out that it literally strains my eyes when I look at them.

    In my opinion, flat or washed out UI elements should be reserved for non-clickable, read-only items. Items that can be clicked, moved or interacted with should be shaded and colorful.

    Take the "Load 10 more [comments]" on MakeUseOf. It should be rounded (because it's a button) with some shading indicating that it is to be interacted with - NOT greyed out and flat as if it were disabled or non-interactive.

    Of course, all of this is only my opinion.

  3. Matthew
    April 5, 2015 at 2:36 pm

    So long as phone makers keep shoving their own customizations on, it really doesn't matter what Google thinks it SHOULD look like.

  4. iDontLikeIt
    March 10, 2015 at 6:57 pm

    well I'm not gonna do it.

  5. David
    November 14, 2014 at 5:54 pm

    I'm really disapointed with design trends of it world. I'm not the only one who feel that way for sure, theres just few designs with this trends that feels natural, works in kids apps because their not yet adapted very well to the world and start to learn simple forms and colors, once you get adapted to the world you feel very good with concepts a little bit more complete. I was never a ms hater before, but the things have changed when they decided to force this trend with bought opinions and reviews from the internet, I'm really disapointed with the designers who follow trends no matter what, i can understand those who work for MS but the others who bought the concept just because someone says its clean and beauty and have the money to spread the word over all the internet. I hope for a trend change for good. I dont like metro, material, or IOS and apps flat but force to live with that.

  6. JerryAtrick
    August 10, 2014 at 9:08 am

    Google are serial screwups on interface design and this looks like another attempt to make Android more cryptic and less understandable.

  7. Phil Nolan
    August 8, 2014 at 4:58 am

    The point about the back button in the article is mostly wrong. You pretty much always know what Back will do. If you are deeper into the app it will go back a page, if there are no more pages it goes back to the home screen or whatever you looked at before. In all cases it goes back to where ever you were before now. Very, very, rarely have I see a couple of apps that don't work exactly as they should, like Viggle for example and usually it's because the app was poorly ported over from ios.

  8. Angelflare
    August 7, 2014 at 7:51 am

    About the back button behavior: In an app the time you press the back button, it takes you to previous page if there is one. If there are no page behind, it takes you to the app you used before that one you are in.

    Example 1 : You launched Instagram, you are in your feed then popular then profile. When you press back in profile, it takes you to popular then feed. If you press it again, it takes you to homescreen.

    Example 2: You are in a messenger and a friend sent you a link, you opened it in a browser then click another link on that page. The time you press the back button, it takes you to the previous page. Press it again and it takes you to messenger. Press it again and it takes you to homescreen.

    Actually the back button has couple of rules to operate and when you get used to it you see there's no better back button on the planet.

    About Windows 8 resemblance: There's no such thing. If you talk about being flat, it's just a trend. Just like fashion. It will end some day. That doesn't mean all flat design is resembling Windows 8. If Android L was all about flat colored squares i'd say you were right. But that's not the case.

    About Android design being a mess: Let's check iOS. Same overall design with not much to do about it for 6 major releases. Then all goes flat in one day! (if you call it consistency, your bad) Lets check Android. Horribble few major releases. Then all start to look prettier. One by one. While i understand finding android pretty is just personal. But you can't ignore progress.

    Thanks for this article anyway. I wonder what device you have right now.

    • Ben
      August 7, 2014 at 4:50 pm

      Windows was the first to implement it cant deny it. Microsoft was the first tech company in the world to implement flat design in technology, they didn't invent it but they revolutionised UI shift or trend we have today in technology and that trend will expand not end, it will last longer than ‘skeumorphism’ design. Android can be sugar coated, the experience and the os and ui/ux is still a mess, even with outdated icons that doesn't follow material design. However this material design does not look like windows 8 at any form, its not flat enough.

  9. Saikat B
    August 7, 2014 at 7:08 am

    It's quite a nice shift from the trend of 'skeumorphism' and flat design. Some elements of those two will always remain, but what I like about material design is the presence of depth. That's absent in flat design. Depth feels more natural and helps us perceive what's clickable and what's not.

    • Nour
      September 29, 2014 at 7:03 am

      What was wrong about 'skeumorphism'?

    • Nour
      September 29, 2014 at 7:06 am

      It's unfortunate to see the mediocrity of Microsoft becomes the chosen route from companies like Apple and Google ..

  10. macusers
    August 6, 2014 at 11:07 pm

    Looks like a rip off of Windows 8.

    • Ben
      August 7, 2014 at 4:47 pm

      yes so true. Material is a poor mans metro, so ugly, too bright and too much shadow and very thick bars

  11. Lameonade
    August 6, 2014 at 9:16 pm

    I actually wish Microsoft took the same measures to make all of the apps on the Store utilize the Metro design. There are a ton of apps that certainly do NOT follow any sort of metro design whatsoever.

    • Ben
      August 7, 2014 at 4:46 pm

      Microsoft makes the unifed approach to utilize metro design, There is a ton of apps follow the metro design, I have a list of apps that follow it, some have bad ports by lazy fake devs like all app stores, since no app store is perfect, so I disagree with you

  12. Tom W
    August 6, 2014 at 6:52 pm

    The big thing that I picked up on in this article is that Material Design will rely on elements of the Android L operating system to work. This means that it will be impossible to design an app that both uses Material Design and also works on older versions of Android. It's okay for Google, who can afford to build and maintain multiple versions of a single app, but everyone else will just ignore the elements of Material Design that prevent backward compatibility. If those elements are the major elements of Material Design, the app developers will ignore everything.

    What Google need to do right now is to introduce a very modular approach to Android. Everything about Android should be a self-contained unit. If a manufacturer wants to modify one of these units they can, and they take on responsibility for updating that unit. This allows Google to keep phones up to date without waiting on an entirely new version from the manufacturers, which may never come, and it means that app developers will have a far less fragmented ecosystem to design for because it's easier for users to update.

  13. Realist
    August 6, 2014 at 6:11 pm

    Epic shark jump.