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How Google’s ‘Material You’ could change the way we define UI

After a year’s hiatus owing to the pandemic, Google I/O (Google’s flagship annual conference) recently returned with a predominantly virtual audience streaming the event from a sun-drenched Silicon Valley. Among a plethora of updates spanning most of their mammoth product portfolio, one of the more headline-grabbing announcements was of a brand new design language for Google, dubbed “Material You”.

Material You announced for Android on YouTube, 18 May 2021

To understand the impact of Material You, we first have to rewind a decade or so to the early days of Android – and of the modern smartphone as an entity. Things were messy. Nobody had really agreed how things such as the user interface should work or what they should look like, and consumers were still figuring out what on earth to do with these button-less, shiny slabs of the future.

Google’s answer to this was the first generation of its guidelines called Material Design in 2014. This intricately detailed specification became the fabric Google desperately needed to hold their vast range of services together in a mostly-coherent family, with a particular focus given to Android devices.

What is Material You?

Fast-forward to today, and Material You is the next major revision to this design specification. It reveals a glimpse of Google’s intent and ambition for the coming years, and as you might expect they’re not lacking in either department.

In essence, Material You represents an entirely more dynamic approach to user interface design. A user’s individual wallpaper is used to generate a unique colour palette, which then ripples through the entire UI and theoretically into other third-party apps and services. Accessibility controls (such as contrast levels) are blended seamlessly to become a fundamental and adjustable part of the interface. And the whole experience is stitched together by a range of beautifully considered micro-interactions to offer a secondary layer of information.

What does Material You mean for UI design?

From a user’s perspective, this all amounts to a significant degree of change. But from a UI designer’s perspective, it could be seismic.

The flexibility at the heart of Material You means our interface designs can now adapt to an infinitely broader range of contexts than before. That can only be a good thing; fitting the needs of a user at any given moment is really all user experience design is about.

To do so successfully, however, we are required to consider our design work in a much more organic way. We may have to define a colour palette rather than a colour; a set of scaling rules in place of a size, and a variable range of appearances to suit different situational needs. Considering all of these variables at the same time, whilst still carrying the intended brand/aesthetic/essence, is a frankly dizzying prospect.

Material You could spell the beginning of the end for creating individual components to pixel-perfection that can be viewed identically across a range of different devices. UI designers will likely become system designers, designing for a changeable organic system. Whilst that undeniably sounds like a scary prospect, it’s every bit as much an exciting one too.

What does Material You mean for the medical industry?

As a medical device consultancy, it is important to consider how a flexible system like this might work within a medical context. On the one hand, users of medical apps and software rightly demand the same high quality of user experience that has been pioneered in the consumer market. Moreover in the case of designing a digital therapeutic, it’s imperative to include proven personalisation and engagement strategies to encourage adherence. Conversely however, there would also be inevitable challenges around ensuring safety and efficacy in an environment where the user has so much freedom for change.

What impact will it have?

The impact of Google’s new direction can only really be measured in another year’s time, when details of the full specification have been released along with the upcoming version of Android (Autumn 2021). Designers, along with developers, will also need the opportunity to implement Material You across publicly available apps. Regardless, the statement that Material You makes is significant. With Google’s drive and ambition, it has the potential to change the way we think about UI design hereafter.

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