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Android L Material Design User Interface Features & Principles

Updated on July 13, 2014

Google’s Android L Material Design UI concept was unveiled to developers during the 2014 Developers’ Conference and is envisioned as a clean design that makes better use of the available space within the screens of a cross-section of devices.

Android Material Design UI Version

Android UI design architecture has undergone various patterns of evolution in the almost six years of its existence and this new iteration is just a natural next step in its journey.

The Google team, while unveiling the material design concept, explained that the whole idea was to create a new visual language for the user interface that gives “depth to pixels”.

Material Design philosophy will see a change in the way the Android operating system will look and feel and is a clear indication that Google is giving design more importance that before. While the Material Design will have a major impact on the Android platform, it will eventually be felt across all platforms such as the desktop and the web.

Developers are now able to access Material Design features that come with the Android L platform in creating applications and the initial reaction has been one of excitement. Among the features in the new Android UI architecture that developers can take advantage of include the setting of “elevation levels” which are then translated to the correct perspective and given realistic shadows within applications.

Another feature is the “palette” feature that has the ability to intuitively match the user interface with any images that may be currently in use.

Development of the Android UI: A Short History

A discussion of the new Material Design paradigm would not be complete without a recap of how the Android platform has evolved since its inception a number of years back.

Here is a short history of the defining releases together with the main features and improvements that they came with.

Looking at how the Android UI architecture has developed of the years, it is not difficult to see the natural evolution to the current Android L with its material design user interface.

It all started in the year 2008 when Google released the Android 1.0 for the T-Mobile G1 phone and had a set of features that were unique at the time such as notifications, widgets and a nascent Android Market.

Android 1.5 Cupcake

As with any new system, the first version of Android came with its fair share of bugs which necessitated the next version 1.1 that aimed at fixing them. These fixes, as well the novel ability to install upgrades through the air, were about all that Android 1.1 offered and it was not until Android 1.5 Cupcake that major improvements begun to emerge.

The new version of the platform marked the beginning of a tradition that has been the hallmark of Android ever since – naming every major iteration using dessert names. Android 1.5 “Cupcake” introduced an important feature that was missing all along – the soft keyboard – which was the game changer as far as mobile operating systems are concerned.

Android Cupcake
Android Cupcake

Cupcake was a thorough refinement of earlier features of the user interface and included many industry defining changes. The on-screen keyboard at the right time as it coincided with the introduction of the first ever fully touchscreen devices in April 2009.

Another major development in this Android iteration was the ability of third party developers to create compatible keyboards of their own. This has been a defining feature to date as both the iOS and Windows phones do not support it yet (though it might be introduced with the iOS 8 platform). This was also a turning point and the beginning of a long line of third party improvements to the user interface that have continued to this day.

While the two earlier Android versions did indeed have some widget functionality, it was not entirely possible for developers to take advantage of its full potential.

This changed Android “Cupcake” as developers now had access to the SDK, which resulted in creative and user-friendly implementations that have driven the popularity of the platform to date.

Other prominent improvements that came with Android 1.5 included full clip-board functionality that allowed users to copy/paste from their browsers, video recording and play-back (a feature that is easily taken for granted today, but which was hard to find in earlier versions despite high user demand), batch email operations, YouTube uploading features and synchronization across a variety of applications and screens.

Android 1.6 Donut

Android 1.6 “Donut”, though suggesting a slight increment to Android 1.5 “Cupcake”, was actually full of many useful improvements. This next iteration came with significant features that had far-reaching implications on the future of the Android platform.

As with all new versions, “Donut” had a number of changes that touched on the user interface but the biggest improvements were to be found under the hood.

There was what can be termed as the beginning of user interface scalability with the Android 1.6 – a feature which allowed it to be displayed on different screen sizes easily.

Also new with the platform was search capabilities that allowed in-app as well as internet searches from one convenient and easily accessible search box.

The Android Market also saw major user interface redesign coupled with features such as the introduction of payment options for paid apps.

This move increased the number of apps that were now available compared to the earlier version that only had a few applications in the store.

Android 2.0 Éclair

November 2009, barely a few months after the launch of Android 1.6, saw the release of yet another significant version- the Android 2.0 “Éclair”.

This version came with big changes to the Android user interface as well as the architecture and marked another major turning point since its inception.

This was a period when phone manufacturers were aiming for larger screen sizes, which worked well on the Android platform that was now supporting even larger screen resolutions. In fact, it is said that the platform’s improved features are what drove the success of the phones (Motorola Droid is a case in point).

The list of improvements were very long with Android 2.0 but these are just some of the major new features that it came with:

  • For the first time ever, users were able to access multiple Google accounts on the same device- which meant that email and contacts from both private and work accounts could be easily accessed.
  • In a move that can only be described as disruptive, Android 2.0 came with Google Maps navigation that offered an alternative to subscription based turn-by-turn car navigation systems.
  • A clever improvement was made with the inclusion of a contact toolbar that enabled users to add their contacts in an easily accessible place- a feature that made it convenient for users to interact with their contacts.
  • Refined virtual keyboard that so the introduction of multi-touch functionality that made it easy for fast typing as it was able to detect multiple touches
  • General appearance of the user interface was significantly touched up so that widget and other icons appeared simple, clean and more compatible with the improved screen capabilities of phones
  • A raft of other features including live wall papers that gave the user interface more appeal, speech to text (which appears to have stalled) and a new swipe and lock home screen feature.

The Éclair version was then updated with Android 2.1, which was basically a strategic readjustment that saw Google partner with HTC to produce the Nexus One.

The main thinking behind the move was to showcase the Android features as Google intended without the changes that manufacturers were making.

The Nexus One was a turning point as it had features that were well ahead of their time – which Android 2.1 was well positioned to take advantage of.

Android 2.2 Froyo

The Android user interface and architecture underwent major changes with the introduction of Froyo 2.2. This iteration had plenty of changes in how the user interacted with the UI – a change that was immediately evident when one switched on their device.

The 2010 release can be considered a response to third party moves that had already started reskinning their phones to incorporate some of the changes that Google was now introducing.

Other notable features that came with this version were support for mobile hotspot, reverting to the old lock screen (users found the new one a bit problematic), and more clipboard enhancements. There was also a definite move towards a platform more friendly to the corporates – a domain that had until then been the exclusive territory of Blackberry.

Android 2.3 Gingerbread

The Gingerbread release came against a backdrop of Google’s continued development of the Nexus devices with its introduction of Nexus One that run on the platform. It enlisted Samsung to manufacture the Nexus One – a phone that was considered to be the most advance Android device at the time.

When compared to other releases, the Gingerbread update had one strikingly different feature- a complete reskinning that was meant to address power consumption issues as well as screen burn-in prevalent in AMOLED screens.

There was a clear intention in gaining foothold in the mobile gaming with graphic enhancements that aimed at enticing game developers to create content on the Android platform.

As with previous releases, there were many refinements to already existing features such as clipboard functionality, keyboard design and battery power management. In what appeared to be preparation for the introduction of Google Talk a year later, Gingerbread came with functionality that supported a front-facing camera.

Android 3.X Honeycomb- a better user interface experience

This version of the Android platform marked a significant departure from the natural progression that was now easy to discern previous releases.

It was in fact designed for the tablet platform through the Xoom device that Google enlisted Motorola to build. The Xoom device was meant to showcase Android features without going through the now predicable redesigning by the manufacturers.

Key highlights of the design included a thorough redesign of the user interface that led to a much better user experience. It was with this iteration that the need for physical buttons on devices for such functions as moving back or forward between screens became increasingly unnecessary.

Such actions were now possible through on screen buttons that were intuitively placed to make it easy for users to navigate between screens.

The layout of applications was also addressed which was primarily aimed at better access through tablet devices. Access to recently used application became much easier as they were now more accessible in the navigation bar.

Later Honeycomb releases sought to correct earlier bugs and were still focussed on enhancing the experience on tablets.

Android 4.0 Ice cream Sandwich

At the time of its release, this was described by many pundits as the biggest change of the Android platform ever. It is easy to understand that perception if you looked at the kind of changes that the new iteration presented.

Firstly, there were many changes in the way screen actions such as the way dealing with a notification was done. While in previous releases to remove notifications required you to either delete or read all of the notifications, in the new version you simply swiped unwanted notifications of the screen.

Another improvement was in the typeface – from the Droid that users were accustomed to in the early days to a new font called Roboto. Typing was improved as the auto-suggest feature was greatly enhanced to give more realistic suggestions based on an intelligent algorithm that also had quick auto-complete options.

The home screen was not left out, with improvements in the way new icons were created, arranged and accessed. For example, icons that were previously permanently stationed at the bottom of the home screen could now be moved around based on user preferences with a favourites tray conveniently located for self-customization.

There were also some other improvements that when looked at seriously, were just but novelties with very little useful application. For example, there was this new feature whereby one could unlock the device using facial recognition using the front facing camera. This feature, though apparently useful, could be easily overridden by using a person’s portrait image and therefore did not have any utilitarian value at all.

Diagnostic ability was improved upon with a new feature that enabled users to graphically see how and when their data was been used. The feature enabled comprehensive analysis which one could use to pinpoint the most data intensive application in their device and make necessary changes to remedy the situation such as shutting down idle applications.

This feature also had a tremendous impact on battery usage which was now becoming a major issue with the entry of an ever increasing number of applications from developers.

Android Architecture Change with 4.1 Jelly Bean

Though it was not immediately apparent then, the move to Android 4.1 Jelly Bean brought with it major changes that were meant to bolster the flagging tablet strategy.

Key among these changes were the screen responsiveness to touch and the visual appearance of the graphics. All these improvements involved major tweaks “under the hood” that were only discernable by the enhanced performance.

Google Now was the hallmark of the release and allows people to get a glimpse of the most appropriate information presented at the right time.

The information is summarised in form of cards that contain only the information that is needed depending on the circumstances in which a user finds himself in.

Voice search was enhanced which resulted in better results than the earlier version and also saw the introduction of an offline dictation feature that did not require access to the net to work.

There was continued improvement of the Roboto font that saw refreshing of the styles and better rendering on the user interface. In the long list of new features also included better notifications handling, dynamic widget resizing on any screen and an intuitive word prediction keyboard.

Android Jelly Bean 4.2 Performance Refinements

The fact that this version retained the Jelly Bean name was a clear indication that it was not a major upgrade but rather contained many useful refinements. The only major introduction that came with 4.2 was the Miracast feature that allowed users audio-visual streaming of content from their devices to the television.

Among the most notable addition was a new way of zooming in/out by triple-tapping, new screen saver paradigm, new home apps redesigns and ability to handle multiple profiles (which made devices family friendly).

It was at around the same time that there was a release of phones specifically reconfigured to operate with the full Android features. These were basically the popular devices of the time from manufacturers such as Samsung and Motorola that had been literally stripped off and installed with the full unchanged Android version devoid of any modifications.

Gaming Enhancements with Android Jelly Bean 4.3

Truth be told, Android was not the best gaming platform until the release of the Jelly Bean 4.3 version which saw numerous tweaks in the user-facing as well as “under the hood”, as it were.

It was also here that Android tackled the increasing problem of unrestricted actions within profiles that allowed kids to make in-app purchases with their parents’ devices.

This was possible because all the kids had to do was wait for their parents to log into their profiles on devices for them to make all kinds of in-app purchases that resulted in ridiculous bills.

The move to improve the platform for gaming was a response to iOS’ superior edge that it still maintains to this day. This strategy of making small changes to the Android OS was a boon to users who experienced delays when upgrading during major version releases.

It was also now becoming apparent that the major changes to the OS was happening within the individual apps such as Gmail as opposed to the full platform.

However, some users were not appeased by the minor OS changes backed by app upgrades and were yearning for something major. Their wishes were granted with the next major Android OS version that was to be released a few months later.

Android KitKat 4.4 – Major User Interface Improvements

Released in October 2013, this version can be regarded as amongst the biggest change before a new sweet name is introduced. The release coincided with the release of the Nexus 5 smartphone and appeared to take earlier version features to a whole new level.

Before even delving deeper into the major improvements, what stood out visually with this version was the move towards lighter colour tones and the replacement of the predominant blue with more white.

The home screen was where all the action took place - one could easily notice that the notification screen was more transparent and that Google Now had been given a dominant position. Was this the hint that something big was on its way with the Android L platform?

Many people knew that there was a new version in the pipeline but expected that there will be many point increments before that major change. At least they expected a KitKat 4.5 before moving to Android L (Lollipop?) but given the whole new direction that it is taking, it is understandable that Android 4.X had come to an end.

Before we delve into the 2014 Android L version, it is only fitting that we have a glimpse of a few defining features of Android KitKat 4.4:

  • The home screen had a new addition with Google Now taking a prominent position after living in an obscure space for a long time. Voice command using the “Okay Google” prompt also became more prominent, complimenting a predictive search that not only opened a new search box but suggested the most appropriate app visually
  • Caller identification for non-listed numbers was a clever productivity improvement that made it easy for one to manage known and unknown contacts. The dialler also got added functionality that allowed users to do a variety of searches for items that were not necessarily within the contact list
  • Apps could switch between normal and full screen appearance by hiding the status bar as well as all the navigation buttons. It was now possible to have a lock screen that showed album covers in full screen when playing music or watching videos and television shows
  • Google hangouts increased messaging integration that had the ability of in-app send and receive functions. While the Hangouts feature that came with this version still had its minor hiccups, it was a clear statement of intention of a desire to have a one-stop-shop for all messaging needs
  • Redesigning of some home apps such as clock and downloads lent a cleaner look and feel that was meant to harmonise them with the overall direction that the user interface was taking and continues to take (with Android L)
  • Though a Johnny-come-later move, Google finally designed and released new Emoji characters that stood their ground against those developed by other players who seemed to be light years ahead
  • Android KitKat 4.4 clearly showed that Google wanted to enhance the productivity of its users and it was now easier to access a variety of Cloud services. In addition to Cloud access, it became easier to perform actions such as printing of documents from Android devices

Android L – In the Midst of a Revolution

When Android L was unveiled to developers during the 2014 Google I/O Developers Conference, one could immediately discern that it was going to be a big deal. While the Apple’s World Developers Conference that saw the unveiling of new iOS features had been held a month and looked big, the Android L introduction answered Apple with a raft of features that would only become apparent at the full OS launch in the fall of 2014.

A cursory comparison of the iOS 8 and Android L platforms would reveal a number of overlapping themes as well as completely different directions between the two. Both platforms appeared to be preparing for the increasing importance of wearable devices and interconnectivity of devices to give a seamless user experience. Each platform also appeared to be playing a game of catch-up with the other and making overtures to the each other’s well established domains.

Apple finally opened up its platform to developers who were now able to gain deeper access –something that was difficult in the past. Google on the hand was attacking a preserve that most pundits considered the preserve of Apple – the user interface. In fact, the Android L Material Design philosophy can be considered to be an answer Apple’s user interface experience that has always been viewed as been more advanced.

Android L gave developers a glimpse of the new “Android everywhere” paradigm that was becoming more apparent. There was going to be Android in your car (Auto), on your wrist (Wear) and in your home (TV). The following are just some of the major features of Android L:

  • Multitasking is now easier with the operating system as it delivers recent apps in such a way that one can easily access the most convenient parts as opposed to just seeing previews.
  • Battery drain has always been a concern with so many applications running on a device. A new initiative called Project Volta seeks to address the problem through optimal utilisation tools such as Battery Historian. Developers will also have access to tools that will make their applications more power efficient with a feature that is able to extend the life of the battery by over one hour. This is achieved through the turning off of applications that are draining power while they are not in use or needed.
  • Notifications are evolving into convenient and un-obstructive information cards that can be accessed from the lock screen. It will be easier now to access and dispose of notifications without having to close the app that one is currently using.
  • Ubiquity will increase with the new Android L platform and it seems there is no aspect of everyday life that will not be touched by it. The seamless integration with wearable devices will see a new way of interacting with personal information in an effortless and convenient manner

The features mentioned above are just a small fraction of what the platform will be able to do as well as the many interpretations that developers will create from it.

Android L Material Design

When fully implemented, Material Design will fundamentally change the appearance of user interfaces both on Android devices as well the web.

The thinking behind Material Design is that it seeks to bring to fore the most important elements of any content.

All the Google apps will be updated with the Material Design concept and glimpses of how they will look indicate a simple yet effective way to access various elements within a screen.

While at the moment it is more of a visual effect, it is envisaged that the interface will have interactive capabilities with individual elements within touch screens.

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