Android 12 saw the debut of Material You, Google's shape-shifting new UI. When announcing Android 12's second beta, Google's VP of Engineering on Android revealed that this was their most downloaded beta ever.
Was that a surprise? Not really, considering how this is Google's most significant update in a decade. The UI's big and playful buttons mark a clear departure from Android's earlier minimalism and restraint. Material You is a gift that keeps on giving — a sheer delight to behold and even more to use.
However, what stands out the most about it isn't the shape-shifting. It's the first principles approach Google took to rethink its design. For the longest time, users have oscillated between two broad approaches to design: the laissez-faire approach (do with your device what you will) and the tight-ship approach (manufacturer-controlled design). Android sits squarely in the former and iOS in the latter.
But not Android 12.
It simply skirts both options and heads right into a third (and hitherto unexplored) one. This option's operating principle is that form need not follow function alone, but feeling, too. Material You shifts colors like it's nobody's business. It draws from your wallpaper to theme the entire OS in different but related hues (as an aside, if anybody's making hay from this, it's the daily wallpaper app makers). This rethink gives users complete control over the device experience, literally making it an extension of their personalities. The UI doesn't come 'designed' anymore. Instead, it's just the scaffolding over countless building blocks, giving you the freedom to design your own user experience.
Although this answers most questions about the future of UX, it also raises a few. Our hunt for answers led us to the door of Nicolas Perner, professional jump-roper, outdoorsman, and Mutual Mobile's Design Director. An experienced product designer, art director, and brand strategist, Nic loves to think about the philosophy of design and coax out deep and nuanced insights. We picked his brains about Material You and its place in today's context. Here's what he had to share:
Mutual Mobile (MM): Material You lets users customize a lot of stuff on their phones. Is this a one-time thing to drive engagement, or is this a serious shift to another direction?
Nic Perner (NP): This move toward personalization is broader than just a one-time push for engagement — and really, it's expected, considering where Google's products are in their lifecycle. At first launch, most products focus on utility. Does it function well? If yes, you have your early adopters. Then quickly, the form evolves for mass-market appeal and gains a bigger market share. And then, the product gets tailored to capture more niche segments, paving the way for customization.
MM: Google's VP of Material Design, Matias Duarte, called Material You 'every designer's worst nightmare'. How are you sleeping?
NP: Very well, in fact. Because all you need to do to keep the nightmares away is simply define 'design'. If designing is choosing a font or a color, then yes, Material You will be a strange new world. However, in the world of building apps, product design is really all about marrying technology with psychology. Just look at what Mutual Mobile itself has put out working with international brands. It's less about the so-called obvious design choices and more about building a delightful, thoughtful experience. One through which the user can simply 'flow'.
MM: So… no nightmares?
NP: No nightmares.
MM: But is this approach — where there's total user freedom with no imposition of the brand — the future of design?
NP: This brings to mind a famous quote by Dieter Rams (the renowned industrial designer) — “I hate everything that is driven by fashion. From the beginning it was hating the sixties’ American way of styling. Especially the cars. They changed their cars every two years to sell a new one. Which has nothing to do with good design".
Rams highlighted a tension between good design and capitalism. As any company seeks sales, their products must inevitably evolve into fashion. Google wants to appeal to more customers, and at this moment customization is Material’s fashion play. So, yes, we will see more of this trend.
MM: Will we see more of this fashion?
NP: The genius behind Google’s approach is where Material YOU seeks it’s fashion inspiration: from YOU. The world is slowly learning the importance of giving every person a voice. And today, this is playing out in personalized colors. It may not seem like much initially, but soon, it will become the norm because people love to express who they are. And design that ushers in such a change is good design, regardless of other factors.
MM: Android 12 is big on privacy. But how does it compare to Apple's mega announcement on App Tracking earlier this year?
NP: Apple has led the privacy charge—which makes sense. They have little to lose and much to gain. Their business model revolves around hardware sales and app-store commissions.
Google's in a tough spot. It sees public opinion and realizes it needs to take a stance on privacy, but new privacy features will always cut into an ad-driven business model. There's a lot at stake!
Android 12 is undeniably a step toward privacy, although it still feels like Google is playing catch-up, seeing how iOS 14.5 and Apple's App Tracking Transparency measures are the most explicit privacy controls we see on any mobile ecosystem.
MM: Great! Here's our last question: What would this update spell for businesses with Android apps?
NP: Android 12 will be faster and less resource-intensive — this means more speed and power for immersive experiences on an Android phone. We can leverage this in new Augmented Reality (AR) experiences that are richer than ever before. Car Key is a new feature that will let your Android 12 phone communicate with smart cars to (un)lock the door, start the engine, or even share a virtual car key with your friend. All of this is powered by ultra-wideband (UWB) technology. This lets your phone connect with numerous smart devices at once. Looking closer home, our clients rely a lot on IoT solutions. Android 12 will just make it easier for us to build them.