Could Material Design provide a path for design consistency for Microsoft on Android?

This year, users began to notice a change in Google’s design ethos for apps and services. No longer did the software maker stick to the same old tired Material Design system. Rather, it opted for a new style, it chose a new theme, strong on branding, soft curves and all white.

This was the first hint of Material Design’s impending revamp, a new iteration of the Material Design system that the firm introduced to Android users with Lollipop so many years ago

Google’s plans for Material Design, as it turns out, extended far beyond simply copying iOS’ themes and Googlifying it, the firm was working on a way for company’s and app developers to make themselves more distinct on Android, without ditching either Material Design or their own app identity.

“With the launch of Material Theming – our end-to-end capability that allows teams to easily and systematically express a brand’s unique identity – design details, like type, shape, and colour can be baked into custom Material themes and applied easily across a digital experience,” Google explained on Material.io this week, “We’ve built the Google Material Theme to express what makes Google uniquely Google. Details like the use of white space, the four Google colours, and our custom typeface, Google Sans, work together to convey a familiarity and trust to our users. Our theme gives Google apps a new, modern interface built with all the best practices of Material Design, but customized and adapted so that every part of the UI works together to serve that product’s function.”

In short, what this means is that companies will be able to create their own Material Themes, and then apply them on their apps for a strong, consolidated brand, while still providing the same Material consistency user are used to. Facebook can create a Facebook Material Theme, Spotify can, Twitter can etc. The firm showcased this with brand design studies from app makers like Lyft and Pocketcasts, showing how these developers would be building their own design theme with Material Theming.

For brands with multiple apps, this provides an immediate advantage. Your app will no longer have to resemble generic Android app #78772389, but can now reflect the ethos of your brand as you’d like it to be.

Microsoft’s Android apps, for example, are a mix between inconsistent, and randomly designed. Let me explain further, if you were to open a Microsoft app on Android, what you see will differ from app to app. The Office apps are built by the same team, so you get a consistent theme from one app to another, but open OneNote, Skype or OneDrive, and you may well be using completely different apps from a completely different software maker.

To be fair, there are reasons for this. The Office team for one, are very bullish on being the special snowflakes in Redmond. On Windows, their apps are often different from the UX pushed by Microsoft’s other teams, who often bend to adapt to them, rather than the other way round.

The Outlook for Android app was built by a different team which eventually got folded into Microsoft. While it has been redesigned several times, it still differs starkly from Microsoft’s other apps in terms of design. When it comes to Skype, we’re pretty sure the Skype team have no idea what they’re doing at this point, so the less said about that, the better.

That said, just because one can explain the reason for it, doesn’t mean that it’s a desirable state of affairs. Much digital ink has been spilt on Microsoft’s design consistency in Windows, yet the firm should also point its digital pen towards Android and iOS.  The firm has great design chops as Fluent Design, Metro and MDL2 (To some extent) show, but it isn’t reflected just yet in its Android suite of software.

The goal has always been to help you build easily and systematically, and now you can with custom Material themes to make your product unique, a growing library of customizable components, and tools that encourage (and simplify) collaboration across teams. A design system only comes to life in the hands of its users, with every touch, tap, and interaction that brings someone’s experience off the screen and into daily life. – Google.

So what might a Microsoft Material Theme look like? I’m no designer, unfortunately, but the firm already has some great ideas regarding designing mobile UXes and has influenced the direction of the mobile market somewhat. One only needs to utter the name Windows Phone to hear the legions of fans singing the praises of Microsoft’s design chops. One merely has to look at Android P, as well, to see ideas such as ‘get in’.’get out’ that live tiles embodied in action with app slices, app shortcuts and a new focus on meaningful time spent. In addition, despite my haranguing of Microsoft’s individual apps design language above, their Android apps are genuinely well designed, albeit disparate in nature.

Material Theming provides a way forward for a design renaissance in Microsoft’s mobile apps, let’s hope they take it.

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