Unleashing the Design Wars: Google joins Apple and Microsoft with unified UX

If the 20th Century was the era of technical engineering, the 21st is destined to become the era of technical design. We’re at the start of an interesting new phase of how we use electronic devices.

Whereas before just compacting so many useful functions into one small device was a marvel, it’s now the way we use them and the manner in which they deliver what we want that is becoming the prime innovation ground.

We’ve reached the stage whereby we’re no longer wowed by technology. We depend on it for our work, for our friends and even for our love lives. It’s practically (and soon literally) an extension of our bodies.

Design now matters

Only a few years ago it the was widely perceived wisdom that Apple were the design gods of the tech world. At the start of the century the company had come back from the dead to become a global household name.

Analysts attributed at least part of the come back to an unremitting focus on design, attention to detail and ease of use of their new products. It is only recently that this reputation is finally being challenged by the competition.

In March 2009 Google’s Visual Design Lead, Doug Bowman, left the company and began a successful 5-year stint as Twitter’s Creative Director. Doug parted ways with Mountain View because of it’s attitude to design; in particular a design philosophy "that lives or dies strictly by the sword of data.” It had been reported a month earlier that the company couldn’t decide on which of 41 shades of blue to colour a button and so put it to extensive tests to see what performed better in front of users. Android was only just coming to market. Meanwhile, Apple’s iPhone was going from strength to strength and was revolutionising the public’s perceptions of the cell phone in the same was it had done to music industry just a few years prior.

Since their foundation, both Google and Microsoft had arguably sidelined great design in favour of engineering-driven approaches; they were tech companies after all, but the rapid rise of Apple has led both to a big rethink. How can you innovate when your decisions are based on the opinion of today’s consumers, rather than allowing yourself to boldly experiment with the new ideas of tomorrow?

Microsoft was the first to explore a completely new and bold design when it introduced a tile-based system starting with Windows Phone 7 in late 2010. Although its made slow progress in reversing the dominance of its new rivals, the decision is finally paying off. It’s likely to double its global market share in the next few years.

At Google, it was in 2011 when Larry Page became CEO that something major changed. His first directive to staff was that all products would be getting a fundamental redesign, and a new cohesive design language would be developed for the portfolio; it later became known internally as Project Kennedy. Designers were brought in at the top tier of the company and were given key freedoms to explore outside of the data bubble. Within months the first fruits were being picked; the most notable being the Google Maps redesign (where the UI was dramatically paired back to only the most useful items) and the introduction of Google Now (which gave you real-time contextual information based on user behaviour). Both had one thing in common which was the introduction of the UI card, a design metaphor that has come to the fore in other products too; notably gesture-based dating app Tinder.

This year is the first time that any of the major tech companies in Silicon Valley has dedicated their annual developer conference to design. Google I/O 2014 is showcasing the company’s new focus for good reason. It hopes to instil it’s newly found passion for the design of its own products in the developers building third-party apps in its ecosystem, and I think they’re onto a winner.

Like many designers, iOS has been the clear choice of smartphone for me ever since it’s launch in 2008. Its rivals had paled into insignificance when ease of use and beauty was concerned. Not now though. Yesterday Google announced a new design philosophy, not just for Android, but across all of its platforms. A unified approach they call “Material Design”.

For the first time, I think Google have something that can surpass iOS (which still seems slightly unfocussed following the major changes introduced last year). For me, no single feature stands out as the key reason, instead it’s the introduction of a series of small changes to Android UI and UX elements, combined with some strong cross-platform design metaphors and a focus on natural animation that add up to something of real quality for the first time.

Meanwhile Google is also upping the ante in the hardware stakes with a project known as Android Silver. Recently it cancelled its low-end Nexus program in favour of bringing to market a line of high-end phones capable of supporting new versions of its software well into the future with instant upgrades like Apple’s equivalents. 90% of iOS users have already upgraded to iOS 7. Only 14% of Android users are on KitKat.

With such a large share of the cheaper end of the market already captured, the elevation of design by Larry Page could be about to pay off. He just needs Android developers to follow suit. Pressure from their designers and higher-spending consumers should be enough to tip the balence.

How will Apple respond? The possible release of a suite of bigger devices and new wearables could yet make sense of iOS 8 sooner than you think. Let’s see what they reveal in September.

Interestingly, yesterday’s announcement by Google, following on from Apple’s Yosemite reveal earlier this month, brings all 3 of the major operating systems into UX uniformity across platforms (mobile, tablet and desktop) for the first time. Windows was the first to attempt this with Windows 8 of course.

Whatever happens, this competitive focus on design from all the big players is great for consumers and opens many opportunities for developers too.