Can Google’s Material Design Guidelines Work for Complex Applications?

Is Google’s Material Design for complex software? My first reaction after reading through these new Google guidelines was: no. There’s no way these simple rules will translate seamlessly to complex enterprise-class applications—the kinds of projects that Expero excels at—at least not without starting over and removing 90% of the features/functionality that users want at their fingertips.

To backtrack, Google’s Material Design is a visual language meant to provide a unified experience across platforms and device types.

Now it’s a few months after Google first launched their living guidelines, and they’ve expanded the scope of these rules. I’m still a bit unsure about how the guidelines would apply to some of the projects Expero works on, but if I look at these rules as they were intended—as “guidelines”—and not like a spec document, then I can definitely see myself leveraging the amazing design the Google team has pulled together.

A little side note: I’m a big Apple-designed-it-so-it’s-the-best fanboy, but I think Google has smart and talented designers and the guidelines are a great resource.

Documenting what is in a designer’s mind’s eye requires a lot of effort and opens them to criticism: Have you really thought about this or thought about that? Are you sure this is going to work? And, as a designer, that’s exactly where my mind went and still goes as I read the guidelines or consider how they may apply to the work I need to do tomorrow.

Material design has a simplicity and sophistication that I try to bring to my work. It doesn’t look skeuomorphic (trying to emulate the real world with design, e.g., if you’re designing a bookshelf, you’re using a wood grain visual as the “texture”), but the use of lighting and motion make the user interface feel real. If there’s a raised button in the middle of other data…it’s clear to me that I can tap that. But the action/button area at the bottom of the UI or at the top doesn’t require the same depth to differentiate it. It’s called context, as pointed out by Luke Wroblewski:

Source: @lukew

Still, thinking about complex applications, those with layered functionality and multifaceted feature sets, I’m curious how Google’s design team would respond. For example, what can Material Design do with Google Analytics? Can the same visual language be applied in an application that is more complex than showing lists with a few common actions? Can their structure guidelines hold up to their layout structure with primary toolbar, side navs, secondary toolbars, and content canvas? Or would it mostly look like a re-skin with updated styles and formerly visible actions tucked away into menu controls? And—the real test—would users learn to accept the approach to finding the view, tool, or mode they want to be in?

Will the richness of Google Analytics content and features fade with a Material Design overhaul?
The Desktop structure is a solid layout for many applications, but let’s see how simple the content canvas is if Google Analytics gets a taste of Material Design.

If Google’s Material Design succeeds, I think it will be because they will have influenced other designers to adopt similar guidelines, and users will learn the language by being immersed in it. After all, that was their initial challenge to themselves: “to create a visual language for our users that synthesizes the classic principles of good design with the innovation and possibility of technology and science.”

Let’s see how the guidelines live on in months and years to come. What do you think? Will these guidelines influence your product? Well, I think they will. As your users interact with apps they love that are built leveraging Material Design, they will expect your apps to work that way, too.

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