Google’s Adoption of iOS Design Is Good for Everyone

It’s all about look and feel…and doing less work

Key Takeaways

  • Google will now use standard Apple interface elements in its iOS apps.
  • Following UI conventions makes an app much easier to use, and to develop.
  • Maintaining an entire custom UI is a lot of pointless busywork.
Apple's iOS design template hero image
Apple

Google is ditching its "Material" user interface design in favor of using iOS’ own UI conventions. But is it only about looks?

Every computer platform has its user interface conventions. This includes how it looks, how it works, and what users can expect. For example, the Mac uses the ⌘+V shortcut to paste, whereas Windows uses Control+V. And while the Mac has a single menu bar that is always at the top of the screen, Windows puts menu bars on each window. Third-party apps that don’t follow these conventions feel off, and don’t fit in. But Google’s change of heart may be about more than just looking and feeling at home. 

"For the most part, iOS vs. Android UI conventions are largely a stylistic distinction rather than a functional one. For example, the on/off switch looks much the same in both platforms," Chao He, of Swenson He digital product agency, told Lifewire via email.

"The real benefit here is that Google’s iOS apps will be stylistically consistent with the rest of the iOS ecosystem," he added. "This also will help Google cut down on development effort to replicate their own design language within the iOS framework, allowing them to refocus that effort elsewhere."

Look and Feel

If you ever switched from an iPhone to an Android phone, or vice versa, everything feels odd. Back when the iPhone still had a home button, for example, you might find yourself pressing at the bottom of an screen trying to exit an app. For an app to fit in, it has to adopt the established conventions. Apple even has a set of documents–the Human Interface Guidelines, or HIG—that advises on everything from icon layout to fonts. 

Google design template examples
Google

Following these conventions is good for the developer—it’s one less thing to think about, and results in an app that is already consistent with others—and good for the user. We don’t have to re-learn the keyboard shortcut for Save or Print for every app, for example. Or we know that on the Mac, a button doesn’t trigger its action until you release it. This useful rule lets you abort a mistaken click just by sliding the mouse pointer away from the on-screen control before releasing the mouse button (this works with taps on iOS too—yet more consistency).

But Google doesn’t care about any of that. If it did, it would have adopted Apple’s UI conventions years ago, instead of porting its own controls and paradigms to the iPhone and iPad. The likely reason Google is shifting its approach is because it's hard work.

Go With the Flow

When a developer builds an app, they get many pre-made assets for free. Nobody has to design a button or a window toolbar. They just tell the computer to draw a window, or add a row of buttons, and they use the built-in, Apple-designed resources.

"An iOS app is [paradigmatic] if it makes use of one of Apple’s programming languages, 'Swift' or 'Objective-C,' software engineer Cal Mitchell told Lifewire via email.

"The real benefit here is that Google’s iOS apps will be stylistically consistent with the rest of the iOS ecosystem."

And using these built-in languages has other advantages. 

"When a developer uses one of these languages in the context of app development, especially in conjunction with other iOS specific SDKs (software development kits), it drastically increases the performance. In addition, native apps can make full use of all device capabilities, whether that means using the camera, GPS, or other systems," says Mitchell.

It’s possible to mix and match, using Apple’s developer toolkit, and adding in your own look, but that makes for a lot of busywork. Every time Apple creates an iPad with a different screen size, or subtly changes the look of the UI, you’re left behind. 

Google app button design
Google

"Google has its own set of components (Material UI) built for its apps to look consistent on iOS and Android. However, with the releases of new versions of iOS, maintaining those components became harder, because Apple constantly adds new features and new enhancements to their UI components, sometimes even changing the entire look and feel," mobile app developer Dragos Dobrean told Lifewire via email. 

"Does a switch really need to be built custom in alignment with a generic design system? Or might it be sufficient to simply use the system solution and move on?" wrote Jeff Verkoeyen, Google’s chief design engineer for Apple products, in a Twitter thread.

The answer, now, seems to be "Let's just move on."

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