Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Reports of Google’s Newfound Design Prowess Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

There is something unique about deliberately contrarian-for-the-sake-of-being-contrarian positions that irks me so much, and I’m not sure what it is. I don’t know that it’s because these arguments are poor so much as it is that they’re easily shown to be poor. Maybe it’s the author’s optimism that convinces them that their piece is worth publishing, or maybe it’s just provocative for its own sake — the latter of which is even more irritating for me because I know that my frustration with the argument is entirely the author’s intention, and I’d rather not play into that. Whatever the case, it’s the sort of thing that rattles around inside my head.

Which brings me to two pieces written by Joshua Topolsky last autumn. The first, “Apple is Really Bad at Design”, posits that Apple’s recent products no longer represent the pinnacle of design in the industry. To be fair to Topolsky, he may sincerely believe that there’s value in challenging the assumption that these products are well-designed, and I think that’s completely reasonable. It’s that article’s companion piece, “Google is Really Good at Design”, that occasionally creeps up in my mind.

Topolsky:

The concepts inherent in Material Design — a system of literal layers that evoke the tactility of a stack of paper, but offers the flexibility of digital spaces; a responsive layout concept that assumes no two devices may be exactly the same size or shape; a bold use of typography, motion, and color — showcase a decidedly different approach than Apple has taken. Where Jony Ive and company have produced a scattered, visually unmoored solution that seems to be solving small problems bite-by-bite, Google essentially blew up what had come before and reset. This radical rethink has spread into Google’s deep web pockets, meaning that a logical system of navigation and connectivity not only informs what you see on your phone when you interact with apps and services, but what you get on the web, on a laptop, or on a TV. Gmail is Gmail is Gmail, responding to whatever screen it’s on. And sometimes, thanks to Google’s deep machine learning and natural language chops, Gmail is also the disembodied voice you talk to while you’re driving. In Google’s universe, its voice-activated Assistant isn’t middleware — it’s everyware, tapping deeply and natively into all of the company’s nodes.

Topolsky is generally right in saying that Google’s approach to user interfaces is remarkably consistent across everything, but I would argue that it represents why their products are often so frustrating and cumbersome to use.

Case in point: their new YouTube app for tvOS. The last version didn’t represent a dramatic design statement or look particularly special — it was pretty much the same as any of the default tvOS apps — but it worked, for the most part. It was the only app I’ve used on my Apple TV that would regularly kick me back to the tvOS home screen instead of the last screen in the app when I pressed the remote’s menu button while watching a video, and it had stability problems when searching, but it wasn’t terrible.

The new app, though, represents everything wrong with Google’s present UI design philosophy. It follows virtually none of the Apple TV platform conventions:

  • There’s a sidebar on the left that looks like an Android action bar.

  • Swiping to the left on the touch pad from any of the app’s menu screens will open a main menu panel, with navigation options for your subscriptions, video history, and own video library.

  • There’s also a horizontal navigation element, similar to the type that you would find in a default tvOS app.

  • None of these elements behaves as you might expect, primarily because the YouTube app doesn’t interpret swipes and scrolls like any other app. There’s no audible blip whenever you select something, and swiping around manages to be both sluggish and jerky.

    The frustratingly slow scrolling is especially pronounced on the aforementioned horizontal navigation element because swiping just a little too far to the left will open the modal main menu panel that covers a third of the screen.

    The slow scrolling is also apparent in the main menu panel. The scrolling “friction”, for lack of a better term, is such that swiping down just a little is unlikely to have any effect, and swiping down just a little bit more will move the selector down two menu items. It can be very difficult to get it to move one menu item at a time.

  • There’s no sense of transition between screens or states. Instead of fading, screens simply change; instead of smoothly sliding left or right when scrolling across thumbnails, there will often be a sudden jump to load the new set of thumbnails.

  • Swiping horizontally across the remote while a video is playing will scrub the video. This is something Apple quickly changed after the fourth-generation Apple TV debuted because of how easy it was to accidentally invoke it.

  • Tapping on the remote’s touch pad to display onscreen controls automatically selects the play/pause button instead of the scrubber, as in other tvOS apps, and there are two levels of controls in the custom player.

  • The app is also an ugly sea of mid-tone greys.

It isn’t unheard-of for an Apple TV app from a major third party to fail to adhere to platform conventions. The Amazon Prime app doesn’t look or behave anything like a native app because it’s basically a web app. Hulu and Netflix also have some pretty crappy apps that don’t really function like a tvOS app ought to.

But this also isn’t unlike Google, which has completely disregarded platform standards with their major iOS apps for years. There’s nothing wrong with making apps of a particular style — my favourite developers all have their unique quirks and styles that help identify their apps as theirs — but Google’s apps frequently feel less like they’re trying to create branded iOS apps and more like they want their Android apps to run on iOS.

This isn’t a new argument, and Google has become a moderately better citizen on iOS over the past couple of years: their sharing glyph now looks like the system standard one instead of lazily copying the shape they use on Android, for example. This new YouTube app for tvOS is a step back, however. It feels like a half-assed port. When there’s no clear effort by a huge company like Google to even try to make their products fit a different platform, it indicates a lack of care and attention to detail. It also demonstrates that users’ expectations and learned behaviours are less important than self-promotion and branding.

What it shows, ultimately, is a lack of consideration for design.