Google Cards: UX Design or Information Design?

It’s been a half year since Google released Material Design. I still see it as a great strategy to bring a vocabulary to designers and users for understanding how UIs work. From that design framework, cards have caught my attention from the first time. I always wonder, are cards about UX or are they really about information design?

Google Now
Google Now’s available cards

Probably, the first card I saw corresponds to the weather card in a web browser, the one that appears when you google about the weather. However, the first time I paid attention to a card was in a plane. I remember seeing a clean and well organized information about my flight in a little box in my phone. Google knew about my flight and it delivered enough information for me to be aware about my flight status. I got very excited, honestly. The first thing that came to my mind was: this is information design!

If we think of physical cards, Google’s cards seem to be limited in terms of interaction. In many Google interfaces, cards don’t flip or move. Static information is mostly presented on one face of the card. However, no fancy interactions are necessary to make a card effective. The effectiveness of card relies on the quality of the information that it presents. In that regard, knowing how to design the content, the information becomes important. Visual design principles like hierarchy, contrast and rhythm are necessary for the synthesis of information. Therefore, theUX becomes into a matter of information design. We designers need to remember that the how and why of composition expressed through several skills and theories related to design—including rhetoric—matter for the design of technology. 


Google’s material design

Google has launched its new design guidelines called “Material Design”. The name caught my attention, since I’m convinced, as visual designer, that observable pixels are really material to play; that is, to create user interfaces. What’s the possible meaning of this called design language?

Well, I bet that my understanding of observable pixels as actual material is not new or unfamiliar to other visual interaction or information designers whatsoever. Also the principles that lead material design. Yet, Google takes advantage of this metaphor to easily convey the role of visual design in systems design, interaction design, experience design, or whatever name you want to pick. Besides, material and design is a hot topic in Human-Computer Interaction research. I think that Google is not saying something new. However, by talking about material, Google attempts to foreground the value of the interface in the success of their products. This is not a naive viewpoint. It represents a Google’s stance before its competitors; in particular, I’d point out to Apple. Hence, material design is a business strategy, similar to others in the last decade, in which design is a marketable entity that is supposed to make a difference. A design-laden discourse that is getting worn out more and more.

Illustration for the principle of meaningful motion in Google's Material Design guidelines
Illustration for the principle of meaningful motion in Google’s Material Design guidelines

Don’t get me wrong though. I think material design is both appealing and useful for the Google’s IxD/UX community. Yet, I glimpse material design as that medium by which Google can create this design-driven cult, à la Apple. It’s unavoidable. Steve Jobs as the material signifier of profitable design for technology is gone. It’s a tough war out there. And Google of course that wants a big piece of the mobile apps cake.

Illustration for the principle of emphasize actions in the Google's material design guidelines
Illustration for the principle of emphasize actions in the Google’s material design guidelines

As a HCI researcher interested on metaphors and visual design for interfaces, these are my quick insights from this case:

  1. Metaphors are effective. Moreover, they can help to unify concepts and actions that are supposed to be understood already. The simple metaphor of material design is an example of this effectiveness that also shows the benefits at a business level.
  2. Visual design might be an old and many time revisited topic. Yet, it’s necessary to state the principles that will lead the visual design in interaction/experience design. In this regard, I argue for paying more attention to visual design, particularly as study object in HCI.
  3. Visual design might be taken for granted for clients, users, and other stakeholders. Yet, it’s clear that conforming a design language is necessary in the IxD/UXD professional practice to build a branding umbrella. IxD/UXD/HCI pedagogy should take this aspect into account and educate future designers with the better understanding of visual principles, both static and dynamic, and the connections not only with the interface design, but also with other communication aspects, such as branding.

I wonder what my very experienced colleagues think about material design. Cheers!