Product Design

Google Design Updates 2019 Retrospective

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As we patiently await the release of 2020’s devices and features, let’s reflect on some of this past year’s updates —specifically Google’s latest devices, updates to the Material Design guidelines, and what’s new in the Android operating system.

Last year there was talk of foldable phones, the potential of 5G, even smarter features, and new ways of controlling experiences at Google’s two main events – Google i/O and the Made by Google hardware event. These updates and more from 2019 will have a lasting impact on how we build and use digital products.

For designers, staying aware of these updates is an important part of our jobs. By understanding the latest platform standards and devices, we can design with innovation, ease, and best practices in mind. This can help make our workflow more seamless, our products more inclusive, and designs look and feel right for the latest features and devices.

Without further ado, here are the top updates from Google in 2019 from a designer’s perspective:

Takeaways from Google i/O 2019

‘Smart’ and ‘helpful’ were the key terms used by Google for their latest products and features announced in May 2019 at Google i/O. They were showcased in new features from the Android Q operating system as well as Google Assistant updates. Also, a handful of new Nest products and updated Google devices were shared at the event.

Dark Theme was announced – Android’s take on the “dark mode” trend sweeping apps and software. They positioned it as a feature that saves battery life and makes it easier to interact with apps in low-light. While this automatically applies to Android system apps, the Material Design guidelines have information about applying Dark Theme to third-party apps, grounding guidance for the feature in accessibility standards.

They lightly touched on the potential of 5G, which could bring about more rich and immersive experiences. For now, it appears this technology is only available for some phones and will only be in certain geographic areas. But as it grows, 5G could be a gamechanger that allows for more robust experiences available anywhere.

An announcement with potentially high design impact was a new category of Android devices: foldable phones. Currently, these devices are defined as phones that transform from a mobile to a tablet-sized display. The screens on these devices are intended for multi-use purposes, with multitasking as the intended use case for foldables.

Further research on foldables beyond what was covered at Google i/O reveals that various companies are exploring foldables. There are a few explorations for how these phones can fold and unfold. This creates a variety of new screen sizes and breakpoints to consider designing and building for.

The Android operating system introduced a Continuity feature which will allow app content to instantly transfer from one screen on a device to another. This means experiences can switch to and from a mobile-sized app to a tablet-sized app on a single device. Along with these 2 distinct screen sizes, tablet-sized screens on foldables will allow for split screen usage. This offers even more ways to view experiences and the number of experiences that can be viewed at once on foldable phones.

While these devices are still being explored, some of the features such as Continuity and split screen multitasking as well as their overall multi-screen construction could impact design in a big way. Designing flexible experiences that can shift from mobile to tablet and support unconventional breakpoints of foldable phones could be an important design aspect in the future.

Takeaways from Made by Google

In October 2019, Google’s fourth hardware event coincided with the launch of the Pixel 4 and 4 XL smartphones. There were many interesting updates to existing Google products in terms of new colors, finishes, and looks. A few products previously under the Google Home name are now Google Nest products – Nest Mini and Nest Wi-fi.

The most intriguing hardware update is the addition of a radar sensor in the Pixel 4. Radar is a great way to sense motion. This tiny sensor brings gesture support to the phone through a system called Motion Sense.

The Pixel 4 can be interacted with hands-free, in regards to both motion and voice. Google demoed support for using gestures to snooze an alarm by waving a hand in front of the phone, and swiping a hand in front of the screen to change songs. Motion sense currently only works with some Google apps. But if this functionality is opened to third-party apps, it could create unique opportunities and interactions in more experiences on Pixel devices. The Pixel 4 also has the Google Assistant built into the phone, which enables processing to happen locally on the device without relying on a cloud-connection. This advancement makes voice recognition on the Pixel 4 more accurate and more responsive.

Miscellaneous Updates – Beta Elements

Material Design introduced the concept of beta elements in November 2019. These elements are new patterns and information that haven’t officially made it into the Material Design guidelines since they are still being explored. Calling them out in beta gives a heads up about upcoming UI changes to the Material Design library. This makes it easier to anticipate an update or additional functionality to account for in experiences.

So far, 9 elements are marked beta – backdrop, side sheet, data visualization, applying density, customizing motion, object detection: live camera, object detection: static image, barcode scanning, and navigation rail. Explore these and keep up-to-date with the latest beta updates on the “What’s New” page of the Material Design site.

Wrap Up

2019 was another year of hardware and software updates with lasting impacts. These yearly changes shape the way we interact with technology and one another. They alter and improve how products are built, and define how we design for products and people’s experience on them to deliver the best results.

Understanding these updates help us to create designs that work across the latest devices. They allow us to leverage new components that make it easier than ever to design great experiences. And keep features in mind that bring experiences to all people.

With 2019 in the books, who knows what the future of technology will hold in 2020. Hopefully these updates hold you over until we get a glimpse of what’s in store.

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