Hand an iPhone owner an Xperia or Galaxy smartphone, and their first response, I've found, is a comment on how ugly it looks. They're not talking about the design of the phone, but rather the on-screen appearance. Why are these skins such a turn off, and can anything be done to change this?
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What makes stock Android beautiful is Material Design. Announced in 2014, this was a design language developed by Matias Duarte. It was the first time Google had created a clear vision of where it was headed with Android.
During its initial development, Material Design was codenamed Quantum Paper, a name that adequately describes its aspirations: Inspired by ink on paper, but open to the strange and fantastic.
You can see this ink-on-paper inspiration when you open the app drawer: the drawer pools outwards like a drop of ink expanding over a surface before being populated with icons. But it goes deeper than that: even Google's icons are fabricated from paper and put through a lighting study before being accurately recreated in digital form.
Material Design is inspired by print-based design. This is why Google goes heavy on the cards and emphasizes white space. The colors are bold, but complimentary, with long shadows and fluid animations designed to draw attention to the most relevant aspects of a page or window.
Google is conducting wonderful, imaginative exercises in design
Today, Material Design, although still poorly adopted by many app developers, brings what an iPhone user recently described to me as "joy of use".
This comes through splashes of visual feedback. This is most evident in Google Calendar, with the seasonal images separating months, and the images that Google selects and integrates into your appointments – e.g., an image of a dish from a restaurant you're going to later tonight. Touches like this enliven and enrich the experience and involve the user.
Nowhere is this more in evidence than the newly introduced Google Calendar Goals. Here, Google uses illustrations to inspire you towards a new routine or hobby. It's a wonderful, imaginative exercise in design, and it's things like this that are truly beginning to set Android apart from iOS.
Material Design vs Human Interface
What differentiates Material Design from Human Interface is that iOS has seen a migration towards an airier design language. Adopting Helvetica Neue in iOS 7 took this to the point of almost vanishing lightness. Pastel tones, gradients, and blurred, rainbow-colored backgrounds compact all of this, draining the UI of contrast.
All third-party apps in iOS sits perfectly alongside Apple's own laborious design work
It was with iOS 7 that Apple began to come under criticism and continues to suffer hilarious take downs. And Apple has since invented a new typeface, San Francisco, which corrects some problems to a degree, but the defining iOS elements remain largely intact, for good and ill.
iOS has had the temporal advantage in terms of visual design, as, from the very start, Apple has kept a tight leash on the way apps appear, making everything sit perfectly alongside their own laborious design work.
Google's vision is bold, and relies on print-like layouts, cards, more movement, animations. It's an attempt to meld the appearance of print with the fluidity and magic, if you will, of technology.
I venture that Google has caught up with iOS in a very short time, and with a wider and closer adoption of Material Design by developers, Android could easily overtake Apple in terms of coherent and appealing design. But for one major obstacle.
Sony and Samsung
Turn on a Samsung Galaxy S7 – a sleek, expensive and desirable piece of technology – and you're confronted with a garish mash of color that is made all the more hideous by a brilliant display.
Samsung continues to employ its nuclear-sludge-green in combination with navy blue. These colors clash horrendously. Not only that, but blue has the biggest negative impact on an AMOLED screen, burning the pixels out most efficiently, and while black comes through impressively on an AMOLED panel, Samsung's designers often opt to use varying shades of grey, instead.
I want to make clear now that design and aesthetics are deeply personal, subjective considerations. But the more universal the language of design is, the more users everywhere benefit. Now, I think Samsung and Sony UIs are ugly. Others do not think so. My major point of contention, however, is that heavily customized manufacturer UIs like TouchWiz are detrimental to Google's vision.
Seemingly small changes made by manufacturers reject essential elements of Material Design
The thing is that custom skins, particularly TouchWiz and Xperia, don't really represent a customization of stock Android, they represent a rejection of the Material Design language.
Open the app drawer on a Galaxy device and the animation is a quick fade in. Open it on Xperia and it slides up. Both use transparent backgrounds. These are small changes, but they reject essential elements of Material Design.
Samsung still uses big, colorful icons that share more in common with iOS than stock Android.
Whereas Apple moved away from using realistic, humanistic imagery between iOS 6 and 7, and Samsung also, since TouchWiz 5.0, one of the first things you will see on a new Xperia Z device is an AccuWeather widget, complete with realistic depiction of the current conditions. It's also about as far from Material as you can get. With its PlayStation Network icon, it appears Sony has even't attempted to adhere to a single element of Google's guiding principles.
These are just a very small handful of examples. There are many more.
We can put these decisions down to a number of reasons: laziness, ignorance or a rejection – partial or not, the effect is the same – of Material Design. I like to think it's the latter, but whichever is true, it makes Android less appealing to people unfamiliar with it, it fragments Android, and creates alternative, incomplete design languages that to a lot of people, myself included, simply look horrible.
We should celebrate manufacturers like HTC, who has pruned its Sense UI down on the HTC 10 and replaced some of its own apps with Google apps. This is exactly the approach I am looking to see, and I hope more manufactures follow suit.
Do you think manufacturer skins are doing Android a disservice, or do you prefer TouchWiz to stock? If so, why? Let me know in the comments.