Remember the Tamagotchi? It was my first device with a digital interface. It was black and white with a screen sized under two inches, and I loved it. Mine was an imported Chinese version but it mattered little; it used a graphic-friendly user interface. I never noticed the buttons, I was always fixed to the screen and left the controls to muscle memory.
Digital screens have always been more dynamic than analogue objects as their movement commands our attention. Cases in point: A switched on television will draw your eyes faster than any other object in the room, or the tendency to glance at a commuter’s device in a train. Today technology is increasingly digital, with the mobile device at its forefront.
The first iPhone was so influential as it was enabled by two main factors, the internet and its interface. After its success, Google re-engineered their approach—initially competing against Blackberrys—to support touch screens. Android borrowed (or stole) many elements from iOS but with one underlying difference, its navigation system.
Android’s stock [the software developed before third-party modification] version consists of three onscreen buttons, unchanged since 2011. The onscreen nature has obvious benefits; the looks can be (and have been) modified, it disappears while watching video, it’s less prone to physical damage, and is more scalable for future iterations to all-screen devices. After the Material Design overhaul two years ago, the user interface is intuitive and smooth but fails to be immersive.
Android differs from the Tamagotchi and iPhone; the controls are part of the screen and tend to command your attention. This requires a different approach; the buttons need to blend in the interface. Android largely lacks this.
Compare the first two screenshots linked with focus on the top and bottom icons. Screen 1 is the home screen. The icons share the same dark background. Screen 2 is every other application interface. The bottom icons are placed in a black drawer and the top icons are in similar contrast (another example). The disconnect between the body and these elements is evident; rather than disappearing from focus it distracts, and makes the screen smaller and disjointed.
Screen 3 is a quick prototype to understand the impact of subtler buttons. Simply by incorporating the same background, the screen is less obtrusive from the content and allows you to view the screen as a whole, rather than three separate bands. This can even work by applying a (Google Now type) translucent gradient. Though a more meticulous working is needed for implementation, it shows the potential for a cleaner interface.
Material Design was a great step for the Android platform and the right way forward, but not without due consideration of the finer aspects of immersive design.