The Android Style Guide and Google's emerging identity

The Android Style Guide and Google's emerging identity
The newly released Android Style Guide is not only a great new tool for developers as well as a tool for Google in its fight against problems of inconsistent UI design in apps, but it actually says quite a lot about how Google has traditionally done things, how it is changing, and points to where Google still needs to keep working. Oddly, the way forward for Google has always been hidden in the Android logo itself. No brand logo has ever been remixed, altered and changed as much as the Android logo, and that parallels the platform itself. However, no matter how much the Android logo is remixed, it is always instantly recognizable as the Android logo, and that is the aim of Matias Duarte and the new Android Style Guide - to give the Android platform an underlying identity and consistency while still allowing the differentiation that has become the hallmark of the platform. 

If you're looking to pick nits with Google and Android, the first thing you'll notice about the new style guide is that it is completely optional. There is nothing mandated, just suggestions on how to best make your app fit into the Android platform. Anyone who knows Android (and more importantly Google) know that this is nothing new, and it's nothing that is likely to change any time soon. Google has always preferred to lead by example rather than by rules, to use the carrot not the stick. As we've mentioned before, asking Google to change this behavior is like asking for Google to be Apple, which simply isn't going to happen. There are fundamental personality differences between the two companies which are in opposition and will not allow Google to close in with too many rules nor allow Apple to open up with too many options. However, just because the two companies do create products in very different ways doesn't mean that they can't hold the same values, or at least that's what Matias Duarte believes. 

Matias is on a crusade to stop design from being an afterthought at Google. He firmly believes that just because a platform is open doesn't mean that it has to look bad or have inconsistent UI. He is right, of course, but he is also a dreamer. The road is a difficult one, but Matias also seems to understand that changing the culture at Google needs some basic building blocks in place. 

Building block #1: Explanations

The new Android Style Guide doesn't just show the problem Android has had with inconsistent UI in apps, it shows the problem that Google has had and continues to have with getting people to understand its products. Android has been on the market for just over 3 years and this is the first time that the company decided it was necessary to give developers a style guide. This is a fundamental problem with Google. Google just expects people to either understand its products, or be willing to take the time to figure out its products. 

In a way, this is great, and it's a reason why so many people love Google products. There are a lot of people in the world who love to dig into things and learn how they work, find the hidden features, and the best ways to do things. Unfortunately, those people are the minority. Most people need guides, or manuals, or even just someone to teach them how to use a product. This extends from consumers picking up a new phone to experienced developers. 

Apple understands this idea and has taken it to the extreme. Apple may not include manuals with its products, but that's because it works extremely hard to make its products as intuitive as possible, so people can just pick it up and use it without a manual. And, for those who still don't understand, Apple has employees waiting in each Apple store to teach you how to use any one of its products. Right from the start, Apple has given extensive guides (and rules) to developers on how to best design apps to fit into the iOS UI concepts. And, for those who don't follow the rules, Apple has a review process that has been known to reject apps for not looking right. 

Google wouldn't go that far, but giving explanations of its design philosophies seems like it should be part of the "openness" that Google loves to talk about so much. Of course, before Matias Duarte showed up, one could argue that Google didn't really have design philosophies to explain. However, that doesn't forgive the fact that many people still find Android to be too complicated or not intuitive enough. Ice Cream Sandwich is a big step in the right direction though. Rather than hidden options like the recent apps menu mapped to the long-press of the home button, which casual users may never find without help, there is a dedicated button. Rather than things hidden in menus and submenus, Google added the Action Bar which changes contextually to give you the options you're likely to need. 

Google has never been good at explaining its products to people, hence the untimely demise of many of its products, and that has even come through in some of its marketing campaigns, like the Muppets Google+ ad, which doesn't help anyone find or figure out Google+ at all. ICS is making Android more accessible, and the Style Guide will help make the UI across apps more consistent, which will help users, but building a proper Android guide would be a pretty big help as well. None of the changes and additions are going to help people who pick up an Android 2.x device and have trouble getting into it, nor will some of the new features help Android 4.0 users if developers don't implement the new option, but that's what brings us to the second building block in this process:

Building block #2: Consistency & Norms

This is the whole name of the game for Google these days. Google products across the web have gotten redesigns to make the UI more consistent. Android 4.0 got a complete UI overhaul to make it more consistent with the Roboto font, side-to-side swiping gestures throughout the system, the Action Bar, and multiple pane views; but, the biggest piece for consistency has been the Holo theme. There has been big news surrounding the Holo theme, and it has been relatively misunderstood. 

Yes, Google has actually set down one mandate, which is that the Holo theme must exist on any device running Android 4.0, but that is all. Manufacturers are not required to use it in custom UIs, and app developers are not required to use it in apps either. However, just like the new Style Guide, app developers are encouraged to use it, and if they do, the requirement will mean that apps will look and behave consistently across devices. 

The question is whether or not all of these carrots that Google keeps dangling in front of manufacturers and developers will pay off. With its web products, there are no troubles, because Google controls the entire experience, but that's not possible with Android. It seems that Google's plan is to not just lead by example in this case, but create something akin to societal norms or market pressures within Android. Norms can be far more effective than rules in society. For example, there are no laws against acting like a jerk or being rude to people all the time, but most people are nice to each other because it makes society run better (of course this societal norm has yet to translate to Internet forums and comment sections...) The same theory could end up working with Android. One of the most interesting sections of the new Style Guide is the "Pure Android" section, which reminds developers that Android has a specific look to it, and UI should not copy that of other platforms. The section shows the difference between Android-styled buttons (as you can see on the right), text boxes, buttons and layout, and urges developers to not carry-over styles from other platforms. 

There are no rules saying you can't copy the style of other platforms, that you must follow any of the the suggestions in the Style Guide, employ any of the built-in consistency features in Android, or that you have to use the Holo theme. But, if enough developers do employ those tools, it will make apps stick out when they don't follow the suit, and not in a good way. Imagine you were using a newspaper app with multiple sections, but instead of using the swipe gestures to navigate the different sections, that navigation was buried in a menu. Users wouldn't like that. Or, if apps all began to move the menu button to the top right of the screen, where Google would prefer it to be placed, users would be put off and slightly annoyed when an app didn't. Creating those norms eventually creates a self-propagating system of consistency. Matias himself is hopeful that this Style Guide will even help manufacturers to build better custom UI overlays that fit better in the Android ecosystem, but we'll have to wait and see how that works out. 

Of course, Google itself needs to be more consistent before the rest of the ecosystem can follow. For example, the menu button that we just mentioned isn't even found in the same spot in all Google apps. Some, like Google Voice, Talk, Plus, and YouTube have it in the top right. Gmail and Maps have it on the Action Bar at the bottom. Goggles, Blogger, Music and Shopper have it next to the recent apps button (which actually means that it is still coded to be tied to a capacitive menu button from an Android 2.x device). And, oddest of all, the Google Docs app has it both in the top right and next to the recent apps button. In terms of leading by example, Google is not doing so well in this regard. 

A big hurdle for creating this culture of consistency within Android is for Google to employ some big name developers to help take the lead. This is another place where Apple has a big lead. Any time there is an iOS announcement, Apple has a slew of developers from all different app categories to help show off the way Apple wants things done. This helps to reinforce the rules set out for consistency in the OS, but it also adds value to the ecosystem. There may be about an equal number of apps on iOS compared to Android, and the apps at the top level may be pretty much equal as far as design, but it's the lower levels where we find the biggest differences. Of course, Apple mandates consistency, but Google needs to have partners to help enforce its norms. Not to mention, having big name developers on board will make people more excited about any platform. 

Building block #3: Advocacy & Identity

Having better and more public relationships with developers doesn't just add value by giving the platform better software, and reinforcing the platform norms, it gives Google more visibility in the market. Google is beginning to learn that it needs to have a face, and can't just be this monolithic company filled with anti-social engineers. Google+ has gone a long way to helping give a face to the company with people getting to know Vic Gundotra (SVP engineering) who has an odd love of pop music, Matt Cutts (head of web spam team), Bradley Horowitz (VP product management for G+), Natalie Villalobos (community manager G+), and many other Googlers. 

As far as Android design advocacy, quite naturally it seems that job is squarely on Matias Duarte, as he is the head of Android design. At least, the job falls to Matias as far as getting the word out to media outlets that Google is putting these suggestions and tools in place, but Google still needs to leverage whatever relationships it has with developers to actually see the the tools and guidelines put into regular use. 

To that point, it seems like it would have been better for Google to have had this Style Guide ready to be part of the Ice Cream Sandwich unveiling back in October. Matias Duarte even said in the recent interview about the new Style Guide with The Verge that he didn't consider the OS to be complete until the Style Guide was out, and that even now the guide isn't really complete with all of the information that designers would like. But, this goes beyond just creating guidelines, because while this is explaining the framework for the Android style and how to easily implement UI choices so your app will better adapt to the variety of screen sizes, resolutions and aspect ratios, this also pushes towards creating a more complete Android identity. 

Until now, Google hasn't had a design or style identity, and neither has Android. Because of that, UI has been haphazard and inconsistent. The company is finally making a concerted effort to change that, but it still needs to get the word out to the community that this is what Google expects Android to look like, and more importantly, the community has to buy into that design. 

In a way, it's almost better that Google waited until now to put out a Style Guide for Android, because a guide for earlier versions of Android may have helped developers to format apps better, but it wouldn't have really held much as far as style and identity. Android has always been something of a blank slate upon which manufacturers put custom UIs, and users put launcher alternatives and themes. Ice Cream Sandwich is the first time Android has felt cohesive. It's the first time the platform has felt like it has an identity of its own that also connects to the Google mothership. Matias has said that he believes designers adamantly want this Style Guide, and we hope that's true, because a more cohesive and consistent Android experience can only be a good thing for users. 


Ultimately, this push by Google is about not accepting the norm. For a number of reasons, the norm for Android had been to ignore design, style and consistency in favor of functionality and options. The biggest trouble in this is that when you start to accept somethng as a norm, you may stop seeing how to make it better. It had become commonplace for users and developers to just take it as the status quo that Android apps didn't really have an underlying consistency. Many chalked it up to the uniqueness of the platform, but really, although we don't agree with the semantics, the lack of a Style Guide was one of the biggest causes of "fragmentation" on the platform. Apps can exist on multiple platforms and be true to their brands while still feeling like an integrated piece of each platform. As our Androidified version of Matias as the article image - and the Android logo in general - shows, brand identity doesn't have to preclude uniqueness. If nothing else, Windows Phone has proven that, because it has a unique visual style, and has many multiplatform apps that look unique while still retaining the brand identity. 

It will be nice to see if the the Android ecosystem can finally achieve that brand identity. We're not sure how successful brand identity can be when the lockscreen and homescreen for each manufacturer's device looks different, but if Matias has his way, this Style Guide will influence even those custom manufacturer UIs. It's a pretty dream that Matias has of differentiated Android devices, which still retain an essential Android brand identity, but it remains to be seen whether manufacturers share that vision. It is in the best interest of manufacturers to adjust their custom UIs to fit Matias's vision, because an Android identity would mean that consumers can learn what to expect when handling an Android device, making each device easier to pick up and use regardless of the manufacturer skin. Who knows, maybe it'll lead to the day when a relatively non-tech savvy consumer can walk into a store and not have Android described to them as "like an iPhone."



1. ilia1986 unregistered

An awesome article, Michael!! Yet again you manage to alleviate my concerns and worries - within the article itself - before I even click the "Post comment" button. I would just like to add that I fear exactly what you've described: "The biggest trouble in this is that when you start to accept somethng as a norm, you may stop seeing how to make it better". I own an iPhone 4. And to this day - I look up to Adroid as the Ultimate platform. Because that's precisely what I want it to be - a platform. A platform with which everyone is entitled to do ANYTHING he\she desires - without any negative implications whatsoever. Wanna have 50 home screens all filled with widgets, with blurry icons in the shape of dinosaurs, and a tweak according to which you make a J gesture on your lock screen - and it shows you the last application you downloaded on the Android market? You can have that. Enforcing norm and consistency can be a good thing of course... or it can be a bad thing. It can be a bad thing because when you talk about consistency, norm - I automatically think about control and enforcement. And I think about Apple. What Apple has done ever since 2007 is creating some sort of a standard - a socially accepted one - as to how a smartphone must look, feel, behave, what it can do and what it can't. And their strategy brought them huge profits. One can see that. However Android is different. It doesn't rely on standards. At least until now. It doesn't force users or developers to do ANYTHING. At least until now. While you say that this guide is of course optional - you do mention the very idea of norm. And when there is norm - there is nothing else. In the guide it says that on the homescreen you can scroll between pages by flicking left and right. Ever wanted to find a tweak for ICS which would allow you to scroll between pages by flicking up or down? Too bad. No developer would ever want to do that now - since that would be outside of norm. And that developer wouldn't want to "Stick out and not in a good way", right? I hope that you - and other people - see my point. If you don't - think from my perspective - the perspective of a fed-up iPhone user - whose phone doesn't even support Widgets for God's sake.

3. shafboy

Posts: 179; Member since: Sep 26, 2010

I agree with you and this is one of the reasons I like Windows Phone so much, they thought outside the norm and happened to meet my favourite taste of simplistic design which is customisable to a certain degree.

11. hepresearch unregistered

Inasmuch as iOS is the extreme of simplicity, control, and appearances, Android has been the extreme of freeform and raw power (depending on which handset you buy). What seems to be happening here is that Android is taking a fundamental step in the direction of the core principles of iOS. Windows Phone, in my opinion, has managed to wedge itself into the middle ground between these two... you get more manufacturer control, and ease-of-use, than Android, along with a little more power than the iPhone (until the iPhone 4S) and a little less eye-candy. Apple, though, clearly has the behavioral advantage, and as such, Android is going to have to take fundamental steps in the direction of iOS core principles. Until now, their only steps toward iOS have been in the department of behavior and appearance, and although these have really ticked off Apple, they were not tied to a direct shift in fundamentals. Now, Android is taking that first step to inspire some iOS-ish consistency, and Windows Phone will be more tightly sandwiched in the divide that remains. I think that, fortunately, WP has a sufficiently different behavior and appearance to keep the others from being too unhappy about it.

25. shafboy

Posts: 179; Member since: Sep 26, 2010

I really like the concept of Android and customisable widgets, however upon using some of my friends' products (Androids) I have been dissapointed that there is lag, even a tiny bit, but there is. However the OS is beautiful and well designed.

26. hepresearch unregistered

Many people claim that Android has no lag... but they do tend to be wrong about that. Android was meant to be able to operate nominally on a wide variety of hardware, and operate well on high-end hardware, but with no specific promises on the graphical smoothness end of things. Now, I do have a few friends who have been gutsy enough to play around with CyanogenMod and further tweaks and modifications, and some of their work seems to cut down on the stock lag a lot, but Android was never coded with truly lagless behavior in mind. It is a beautiful and powerful OS, but it wasn't designed for the responsiveness and integrated, immaculately flawless, flow of graphics that iOS was designed to handle. Android has always been about the customization and task juggling, and iOS has always been about the ease-of-use and eye-candy. Windows Phone seems to be trying to bridge that gap, and they seem to be getting better at that with time. Windows Phone Mango devices strike me as having a very nice responsiveness and flow of graphics similar to iOS devices, although with not nearly as much eye candy, and yet I would say that they are rivals to iOS in the ease-of-use department thanks to Metro UI and the "Live Tiles". Although they seem very focused on iOS-like simplicity, WP still manages to hang on to some power items, like fully-integrated office software for document handling, integrated gaming platform, exceptional GPS services, improved multi-tasking, and the like. It is an interesting trade off. The lines between what the different OS's can and cannot do seem to be getting all the more blurry all the time.

4. MichaelHeller

Posts: 2734; Member since: May 26, 2011

"What Apple has done ever since 2007 is creating some sort of a standard - a socially accepted one - as to how a smartphone must look, feel, behave, what it can do and what it can't" Wow, you tapped on exactly what my next article is going to be...

5. robinrisk unregistered

First of all, everytime i see an interesting article, i inmediately know Michael is the writer. Another excelent piece of work. Ilia, i think you have a point, but this will simply help streamline the experience and design. It will not force developers to anything, its simply some ground "suggestions" that will give the Android UI a little more personality. For example, the menu key dissapeared on ICS, but now there are "Action Buttons", this guide helps developers know how to take advantage of that new feature. So at the end, it's like saying, hey, we have the core features and charachteristics of the Android Interface and Identity, now you have a better defined Starting Point, so you can innovate as before, but with a more streamlined Android Experience.

7. ilia1986 unregistered

Michael - ah - I feel honored. :) robinrisk - while you are right, of course - as a victim of Apple's totalitarian and corrupt regime - I fear that these suggestions will make way for further ones - which might eventually translate into controlled restrictions and the like. It just appears to me that Google would like to become more like iOS - a process I strongly fear and disapprove. The only thing good in iOS which google could take for Android is merely the energy efficiency.

8. remixfa

Posts: 14605; Member since: Dec 19, 2008

i agree with most of that. but everything with google is "optional". if the group comes to a consensus on design it will not be because google forced them, it will be because a group of developers found success in a common "theme" with their apps. Its already out there now. Whether you play Words with Friends or Hanging with Friends or any other Zenga game, they all have common design elements that have been successful for them. a little commonality between programs isnt a bad thing. using michael's examples, instead of looking at each app and trying to find the options button, you would know its in the upper right. Right now its all over the place. Sometimes its a physical button.. sometimes its on top.. some times its on bottom. As long as its something that the developers agree to themselves for their benefit and not something Google forces on them (in an Apple maneuver) I dont see an issue.

15. 8mileroad

Posts: 7; Member since: Dec 31, 2011

Well written post, but I don't agree with it entirely. I think there will always be alternate launchers and stuff like that which will let you tweak stuff however you want.

2. protozeloz

Posts: 5396; Member since: Sep 16, 2010

I really liked something Mathias said about his Magazine UI, he claimed that various articles are find on a magazine they all offered diffident content or various arrangements yet despite all the differences between each article from the other you can tell they all belong on the same magazine

6. protozeloz

Posts: 5396; Member since: Sep 16, 2010

9. tacohunter

Posts: 408; Member since: Nov 06, 2011

I always expect the best from Michael and he always delivers :D


Posts: 12; Member since: Jan 06, 2012

Who are you MichaelHeller? Every time I read an article by you It is so well put together, unbiased, and thoughtfully written I wish there was a section on here of just your articles and reviews PA should make a tab next to the home tab called MichaelHeller it would be the 1st tab I go to and read. Another excellent article!

16. SlimSoulja86

Posts: 660; Member since: Nov 03, 2011

I second that!

19. MichaelHeller

Posts: 2734; Member since: May 26, 2011

Thanks! And, to answer your question, this is me:

23. SlimSoulja86

Posts: 660; Member since: Nov 03, 2011

LOL, Michael Why not Facebook Account. hehehehehe! I enjoy reading your articles, for the fact that they're long and one fell like is really reading informative articles rather than some random information to start a flame war. Thank you. PA should pay you more, lol

12. tacohunter

Posts: 408; Member since: Nov 06, 2011

Michael, this is a really good site, maybe one of the best. And I got some good ideas to improve the site. 1. Posibility to add photo in comment (for fun, if someone adds a photo it's always a link) 2. Add some kind of forum. So some of the PA readers can write an article about whatever they want to talk about: their experiences, ideas, expectactions, theories, etc. Maybe you'll find writer talent. But ofcourse with rules so their won't be troll articles. So for example: remix can write an article about the iOS fragmentation he talked about the past two weeks. if he wants :) that would be interesting to hear everyones opinions fully explained

13. remixfa

Posts: 14605; Member since: Dec 19, 2008

lol. I've been hoping one of our glorious writers would take up the mantle. Kind of wondering why many are happy to talk about android fragmentation but no one touches iOS fragmentation. Showing that iOS has the same issue if not worse, will quell a lot of the fan boy "android fragmentation" food fights. I've offered to freelance for the site before as well as moderate to keep up with some of the annoying spam that tends to plague the site. If they want me, im easily accessible. I also know an excellent no-holds-barred editor, but i doubt he wants to keep proofing my work for me :) lol

14. tacohunter

Posts: 408; Member since: Nov 06, 2011

Y maybe but this is just an idea so the PA readers can easily express their opinions, ideas, it would be awesome. Trust me I personally enjoy reading more then writing but adding a forum will certainely be nice. Of course it needs rules, like the article must first be approved so you can't instant post it. And the add a photo option idea is just great. So what do you think? Feel free to reply

17. SlimSoulja86

Posts: 660; Member since: Nov 03, 2011

Good idea!

21. remixfa

Posts: 14605; Member since: Dec 19, 2008

i could go for that. who the heck would wanna listen to me ramble on even more though? lolol i dont know if i could sit through an essay finger... on...wh..y.....

18. PaulNotFromSweden

Posts: 55; Member since: Sep 16, 2011

Outstanding article, Michael! Other writers at PA should aspire to write this well. Regarding the topic, I agree that there is a fear of less innovation if developers feel constrained by a style guide. However, a common look and feel should benefit the platform as more non-techies adopt it. Now, going from an HTC to a Sammy can be daunting because they seem quite different. It shouldn't be that way if they're running the same version of the same OS. That's where the guide can really help. Windows and iOS have a definite edge in this regard. Keep up the great work!

20. MichaelHeller

Posts: 2734; Member since: May 26, 2011


22. Cwebb

Posts: 501; Member since: Oct 05, 2011

I can't agree more with the first paragraph of building block #1. I got Android back at 1.5 because I wanted a smartphone but couldn't afford an iPhone. The reason I stuck around was because of the awesome hidden features that you need to surf the internet to find (I have/had a bunch of free time and OCD). I laugh when people see my phone compared to their same phone even before it was rooted, because I had a different launcher, keyboard, etc. Its one of those things that is BEAUTIFUL about Android, but the people who have it for the same reason I first got it don't know about these awesome features and just complain that they want an iPhone (They usually just use to for basic stuff anyways). What Google needs to do is make a massive guide for those people to look through and find all these little features that I had to dig to find. Also, I love ICS. I have an AOSP ROM on my Evo 3D, and you couldn't make me change back. I'm sacrificing bluetooth and my camera for it. Its not that I didn't think GB was bad because I loved it down to the colors they used, but ICS is more put together and seems like it got its full time to develop unlike previous versions. When I had my Transform and *gulp* Intercept I hated the styling of Froyo and everything before. They tried to go to this cool grey, but it looked too bland. ICS still isn't my favorite theme, I LOVE WP7's Live tiles/keyboard/Metro UI style, but couldn't give up the afromentioned functionality. But I think Live Tiles are the way of the future.

24. AppleConspiracy

Posts: 637; Member since: Oct 18, 2011

The most important fact that we should learn from this excellent article, and many other analysis, is that design as a way of visual form doesn't matter much. What matters is actually the paradigm, the ideology, consistency, standardization and so on - the platform of interface in most abstract meaning of this word. So in a way, Apple has marked the final death of design as we have know it.. Everything is about brand identity and its interface as a platform. Everyone was ignoring that until Apple came to reign several years ago, and now they pay the price and try to catch up. Visual representational systems from human history proved that already, however at some point the liberalization of arts in 20th century gave us the illusion that we can do without it, that we can be free. Now it becomes pretty clear we can't.

27. yodanim

Posts: 7; Member since: Sep 16, 2011

I like the idea of a consistent UI, but it has to be original to android, the grid of apps is like iOS - hence the multilple lawsuits, and now I have to hear about Roboto font and side-to-side swiping -- sounds to me a lot like the Metro font and UI from Windows Phone. The good news is that it's all optional - people are free to download skins and widgets to their hearts' content only limited by their imagination, lag, harware specs, and tolerance of "busyness"

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