Will Material Design bring back the Golden 90s?

Windows on more than 90% of desktops. Apple a niche player. Phones still far from being smart. Frontend development was a far simpler game during the days of Microsoft’s monopoly than in today’s babelic world.

This post discusses why the web triggered a dark age of poor user interfaces and painful development; and how Material Design might bring us again into a golden era.

The Golden 90s

Microsoft’s monopoly during the 90s not only focused frontend development to a single relevant target platform but also defined a strongly standardized look & feel. As a result, a Windows user could easily adopt any new application: menu bar on top, saving with Ctrl+S, closing with the cross in the upper right corner, etc.

But the world was not only simpler for users. Developers benefited as well from the de facto standard: instead of building on unstyled elements (like today’s <div> and <input>), Windows came with a rich toolbox of user interface components — all compliant with the standard look & feel. Keyboard shortcuts? Color themes? Global font sizes? All available out of the box.

And then came the web, and changed it all.

The Dark Age of poor user interfaces

The old recipes simply didn’t work any longer for the new web applications. Hence, developers had to set out to explore how users should interface with this new world. Over the years, this freedom and experimentation led to some truly amazing user interfaces. Just try to image how a Windows 95 version of Spotify would have looked. The dark side of the story is of course that every Spotify comes with 99 mediocre applications and 900 terrible ones.

The era of (in average) poor user interfaces was partially caused because developers couldn’t any longer simply compose ready-to-go components. Instead, even the smallest team suddenly had to have a designer… or more often “should have had a designer”.

Every application looking different creates yet another challenge: frameworks can’t be too opinionated about the design but require lots of customization points to make the components fit into each custom design. This additional complexity added even more work to the developers using these framework.

But there is hope. We might overcome the fragmentation and our lives as developer may become easier again.

To a new Golden Age with Material Design

Material Design, the design language developed by Google, has the potential to bring the benefits of the 90s into today’s world: A base on which developers can build pretty, functional, and, easy-to-adopt applications.

Today’s world is of course very different from the 90s. The most prominent one: users don’t just have one PC but also smart watches, phones, phablets, mini tablets, iPads, and laptops.

Material Design addresses the multi-device challenge from two angles: On the one side, the design language is flexible enough to cater to all these device classes. On the other side, Google’s omnipresent Material Design apps like Maps, Youtube, and Inbox are available on all devices, thereby training most users on how to interact with this kind of user experience. A prerequisite for applications that require zero training.

Equally fascinating, the lives of developers are getting simpler: frameworks and libraries start to provide opinionated components that follow the Material Design specification. For example, Polymer Elements — and various open source projects from the Polymer ecosystem— provide a rich collection of Material Design web components. This allows to seamlessly combine various out-of-the-box components with custom Material Design components. A huge step forward from trying to make components from differently styled libraries fit into one application.

Summary

The monolithic landscape during the 90s provided a consistent design language which enabled developers to quickly create easy-to-adopt user interfaces. The raise of the web fragmented the look & feel of user interfaces, leading to lots of applications with poor user experience. Material Design brings the benefits of a strong, standardized design languages into today’s world — improving the lives of users and developers alike.

Happy coding!


Painting: “The Golden Age” by Lucas Cranach the Elder