The changes in mobile design, past, present & future

In this weeks episode 'Episode 1 - Ok Mildred - The future of mobile design' we talked about the future of mobile design and I thought it might be a good opportunity to reminisce about my experiences in mobile design over the past few years and my opinion on where it might go in future.

I started building apps in 2009, my first app was an app build for iOS 3.1 on the iPhone 3GS, it was a simple recipe app called iBake Cupcakes which had some nice imagery and recipes - it was awful but since there was very little competition in the app store it excelled. The app got into the top 25 lifestyle apps on the app store and stayed there for nearly 9 months.


Skeuomorphism (is dead) 

Did anyone like Skeuomorphism?

Did anyone like Skeuomorphism?

I'm yet to read a happy critique of skeuomorphism, the realistically naff leather feel of the iOS calendar, the wood effect on the iBooks app and the need to make every launch button look like a shiny monster that would fire a nuke.

Skeuomorphism hits every bad cliché but as discussed by John Brownlee in this article about the Apple Watch bringing back skeuomorphism it's currently making a bit of a resurgence.

The design trend was the learning lump hammer to introduce new technology to the masses by familiarising the user with new interactions like swiping and touching by mimic technologies that they were comfortable with.

Skeuomorphism is good at teaching people how to use new technology
— John Brownlee (Fastco Design)

Thankfully, Jonny Ive banished Skeuomorphism to the annals of history in iOS 7 and replaced it with the swiss-design inspired 'flat design' principle in 2012 favouring a simplistic crisp 2d approach, removing the z-index and any drop shadows or borders. The only depth in iOS that I can think of is the blur effect to increase focus on the foreground.

Flat design places real emphasis on the content and not on the design, minimal use of bright colours and 'material' mean that the screen real estate is kept clean, beautiful and most importantly purposeful.

I suspect that without Microsoft's flat metro design (which later became the Microsoft Design Language) then this practice of realistic-mimicry might have lasted a little bit longer.

Metro design & atomising information

Metro design

Metro design

Metro was a geometry and typography design language which later was rebranded as the Microsoft Design Language. Metro design principles were prominently used in Microsoft Zune, Windows Phone 7 and later on their Xbox platform and then finally morphed into what we see today in Windows 10.

Metro design principles are rooted in public transport system signposting and rely on large text over iconography to convey message with simple atoms of information in live tiles and apps.

Over at Eden Agency we developed a few apps for Windows Phone 7 using this style and I remember at the time thinking that it was very revolutionary and liberating.

Material Design

Material design from Google

Material design from Google

As so eloquently put by Mike during this weeks episode, "Google have got it down". With Google's material design specification they have the benefit of hindsight with the good ethos of making their specification a living document and incorporating community feedback into it. 

Building on the foundation of crisp flat design and simple signposting by adding simple dimensions using the concept of paper-on-paper (cards). Google have brought back the z-dimension and put it to use with stunning visual effects.

Great examples of Material Design Animations by Jovie Brett

Great examples of Material Design Animations by Jovie Brett

Prior to Material Design, Android had a complete lack of consistency, dark and ugly themes and hamburger menus everywhere. Material design is well considered, with the main goal being a unified experience across apps and devices.

Armed with their new specification, Google have re-introduced the z-axis whilst not compromising on quality and where flat design offers simplicity and functional form, Material Design adds adaptability.

I think with Material Design, Google have got it down
— Mike Scamell, Episode 1 Update Podcast

There are some problems with Material Design such as the floating action button intruding on content real estate as pointed out by Meng To in this medium.com article but with a healthy approach to adopting community feedback I believe the best new concepts will be incorporated into the spec.

The future enabled by technology

While Google have been busy bring back the z-axis and bringing uniform to design regardless of platform, Apple have been busy adding new physical dimensions to design with the use of 3D touch, Apple Pay & iBeacon; yes Google have their wallet and now Eddystone but bringing the virtual functionality into the physical realm, Apple are winning.

The future of mobile design is an exciting and confusing space. So many new dimensions bring infinite opportunities and potential problems that no doubt we'll see whole new design standards that hark back to skeuomorphism; each with good intentions but with the priority being educating users in their new potential uses.

To finish this article and to whet your appetite for things to come, here are some of the technologies that will undoubtedly make us rethink design.


Microsoft Hololens

According to Microsoft, "HoloLens is the first fully untethered, holographic computer, enabling high-definition holograms to integrate with your world.". The Hololens is in incredible piece of technology combining augmented reality, hand gestures and utilisation of the world around you.

Internet of Things

The internet of things is a hotly contested market with all of the big names wading in. IoT provides infinite possibilities of uniting the physical world with the virtual one. Google's Brillo, Apple's HomeKit & AWS IoT are just some of the names aiming to provide uniformity for hardware manufactures and app developers alike and interaction with the real world provides tons of new opportunities in interaction design.

Shape shifting display

MIT's Tangible Media Group has developed InForm, allowing a dynamic display to render 3D content physically. The devices is made up of a grid of around 1,000 pins which can be moved up and down by actuators giving physical form to virtual interactions.

Interaction sensors - Project Soli

Project Soli is developing a new interaction sensor using radar technology. The sensor can track sub-millimeter motions at high speed and accuracy. It fits onto a chip, can be produced at scale and built into small devices and everyday objects.

Written by Craig Gilchrist.