When Google released its Google Now app we saw our first look at a card-based UI in an Android app. Touted as being able to show you “the right information at the right time”, this new design for displaying information is elegant. It’s a simple and to-the-point method that standardizes information onto a single “card”, separated from other information.
It should come as no surprise. We’ve been using cards for a very long time in our everyday lives. Libraries used to catalog all their books and media offerings on individual cards in something called a “card catalog”. Your mother probably has a box of recipes written neatly on “recipe cards”. Studying for exams is still done using “flash cards”. When we want to share our contact details with someone, many of us still hand out a “business card”. Most of us even carry several cards in our wallets or purses that contain very specific information on them: credit cards, driver licenses, Star Trek and Michael Fisher Fan Club cards, organ donor identification, and so on.
Each of these cards has one thing in common: it includes the information that you need to know about one very specific topic — and nothing else.
The Play Store
Not long ago Google changed the way its Play Store is laid out, putting apps, music, movies, books, and every other title it carries into cards.
Each card contains the item’s image, title, author, rating, and cost. In short, each card has all the information you need to decide whether you want to know more, and does so with relatively large amounts of data — at a glance.
We’ve seen this card-centric approach in other areas as well. Google’s web-based search results haven’t changed, but when your search might be about certain types of information, that data is highlighted in a card at the top or right-side of the results page. Word definitions, translations, currency and unit conversions, information about persons, places, or things, weather, stock quotes, and more are all called out in a “card”.
It’s been a few years since we saw Google Glass for the first time. As the product progressed, the user experience of Glass has become more solidified. Because of its very small screen Google opted to show just one piece of information at a time to its wearer. The metaphor that was chosen was, you guessed it, a card.
When wearing Glass, everything you need to know about an item is presented to you in a card. This could be a social media update, the current time or weather, directions to get from Point A to Point B, an email notification, and so much more. The metaphor is highly extensible — and keeps everything easy to read at a glance.
A Card-Based UI for Android?
Android 3.0 Honeycomb introduced us to a standard user experience called “Holo”. Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich included a mandate to OEMs that they keep the stock “Holo theme” present so app developers could have a common UI framework to hook into when building their apps. OEMs weren’t required to actually use the Holo theme in their customized versions of Android, just to include it. That’s an important point to note since it still allowed companies like HTC, Samsung, and LG to create their own flavor of Android, but apps could look the same across all devices powered by Android, regardless of who made them. This is another important point to note: although developers could use the Holo theme, they haven’t been required to use it. This is especially evident in apps like Waze that have their own very customized user interface.
Apple is said to be “flattening” their UI in iOS 7, and removing many of the heavier skeuomorphic design elements. With such a major change predicted for Android’s largest competitor, I can’t help but think that Google has something significant up its sleeve with Android 5.0 Key Lime Pie.
Seemingly every aspect of Google’s business is marching toward a card-based UI. We’re already seeing cards in many of its apps and cards are even making their way to the homescreen through widgets. The entire Google Glass experience relies on cards. It stands to reason that Google’s core-OS will embrace cards, too.
Here’s Where it Gets Really Fun
Microsoft is trying something similar with Live Titles. These animated blocks of color are present on Windows-powered smartphones, tablets, and even computers. They show live information, much like cards do. Some have even cited Google for “copying” Live Tiles from Microsoft. Where Microsoft is trying to standardize their experience across all its supported platforms, Google is quietly reaching out into every OS, and bringing their card-based UI to competing platforms.
Google’s reach extends past Android-powered smartphones and tablets. Its products are on your desktop computer (regardless of what operating system or web browser you’re using). Its products are probably on your iPhone and iPad. Google’s card-based UI is already making its way across the divide to non-Android users. That’s a good thing. People who aren’t specifically familiar with Android will already be familiar with its user interface, making the transition from one platform to the other much easier.
Hang on, folks, the ride is about to get really exciting!