From accessibility to font choice, Google’s designers are building for the individual
What does true customisation look like? And what does it mean for design if we put power in the hands of users? We caught up with the team behind Material You to learn more about how the work to create truly personal experiences is evolving.
It’s Nice That’s 2023 Forward Thinking campaign is supported by Material Design, whose latest design system update, Material You, signals a radical new way to think about design for the entire tech industry. Material You explores a more humanistic approach to design, celebrating the tension between design sensibility and personal preference, and not shying away from emotion. Click here to find out more.
Picture this: you pick up your phone, glance down at the screen, open up a document and the text automatically adjusts to suit your eyesight. You’re short sighted so you need the font a bit bigger, the colour palette a little muted and the characters more spaced out. But there’s no need to grab your glasses from the bedside table, because the phone has already adapted to your situation and needs.
This is the destination that Google’s design teams want to get to: a place where technology can cater to all of your specific requirements without any cumbersome faffing about in your phone’s settings. And they’re making rapid progress in this direction by rethinking what it means for a user experience to be truly personal.
Personalisation allows users to adapt, alter and customise their experience, be it a bespoke font, specific colour palette or contrast levels, or being able to reduce the time it takes to make your device your own. “It provides a relevant experience, it’s easy to use and, at the core, it really helps reduce some of that cognitive load and that choice paralysis that comes with using devices nowadays,” explains Karen Ng, Google staff interaction designer.
So what does this mean for design, the user and the teams making digital experiences? Here, we chat with Google’s designers who are working to advance how personalisation will influence the design industry, from typography, accessibility and colour to the new version of Material Design, the latest version of Google’s open-source design system.
It’s no secret that typography is a huge factor when it comes to personalisation, and UX design in general for that matter. (Even before writing this, I changed the typeface I was using to Helvetica Neue and adjusted the size to 11pt. Controversial, I know, but it helps me focus.)
Hilary Palmén, UX staff researcher at Google, has a wealth of knowledge in the field of type and personalisation, and refers to a major research paper by Shaun Wallace and his colleagues as a good place to start. Wallace’s research asked people about the font they liked best, before timing them as they read a number of different fonts. “They did a comparison,” says Hilary. “People actually read more quickly in fonts that they hadn’t chosen as their preferred font.” This suggests that the typeface someone chooses may not be the most effective for them (and yes, I’m starting to re-think my Helvetica Neue choice). So, what else can designers do to make reading easier?
For Hilary, this question is what gets her up in the morning. “We need to sort this out in order to help people choose the one that’s going to work well for them,” she says. One method is to address the gaps between letters, words and chunks of text on the screen, and to allow a variety of options for people to choose from. “People thrive with different spacing,” she adds. “That’s a personalisation thing.” On the other hand, people don’t always know what they want or what helps them read more easily; therefore too much choice might have the opposite effect. In this case, perhaps it’s more suitable to try out different fonts until the right one is found, or to trial a default option that may be “appropriate for the target number of users”, Hilary says.
The needs of the user are constantly changing. Since launching Material Design in 2014, Google has taken huge strides in advancing how it handles typography. Fonts have become a lot more adaptable and individual; so much so that users can fully make reading experiences their own. For example, with Material You, type updates including Google Sans Text recently rolled out across Google’s apps. The new font was designed specifically for smaller point sizes and to be used as body text. Additionally, Google is making the most of the industry-wide adoption of variable-font technology, allowing fonts to be adjusted for countless variations and user preferences.
So, what’s coming up in the years ahead? “There are tools now that we use in research for eye tracking; we can design studies that assess how you’d experience a font on a page, how long your eye rests, how large the jumps are from one word to another,” Hilary says. Additionally, Hilary predicts that the typography we see and interact with at present will become much more automated. “I’d like a situation where we can automatically diagnose how you read effectively, and the text is laid out in a way that works for you,” she says. “You don’t have to do a thing.”
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Copyright © Material Design
Liam Spradlin and Christian Moser
Finding the right moments to provide customisation is an important part of the process. For Liam Spradlin, senior design advocate at Google, there are implications when people have “direct" influence over their interactions with technology. “If you are using an email app and you are struggling to figure out how to attach a file or can’t find a button – or in the analogue world, you’re sitting on a chair and feeling uncomfortable – those are the times when the boundary between you and the thing you’re interacting with is really visible,” he says. “I think personalisation will help to break that down a bit.”
With personalisation comes the ability to design an interface that responds to the user’s desires. With this comes the ability to adjust colour settings, palettes, tones and brightness to whichever levels and hues may suit. Many may know the feeling of looking at two garishly vibrant colours side by side, and how harsh and illegible it can be. So choosing the right colour palettes and pairings is a crucial design consideration.
Colour customisation is something that Material Design knows well. “We are expanding colour customisation into more contrast controls,” says Christian Moser, a Google senior interaction designer. “It gives users more control not just with the aesthetics of the interface or the experiences, but also contrast and other colour-based experiences.” This enables users to adjust the settings for various requirements and situations. For instance, screens can be altered to cater towards those with dyslexia, reading disabilities and those who prefer reading at night. “A lot of our users are using phones in dark rooms with no light on,” says Christian. But there might be some limitations, as Christian notes: “Imagine customisation for somebody who is on hands-free mode or only has one hand currently available. How can you adapt the interface?”
Dynamic colour is a signature feature of Material You that pulls individual colour palettes from a person’s wallpaper photo. Take an image of a mountain as an example; the system will extract hues from the image and generate a dynamic colour theme. Because the possibilities to build any colour palettes and contrasts are now boundless and can be altered at any time, Google has paired the colour matches based on light levels to ensure there’s no harsh juxtaposition.
However, there’s no real way of telling what colour palettes will be chosen, leaving the outcome completely up to the individual. “We don’t even know which contrast or what text size it will be,” says Christian. “As a designer, there’s a bit of a shift with how you work, because you’re moving away from being super opinionated about the very last choice. You have to allow yourself to make semantic choices, but then let the person use it the way they want to use it.”
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Copyright © Jamie Chung
Karen Ng, Victor Tsaran, Christian Robertson
“There are some pieces of software making decisions, but the user is the best person to know what decision they want to make,” says Victor Tsaran, a Google senior technical program manager. Within modern software, there’s a whole host of technology – and this specific technology needs to be able to adapt to whatever needs a person might have. “This is what designing with accessibility in mind entails,” says Victor. For example, Victor explains, if “I have colour blindness, I should be able to turn on certain filters or certain controls to enable me to see the screen better. If I am blind, I should be able to turn on the technology that helps me hear the information from the screen. If I'm deaf, I should be able to turn on closed captions. Interestingly enough, we have been doing these things already.” Underscoring Victor’s examples is the fundamental problem that personalisation helps us see: The settings that help one person, may not make sense for someone else. Personalisation, then, is a way of saying perhaps there’s no such thing as a universally perfect setting.
For Victor, the ability to adjust the lock screen and keep it off is a useful personalisation feature. “For one, it’s a privacy feature,” he says. “I don’t want somebody looking over my shoulder. Two, I don’t need the screen myself because I cannot see. And three, I can save some battery along the way. So, I see this as an amazing personalisation feature.” Others who may not see too well but still have some vision might prefer to turn on the bold text.
Karen Ng, a Google staff interaction designer, explains: “You have people with situational disabilities, where they’re maybe on the train and they’re holding the handrail, or maybe they went skiing and they hurt their arm. You have someone who has a permanent disability, who may have low vision or a cognitive disability. As you start to go into the different categories, there are just so many various needs and wants.”
How do designers create a shared experience for people with different requirements and disabilities? Christian Robertson, senior staff visual designer at Google, explains how Material Design’s reactive wallpapers are one solution, as they provide a point of difference without users having to manually change the settings. “You can always go back and customise to your heart’s content, but you don’t have to in order to have the products adapt to you and fit your needs.” Providing a larger font size, changing the theme or contrast, or decreasing the density in the UI are other examples which Karen highlights. “We want the UI experience to support achieving a goal, completing a task or a certain feeling or aesthetic [the user is] trying to strive for. We’re not necessarily putting a label on, ‘You have cognitive disability and therefore this is the experience’,” she says. “The range is so wide.”
About the Author
Ayla is a London-based freelance writer, editor and consultant specialising in art, photography, design and culture. After joining It’s Nice That in 2017 as editorial assistant, she became online editor in 2022 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. She has written for i-D, Dazed, AnOther, WePresent, Port, Elephant and more, and she is also the managing editor of design magazine Anima.