This is too long, too angry, and too late to the party, but all you need to know is that Android 12 is terrible, awful, no-good, very bad, and I hate Material You even when it works to make something look good. Now, if you share my disgust with imposed bad design, read on for some amusing one-liners comparing Android 12’s Material You aesthetic to cat puke.
I switched from iOS to Android at the end of 2019, and, after a decade of not having a horse in the smartphone race, was surprised to find myself loving it. My Pixel 3 blew every iPhone I’d owned out of the water with its capabilities, even after I turned off most of them in a failed bid for privacy. I’d very briefly owned a Sony Xperia, but it was a miserable experience with Sony relentlessly pushing notifications on me that couldn’t be disabled, urging me to buy dumb shit I didn’t need, and also play with an AR T-Rex I couldn’t uninstall. So I was happy to see the pure Android experience was actually amazing, intuitive, and convenient. Last month Google pushed out Android 12, and though it felt like I’d only just arrived at Android 11, I was excited to see what new wonders awaited.
In the space of a morning I went from excited for Android 12 to frustrated by it to baffled why I couldn’t turn off any of these egregious new design choices to seriously pondering a root and rollback to Android 11. That’s how terrible Android 12 is for casuals like me.
Look, I admit I’m something of a UI/UX curmudgeon. I hate every single project management software system a company has made me work on (except for you, Airtable. You’re incomplete for collaborating on publishing projects, but the 80% of you that exists is cool). But Pixel is just creating obstacles in a bid to solve problems I never had.
Material You Doesn’t Fix Any Interface Problems Users Care About
Never once have I opened my phone and wondered where the icon for an app was. Never once have I lamented how each app has its own style or palette. In fact, unifying these things under monochrome is terrible for me, as my eye tends to latch onto icons by color before shape, name, or location. But these are the problems Material You purportedly exists to fix. And every Android reviewer out there oohs and ahs how beautiful Material You looks, while half of the users or more like me think it’s the ocular equivalent of a surprise liver punch. But hey, there’s finally “visual unity” among my apps, whatever that is. I haven’t noticed any changes yet beyond Android’s own apps.
Maybe there’s a creative team out there satisfied that a long-standing design program is now solved. Maybe this unity will save 8% on battery or countless working-hours. I could back that. Then again, I’ve also worked with enough creative directors to know how often they just say “This is how we’re doing it, you’re lucky if I send you updates, and screw you if you don’t like it,” by fiat.
So no, my UX isn’t improved. And half-assing it with a monochrome option for Google apps but then leaving third-party behind is just fugly. Bouncing my wallpaper to 90% on a notification pane closure—then snapping it back—looks more like a rendering glitch than an intentional animation. Every new design choice puts functionality behind form for format’s sake, and the result is distracting.
This comprehensive list of common gripes sums it up, but let’s sink our teeth into how godawful this update is, and how it managed to turn me from the happiest of Android users in 10 & 11 to wondering if I have to slink back to iPhone. I don’t want to, but the experience has gotten cumbersome and hideous to boot.
Material You is beautiful…except when it’s ugly
Google claims years of research and color science went into this move. In fact, they claim it in this post about how beautiful Material You is, and then picked two of the goddamn ugliest photos imaginable to illustrate it. The first one looks like that orange-and-green sherbet you can only buy in July by the gallon. This is their featured image for how beautiful Material You is meant to be:
I thought we agreed to leave poor decisions like this behind after Yellow Submarine, the last year avocado and peach were considered acceptable combinations of paisley. Slathered over that Qbert lava lamp design in the background, and I seriously doubt a human being had a hand in any part of this image. It looks like the AI nightmare that the Lawnmower Man has in the throes of the world’s first cyber-herpetic fever.
But let’s focus on the actual use case here: ooh, slate grey and light teal. Well, maybe that works, I have no idea because your featured image about what a boon this thing is to designers is almost entirely white. Let’s take a look at some colors in action. The second one is beige.
Beige. Fucking beiiiiiiiige. It looks like market research proved Millennial Pink has finally given up on ever owning a home or staying employed with one company longer than four years, and packed it all in. Everything in this shot looks like the world’s least sensible makeup compact. Ladies, slap on a little green eye shadow, bronze your cheekbones, and then flatten the rest of your face, 1979’s smartest phone is yours to reflect on. Behold, your life is no longer inspiring neon signage at twee cafes. Economic Doom Tan is the middle-aged despair shade of your existence, now and forever.
And yeah, Material You can be quite beautiful, if you pull the right wallpaper so the clock can hide your loved ones’ faces from you:
But most people aren’t graphic designers—for example, the entire team at Android who created this look. And for most of us who upgraded, the live enactment is like getting force-fed dung, then kicked in the mouth while trying to chew it. Here’s how my phone looked upon “upgrading”:
I couldn’t abide it, so I updated an old Bankshot Mercury logo design I’d made a decade back just to get a tight range of consistent colors. As evidenced by the featured image on this article, I’m not God’s gift to design, but that’s also why I don’t do it for a living at Google.
So yeah, I guess you can make Material You not ugly, if you’re willing to work at it. And sure, some of it’s subjective. A lot of people would loathe my phone’s theme now while also admiring the interminable iterations of flat, subdued palettes above. I actually think the algorithmic color selection works decently now that I’ve redesigned around it. It’s still not my first pick, a lot of the colors are mossy grey, but it’s a cool enough trick. Just not so cool it was worth ditching wallpaper I actually enjoyed and doing an hour of work to make a phone experience I hated less.
Material You limits your color options
Google keeps touting Material You as “designs that are personal for every style, accessible for every need, alive and adaptive for every screen,” but this couldn’t be a bigger lie. There’s nothing personal for me or representative of my style in the four diseased fleshtone options presented me. It actively runs contrary to my needs because it hijacks my settings and deprives me of choice. Look at those bullshit selections above. Those are my ugly-as-Mardi-Gras-vomit pastel palette options. Their stupid AI took a photo of a grey and white cat, and pulled all of its color samples from the floorboards. My goddamn password screen looked like a ’70s roller rink or a root beer that only gets sold at gas stations.
Oh, but if you don’t like this fugly AI’s terrible choices, they included a few absolute schemas as an alternative. Your options are pastel blue, pastel lavender, pastel green, and fucking brown again. If your wallpaper is blue, purple, green, or some colors that complement them in RGB, have fun I guess, but the AI will have already pulled those for your customized Monet tones. I’ll just be here wondering why I’m suddenly noticing my entire OS so much more often instead of using it fluidly, all while surfing a wave of nausea.
Christ, if my cat puked these colors I’d take her to the vet and ask if they could root her to reinstall Android 11.
Material You has no brand colors or bandwidth: It carves off some 4 million hues and it would be doomed to clash with a lot of devices whether the Android overmind had selected pastel, neon, earth tones, or super-saturated pure values. But one day every Google product you use is going to sync to your ID, and then you’re going to have to ensure your watch matches a completely different device’s wallpaper, along with any other Google “smart” product you own that seemed like a good idea but doesn’t actually make life any better or easier. There are rumors going around right now of a Google watch. Are you prepared to start coordinating every device you own to match a single image on your phone?
Look, I’m not such an idiot I don’t realize what an accomplishment Material You is. I just think you’d have to be a bigger idiot to lock your automated color scheme AI into derivatives of wallpaper in a world where more than half of phone wallpapers are poorly shot photos of people or their pets. Hey, if you want to base your brand identity colors at the pastel intersection of brown and grey, go for it, but don’t force me to join you. Ugh. I’ll just turn Material You off.
No option to customize or turn all this Material You crap off
And then there’s the stuff you can’t change in this highly touted “personalization.” Just give me a light grey or white, and stop being a dick. The Android design team’s choices are only slightly less ostentatious than its inability to opt out. I could set my own colors on AOL Instant Messenger back in 1996, so I don’t know why I have to fight for it in modern design. Or if not me, how about all the professional designers working for apps who used to make conscious designs about the look and feel of their product. Sorry, gang, half your GUI is a collection of paint chips from the cafeteria in a leprosy shelter now.
Oh and there’s a giant clock on your homescreen now. People hate this clock. Personally, it’s the one update that doesn’t bug me; I guess it’s a quick way to check the time if you’re so 21st century you don’t wear a watch. But I get why you’d hate it. I had an awesome photo of an unforgettable sunset over the Hudson River that brought NYC to a standstill. One of the best bike rides of my life. Anyway, now it’s hidden behind a pink array of numbers because Google just had to find a place to show off Material You. After all, it’s meant to be a subtle unifier, but if you can’t smash the user’s face into a reminder that it exists, your team’s work might get overlooked come holiday bonus time.
And this is the biggest problem with Material You: it’s not just that it’s foisted upon you; many people like it. But it’s presented as personalization, customization, and expression, when it’s the opposite of all those things. Updating to this version compels me to actively strip my personality out of my phone and replace it with something stock and meaningless to me just to wring a tolerable UX out of someone else’s mandate even though I’m the user and they’ll never see it. It’s shit like this that made me want to leave iOS in the first place. (Well that and Apple borked my account at a level so high it was impossible to sync music or save iPhone backups to the cloud. But while we’re here, Steve Jobs was a sadistic narcissist, and the world’s better off without him.)
Elsewhere, your icons now bulge out of your app groups—I suppose to make it look less like a petri dish, but that’s still all I can see. It’s fine if you like it; most people seem to find the bubbly design elsewhere the bigger irk. I honestly can’t even tell what’s too different most of the time, only that I know my phone is uglier and I can’t pinpoint why. At its best, Material You is unremarkable; ooh, the value fields in Translate are low-saturation rose now, whoopty-flying-fuckadoodle. At its worst, it’s intrusive and hideous, like when there’s a giant pink or beige clock covering up your blazing sunset lockscreen.
Material You has achieved its goal of subtle enhancement while also missing its purpose of improving anything it touches. It’s an insidious ruination that’s only noteworthy when it’s obtrusive. Because:
Material You is based on your wallpaper, but your lockscreen takes the brunt
You see my cat up there? That’s a great photo of my cat. I freaking love my cat. It makes me happy to look at her when I unlock my phone and remember taking this photo. But because the earth tones and skin shades that occupy 80% of the world make for a terrible pastel palette, I’m going to have to go get some stock art of a strawberry or something stupid like that just to make it bearable.
So why the hell is the color set against my homescreen derived from the color of my wallpaper? Do I have to sync the two up now? Because all of these dumbass designers live in a world with a Getty Stock subscription, they can pick the greatest photos of 2021 for their demo. But in the real world, most people don’t want a picture of a stork at dawn, they have their kids, their pets, their favorite pop culture artifact, or countless other personal joys that don’t lend themselves to this unrequested AI.
The amount of trial-and-error it’s going to take to pick one image whose pastel Peep-fugmo-Pantone derivative goes with a completely different image is such an asshole designer move: oh, we made everything laborious and impossible to triangulate, but it’s going to look amazing once you luck into a combo that works. Shit, before this month I thought I liked pastel colors. Now I see that the majority of phones in America are going to look like every souvenir in an Arizona regional museum:
…those volume and brightness bars are no improvement, either.
Shoot, I don’t even dislike the left-aligned date, which most people despise. Although it did unfortunately land on the same page where I keep my Google Calendar. So now my choice is to keep the redundancy, or to delete the icon of the two that can quickly add events, since the date won’t do that.
Android 12 is bigger, dumber, uglier, and more work
I liked the quick buttons as small icons I could easily toggle. With Android 12, if I swipe down, I now get four options occupying way too much real estate for each. There’s no reason I shouldn’t be able to see all of them, except the notification window takes up 80% of the screen (and blocks view of the app below it), even when it’s empty, which is always (instead of being scrollable, which it ends up being anyway when it’s full). And when I do swipe down to reveal quick buttons, I get 8/14, despite there being extra room to display them. I mean what the fuck, why is an empty window blocking me from accessing useful buttons when there are two different reasons it doesn’t have to?
But hey! At least now I have to click on “Internet” to turn off mobile data, and then chase my network toggle around a leaping array of Wi-Fi networks that scrolls up from the bottom. That’s like a fun hunt-and-seek game that hardly makes me miss easily popping mobile data on or off in 11 at all! Definitely worth an extra click on a different part of the map. It’s just so odd that I haven’t heard one positive response to this decision.
Seriously, the newly combined Internet button feels like a minimal change, but it’s not only a step backwards for ease of use, it’s one that’s more difficult than even that change had to be. And design matters, even if it’s something this small, because millions of people are going to be using a function like this a few times every day. Even once you figure it out, none of it is intuitive. It merely makes sense once you’ve looked it up or had it explained to you. If Android 12 were a screenplay it would be smashing suspension of disbelief every third page to dive into some character’s almost irrelevant sidestory.
My phone used to adjust itself perfectly to the lighting. I thought that was an amazing feature! If I was reading in pitch dark at 1 a.m. it was on lowest brightness. Now it goes to about 15%, and after I realize it’s unnecessarily bright, it takes me a full minute to catch the slider all the way to the left, something that used to be easy and has somehow gotten more difficult despite a boost in size and clunk. So even in total darkness, the phone makes you do extra work to hit minimal light. This entire phone feels redesigned for Boomers, in their tradition of taking everything for themselves and ruining what they let us keep.
Elsewhere, people are confident that all these changes requires longer swipes for even longer load times, along with a thousand other gripes. These are little changes, but they are dumb changes that make the system more laborious, and worse, cannot be turned off or reverted. Android 12 forces the user to push harder through its interface. I would buy a vintage RAZR tomorrow if I knew it would work with Ting. Remember RAZRs? With that sweet T-9 texting? Good times, man.
What does all the Android 12 bullshit get you?
For all this hassle, the more practical changes to Android 12 feel either minimal or inapplicable. Google Assistant will now search everything assuming you know enough to learn that’s a feature and figure out how to enable that—and that’s a big assumption since the Material You redesign sucked all the joy out of UX to save older users from having to put on their glasses. But shouldn’t it always have been able to search your e-mails and texts? Didn’t it? I swear I’ve used that to find things in my phone before, I just can’t do so now unless I go find the enable setting. And I don’t feel like doing that because A) I shouldn’t have to and B) Privacy, as above.
Google’s been touting how much Android 12 optimizes the battery. In my experience it’s either the same, or a faster drain with a longer charge time. But hey, at least the entire phone looks like various shades of eggshell mixed with the Easter dyes I wouldn’t have picked?
You can tell when your microphone’s being used, which I guess is a concern when…uhhh…you’re on Zoom? I dunno, this isn’t a concern I ever had, but I would definitely want to know if I were being recorded, and maybe one of these decades a dastardly site or app will validate this move.
One-handed mode: I guess this is good if you’re on XL. I like my phones smaller so I don’t even know how to implement this or why I would.
Easter Eggs: Shows off the Material You chops via the clock, just to really rub in the two biggest complaints about this ugly-ass OS.
Ars Technica’s review above comprehensively enumerates all the other changes. Most are useless to me, as I’m not a power user, and I’ve never encountered a widget whose ease justified its presence dominating screen real estate. But this, too, is to my point: I wouldn’t know about any of them from the update and tour. You have to go look online. Android 12 is simultaneously boning intensive users and then handing them a few tweaks. And for casuals like me, it’s trying to drag us by the ear (or eye) while not even presenting us with our new options and capabilities. The fact that I have no idea what I’m talking about in all these amazing updates is proof of what I’m saying: I am the idiot in your basic-use case. Me being wrong and angry about everything is exactly why I am right on a lower, fundamental level, because dummies like me don’t know about all these improvements, I only know that it’s worse now, it’s stayed worse, and I hate it more every day. Android 12 exacerbates my ignorance while squelching my knowledge of, and affection for, its capabilities.
Cripes, Google, how about you provide a native music app before you try to decode infrared wavelengths into a hypersphere to lure the 65+ demographic? I don’t need dynamic colors, I need an easy way to surf through my two dozen Bosstones albums.
…Whew! Hopefully that exorcised all my wrath at trying to navigate this crappy new UI. I guess I’ll just learn to use it and not fondly remember when everything flowed neatly and automatically. But I shouldn’t have to, and the enforcement under the guise of personalization is the insult to injury that makes me want to rage-quit. But the upside is I’ll have my nose in my phone a lot less.