Google is redesigning its most important productivity apps

From Gmail to Docs to Google Drive, G Suite United is imposing consistency across Google’s suite–a noble goal that’s been years in the making.

Google is redesigning its most important productivity apps
[Screenshots: courtesy Google]

In September 2016, Google rebranded Google Apps—its collection of productivity tools—as G Suite. The name change reflected a healthy desire to treat the disparate apps that made up the service as one pleasing, well-integrated experience rather than mere shovelware.


Amy Lokey [Photo: courtesy Google]
Of course, simply calling something a suite doesn’t make it one. But now Google is working to fulfill the promise of the brand by retooling the G Suite apps across their web, iOS, and Android incarnations. Internally, it calls this initiative G Suite United, and the charge is headed by vice president of user experience Amy Lokey, who joined Google’s Google Cloud enterprise group last February after more than seven years at LinkedIn.

At the highest level, G Suite United’s goal is to keep people who use Google’s productivity suite . . . well, productive. Lokey says that it’s about “consistency and cohesion, because we want our users to be effective. We want it to feel like a very simple user experience, and if they have to relearn a different interface from one product to the next, that’s not simple. It creates cognitive load.”

Rather than involving one sweepingly new release, G Suite United is an ongoing effort, as Google refreshes various components in waves. Earlier this month, for instance, it released web versions of Google Docs, Sheets, Slides, and Sites with more consistent typography and iconography. And today, it’s updating the Gmail apps for iOS and Android to bring them more in line with last year’s major update to Gmail’s web version. Other updates will follow: Keep an eye on Google Drive’s mobile apps, for instance.

This staggered approach has left G Suite a work in progress, as if it were a department store remodeling its departments one by one. “In my experience, it’s very difficult to orchestrate a complete big bang, because we want to make sure that every team has the power to innovate as quickly as possible,” Lokey says. But as Google completes major undertakings, such as giving Gmail a more recognizable look across its variants, G Suite United is evolving from lofty vision into reality.


Out of many, one

Why wasn’t G Suite more consistent from the start? That backstory is even older than the suite itself. A dozen or so years ago, when it first became possible to build serious browser-based productivity apps, Google began to cobble together a Microsoft Office rival by snapping up startups. A word processor called Writely evolved into Google Docs, XL2Web became Google Sheets, and an acquisition called Tonic Systems provided the underpinnings of Google Slides.


These and other G Suite components grew more similar over time, but never quite felt like a matched set, in part because of Google’s historic predilection to avoid top-down management. “A lot of these products were created, back in the day, by different parts of Google and independent teams,” says Lokey. “And then when we brought them together as a suite, it was pretty glaring that they looked very different.”

[Image: courtesy Google]

At least Google understood that its products were erratic from a design standpoint—a flaw that was hardly relegated to its productivity suite. In June 2014, the company announced Material Design, an ambitious attempt to create a design language that was rich enough to span browser-based services, native apps, and even entire platforms such as Android.

Rather than trying to solve all its own problems from the ground up with its own design language, the G Suite team has embraced Google’s Material Theming. In parallel, the Material Design team has made sure that the tenets it’s putting in place are logical in the context of workaday productivity tools such as Docs and Spreadsheets. That requires communication between Lokey and famed designer Matias Duarte, who spearheads Material Design. “We’re speaking weekly, if not more often,” says Lokey.

For G Suite, much of Material Design’s value lies in tidying up elements that were kind of similar—but hardly identical—across apps. The web versions of Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Drive, for instance, all had buttons for adding a new item located near the top left-hand corner of the interface. But Gmail’s button had black text on a gray background while Calendar’s was white-on-red and Google Drive’s was white-on-blue. Now all three apps use black text inside a white lozenge-shaped button, and Drive’s version has been pushed slightly downward—out of a horizontal toolbar and into the left column—for greater consistency with the other apps. Across the suite, the use of gray has been reduced in favor of nice, contrasty black elements on white backgrounds.

Only occasionally does the use of Material Design call attention to itself in a way that reminds you that Google is trying to bring the traditionally lighthearted spirit of its consumer products into the more staid realm of business software. Google Hangouts, for instance, now features some playful backdrop art—reminiscent of a Google Doodle—such as a cartoony tableau of wolves howling in a forest. Lokey says that the response to such playful additions from G Suite customers has been positive, in part because just about everybody is already familiar with the Google-y look and feel that G Suite is now adopting: “We’re taking those consumer-grade product experiences that have been adopted by billions of people and bringing them into enterprise.”

The new Gmail app in its tablet and phone incarnations. [Image: courtesy Google]

User input

Like all changes to existing products, the refinements Google is implementing with G Suite United won’t make sense unless they pass muster with a critical mass of customers. To maximize the odds that they will, the company tests them in a variety of ways, including bouncing them off of G Suite users at brainstorming meetings held at Google’s offices. Lokey says that such sessions are one part user research, one part customer relationship management: “It’s a great way to build a tight, collaborative relationship.”


Still, even the most well-considered redesigns introduce an element of unfamiliarity and may therefore rattle loyal users—especially in the case of something like Gmail that people live in all day long. Worst-case scenario, people might prefer the cluttered inconsistency they know to the tasteful unification they don’t.

Lokey understands the risks. “In my career as a designer and design leader, every redesign I’ve ever rolled out has been met with favor—and also frustration,” she says. “We have to be incredibly careful about what we decide to change.”

The new Gmail app, like the web version, emphasizes the use of color to convey information rather than as a mere design flourish. [Image: courtesy Google]
In some cases, G Suite United has forced Google to mess with long-standing elements in a way that users might find jarring. The iOS and Android versions of Gmail, for instance, have a beefy red stripe along the top of the interface—a signature design element that wasn’t present in other Gmail editions. Google now strives to limit use of color for purely aesthetic reasons so that more meaningful color elements—such as the new oversized red warning messages about malicious messages like phishing attacks—are instantly obvious. So the red stripe is gone.

Other changes include dumping the established icon for creating a new message—a white pencil on a red circle—in favor of the multicolored plus sign used in Gmail’s web version and other G Suite apps, as well as introducing handy features from the web version such as the ability to open attachments directly from the inbox. The result is apps that feel more like Gmail. That’s surely progress, even if it requires some acclimation on the part of users who knew the old versions cold.

Which is not to say that the new Gmail mobile apps have attained a zen-like state of absolute parity with Gmail in its other forms. For instance, they still lack Smart Compose, the AI-infused autocomplete feature that suggests words and phrases as you type. Smart Compose is already available on the version of Gmail for Google’s own Pixel 3 phone, which suggests that it will land on other phones at some point. But the fact it’s not part of the new updates is just more evidence that G Suite United’s drive for consistency is likely to be a never-ending battle.


About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.