Death by a thousand broken grids

September 19th, 2013

This hasn’t strictly happened in the latest release of Play Store, but worth mentioning nonetheless. The screenshots below show the layout changes made in Play Store 4.1 for editorial pages.

The header underwent quite a few layout changes. In a single-column mode we swapped the description and the video to result in a more pleasing aesthetic flow that begins at the top of the page. The rather random 2-line collapsed description has been replaced to have the description section have the same height as the video element. The video element itself is a fixed 16×9 block that goes edge-to-edge with no unsightly gray pillar bars. Finally, the last few characters of the last line in collapsed description are faded out with superimposed “read more”, removing the rather awkward dangling arrow caret that we used to have.

In landscape mode the header goes to two columns – video element on the left and description on the right. The description is limited to show as many lines as possible without vertically overflowing the video element.

Card content underwent grid alignment as well. In portrait mode the cards go edge-to-edge with consistent visual and layout treatment of the price element. We’ve also tightened up the line spacing of two-line titles and went to two-column layout in landscape mode. Pretty much all pillar bar margins are gone, resulting in a better defined grid and a better usage of available screen estate.

For these screenshots I purposefully chosen an editorial collection that mixes items from various media types. Such collections present an interesting design challenge to balance the exposure of cover art with grid alignment. Cover art for apps, albums, TV shows and movies is fixed aspect ratio (1×1 for the first three, around 1.441×1 for the movies). Books and magazines are mostly in 1.35×1-1.52×1 range, but there is significant variation in some of the genres, particularly children’s books. When you have a collection of items with varying aspect ratio of cover art, what gets aligned?

Our current approach is to have two fixed aspect ratios – 1×1 for apps, music and TV shows and 1.441×1 for everything else. The second aspect ratio is a perfect fit for movies, and lies rather conveniently in the middle of the “regular” range for books and magazines. If you browse those sections in the Play Store you will notice that the covers go edge-to-edge along one axis (vertical or horizontal) with white space on the sides along the other axis.

Mixed content in the same collection (such as editorials, wishlist or recommendations) presents another problem that can be seen in this screenshot:

For aesthetic and alignment reasons all cards in the editorial collections have the same height. What happens when you have items of mixed aspect ratio? Our previous approach was to allocate fixed width and vertically center the cover “asking” it to fill as much of that width as possible. It resulted in a rather unbalanced look of cards for items with 1×1 aspect ratio – such as albums in this specific collection.

In the latest release of Play Store we have revisited this approach. The cards still have the same height, but the allocated width depends on the actual type of the specific item. Movies, books and magazines continue getting the width based on 1.441×1 aspect ratio. Apps, albums and TV shows, however, get more width for their cover art – based on the 1×1 aspect ratio. This results in a much more prominent space given to the cover art. As with every design decision, when something gets more space, something gets less. In this case, there’s less horizontal space available to the title and the item description. The title might go from one line to two lines (or even get cut off). In addition, we no longer have a single vertical line that has all titles, subtitles and descriptions aligned to it. Instead, we might end up in something of a zigzag that has its shape defined by the sequence of items within that collection. That is a conscious tradeoff in this decision.

And while up until now I’ve talked about portrait and landscape phones, it doesn’t mean that we forgot about larger devices. If anything, the positioning of the different elements used to be even more random on those devices. The screenshots below show the changes that were made to impose a consistent grid that enforces structure and flow on the editorial collections.

One of my favorites here is how the card grid columns “extend” into the header, forcing the video element to be positioned edge-to-edge in the first column. And, with more horizontal space to give to the header description, this particular one has just enough space to show the full description without the need to go to “read more” collapsed mode.