Google’s Material Design continues to be a popular approach to contemporary web design. An almost-flat style, the set of principles—originally designed as brand guidelines for Google—describe a layer-based approach to UI design.
Aside from the prescriptive color scheme, the carefully neutral typography, and Disney-esque animation, Material Design’s floating button concept is perhaps the most recognizable aspect of the style. However, the Floating Action Button appears to be following the same trajectory as the Hamburger Menu; from saviour to pariah in a few short months.
Floating Action Buttons sit apart from the rest of a UI, styled to appear as if floating over the top of content. Almost exclusively a circle, they’re a pleasingly minimal shape, that lends itself to animation. Floating Action Buttons are the natural evolution of the sticky header that have been popular for the last few years. The leap Google made to move beyond the sticky header was to decouple the Floating Action Button from the rest of the navigation. This was largely influenced by the rise of the mobile web; positioning the Floating Action Button in the bottom right of the screen (as is almost always the case) makes it easy for your thumb to tap it.
The use of a Floating Action Button in the Google+ redesign encourages you to post content, rather than helping you consume it. What’s more, being diametrically opposite the rest of the navigation is an inconvenience on larger screens.
As the Floating Action Button finds its way into designs for screens larger than a phone, the convenience of bottom right placement increasingly becomes a hindrance. Like the Hamburger Menu before it, the Floating Action Button is discovering that mobile-first solutions don’t always translate to desktop.
Their shape, position, and color ensure Floating Action Buttons stand out from the rest of a UI, mainly because the current trends for flat, semi-flat, and Material Design style all other elements as regular rectangles. But it’s important to recognize that just as the Floating Action Button is visually distinct on a page, it’s visually recognizable across a range of different projects. Material Design is first and foremost a corporate brand; with brand identity such a vital business asset, mimicking Google’s is unlikely to add value to your client’s business.
The VKPlayer app uses a Floating Action Button to toggle controls, which looks cool, but wouldn’t a play/pause button be the primary action here?
According to the Material Design specification Floating Action Buttons are used as a shortcut to the primary action on a page; adding a new item, or initiating a new search. In that scenario the icons for the function are relatively canonical, and the action the button is associated with is clear. However, often a single icon does not adequately represent a function.
What’s more problematic is the drive to reduce a site or app to a single use. As highlighted in Teo Yu Siang’s detailed critique of the Floating Action Button the use of Floating Action Buttons imposes a designer’s intentions on the user; they are encouraged to compose an email when they want to read through their inbox; they are encouraged to take a new photo, when they want to review their past images.
The Floating Action Button is intended to pull a primary action out of the UI as a convenience, but if the UI necessitates a primary action, why isn’t it more focused?
The otherwise excellent Beegit uses a Floating Action Button to provide quick access to help messages and news updates on the platform. Is that really the primary function of a composition page?
To paraphrase a common design truism, there are no bad design patterns, only bad designers. Like the Hamburger Menu, the Floating Action Button has a good use-case, but that use-case rarely occurs; like the Hamburger Menu, the Floating Action Button’s achilles heel is frequent mis-use. The MD section on Floating Buttons stipulates that the functionality mapped to Floating Action Buttons are “important and ubiquitous enough”, however they’re more commonly used as a style, when the better option would be a more focused UI.
Like the Hamburger Menu, the Floating Action Button solves the designer’s problem, not the users’.
Ben Moss has designed and coded work for award-winning startups, and global names including IBM, UBS, and the FBI. When he’s not in front of a screen he’s probably out trail-running.