Your Flat Design is Convenient for Exactly One of Us

Illustration built on creative commons 2.0 Portrait of a Man by Flickr user and photographer Yuri Samoilov

I’m OK with fashion in interaction design. Honestly I am. It means that the field has grappled with and conquered most of the basics about how to survive, and now has the luxury of fretting over what scarf to wear this season. And I even think the flat design fashion of the day is kind of lovely to look at, a gorgeous thing for its designers’ portfolios.


But like corsets or foot binding, extreme fashions come at a cost that eventually loses out to practicality. Let me talk about this practicality for a moment.

In The Design of Everyday Things, Donald Norman distinguished between two ways that we know how to use a thing: information in the world, and information in your head.



Information in the world is stuff a user can look at to figure out. A map posted near the subway exit is information in the world. Reference it when you need it, ignore it when you don’t.



Information in the head is the set of declarative and procedural rules that users memorize about how to use a thing. That you need to keep your subway pass to exit out of the subway is information in your head. Woe be to the rider to throws their ticket away thinking they no longer need it.

For flat design purists, skeuomorphism is something akin to heresy, but it’s valuable because it belongs to this former category of affordance: it is information in the world. For certain, the faux-leather and brushed-aluminum interfaces that Apple had been pumping out were just taking things way too far in that direction, to a pointless mimicry of the real world. But a button that looks like a thing you can press with your finger is useful information for the user. It’s an affordance based on countless experiences of living in a world that contains physical buttons.

Pure, flat design doesn’t just get rid of dead weight. It shifts a burden. What once was information in the world, information borne by the interface, is now information in users’ heads, information borne by them. That in-head information is faster to access, but it does require that our users become responsible for learning it, remembering it, and keeping it up to date. Is the scroll direction up or down this release? Does swipe work here? Well I guess you can damned well try it and see. As an industry now draped in flat design, we’ve tidied up our workspace by cluttering our user’s brains with memorized instruction booklets for using our visually sparse, lovely designs.

So though the runways of interaction design are just gorgeous right now, I suspect there will be a user-sized sigh of relief when things begin to slip a bit back the other way (without the faux leather, Apple). Something to think about as we gear up our design thinking for the new year.


Tom Chiverton
"Does swipe work here? Well I guess you can damned well try it and see" And that's why I hate it. If there are no visual clues, how is anyone meant to find the hidden 'to the side' menu ? Operating systems that hide the task manager and shutdown options there, I am looking at you...
Couldn't agree more, and have made many of the same points myself. However, it's also useful to remember that trends do have value, relative to their short-term frustrations. Part of the explicit design goal of iOS7 was to reshape the way that designers approach a touch-based interface. That isn't to say it made all the right choices up front, and I've got my fair share of grievances with it. But there's no question that it succeeded in shaking things up, and in addition to less fake leather, I'm seeing flatter hierarchies, with new approaches to wayfinding and modality. A few months out and iOS7 has made KitKat look and feel clunky. Even on the web, I think we're already seeing a little pushback on full flatness. The button to "Post this comment" is flat. However, it retains some affordance of the more skeuomorphic thing it replaced (a button with gradients and/or drop shadows), rounded corners. A small but meaningful choice that makes all the difference.
Dorian Taylor
As somebody who could probably drag out specimens of so-called "flat design" dating back to 1.0, I believe there's a time and a place for it. That envelope contains exactly that which is idiomatic and must be learned by the user. There's also a strong argument (made by the likes of Nelson and Engelbart) that such an envelope contains most of the interesting stuff you'd want to do with a computer. I mean, really, what is a computer? It's a machine for executing formal systems—mathematical objects which are naturally isomorphic to other mathematical objects, which are isomorphic to thought itself. Consider the same Don Norman in Things That Make Us Smart, showing us how to create cognitive artifacts that use their geometry and their behaviour to help us think. These reduce to the charts, graphs, and box-arrow diagrams we would otherwise scribble on paper, which can then be manipulated by machine in utterly fantastic ways. I'd like to see more of that. I often worry that we've robbed people of something valuable by supporting the narrative that a computer is a camera, or a music box, or telephone, or entertainment gadget. A failed metaphor is an accidental idiom, which is worse than a deliberate one. Use them for semiotic hints and ornaments, sure, but it is a mistake to pretend that one thing is another. But the current, so-called "flat design" trend doesn't even do that. It just sandblasts the reliefs off existing skeuomorphs like some neo-Bauhaus experiment.
I typically judge user interfaces by how easy they are to utilize after I've had a few cocktails. I have to admit, ios is by far the easiest. things really get to the test after you've had, a few too many cocktails....I find ios7 particularly more difficult to operate, (particularly alarm setting ;) ) than ios 6, the visual flat look, and the fonts/colors, i find particularly difficult to deal with.... then again, perhaps it's just the drunken learning curve. ;) really though, if a company really wants to test how easy their platform is to operate, put them in the hands of drunk people.
An interface that encourages people to explore, to test and to try things out is a lot more like the natural world than something that manufactures signifiers that copy earlier cultural constructs. If pure raw efficiency is the goal then an interface with little ambiguity is a good thing. But if the user will be learning to use and develop an intimate, long-term relationship with a device or tool, it's OK that it takes effort to learn. It's OK that not everything is spelled out. It is true that you can take any style too far. Too flat, or too skeuomorphic both cause problems for people. But tools, and the need to learn them are inherently bound together. There is something delightful and mysterious by engaging with a tool that doesn't give up all it's secrets all-at-once.
Meanwhile, this very blog post (via is using flat design.
Everett McKay
Thanks for writing this, Chris! I have been on the same train of thought for quite awhile. In my “UI is Communication” and UX Design Essentials course, I define intuitive UI to mean that users can determine the interaction and result without the use of reason, experimentation, memorization, documentation, or training. I then give the specific attributes required to achieve intuitive UI, which include discoverability, affordance, predictability, feedback, and forgiveness. So the “flat design means hide discoverability and affordances” movement has unintuitive UI as an explicit design goal! An interesting example is that Windows 8 has the “Content not chrome” design principle, which most people disturbingly interpret to mean “focus on eye-candy, hide the affordances.” I watched one Windows 8 design training video where the instructor added an affordance to aid discoverability and said “I know you are not supposed to do that anymore.” Unbelievable! Apple seems to have adopted a principle of “People get it now, so we don’t need affordances anymore,” which is unfortunate. While I really like iOS7, I really wish Apple would dial it back a bit. Buttons should look like buttons, and the most important controls should stand out visually when scanning. Users should have to work to find the controls. Flat design with intuitive UI is clearly the right direction. I think Google is striking the right balance with Android. Hiding affordances aside, I think flat design is a good trend and I hope it endures. Most of my customers are developing commercial software with minimal design talent (and that’s not going to change any time soon), and I recommend flat design principles to them. Non-designers have no business designing icons, complex color schemes, gradients, 3D, and shadows. The visual simplicity of flat design is the right direction. So let’s not blow it!
Steven Hall
I'm often wary of the "an interface should encourage you to explore" as it is "more like the natural world" people. First off, UIs for our technological devices are anything but natural. And second a silly example: hey! there's a snake over there. Is it a corn snake (your document is saved safely) or a coral snake (your document deleted without a trace)? Which is which? I'm sorry but you're just going to have to explore to find out.
Chris Noessel
I also think it's quite an unlikely scenario that anyone with their busy lives is going to sit down to explore one of many dozens of apps and applications they use each day. "Hrm. We'll I could catch the 49ers game. Or I could try swiping every element in that app I use at work and see I anything new happens." I think the 49ers would win most every time. (And I'm not even a sports guy.)
Anthony Pelosi
+1 - The pendulum swung too far towards real world mimicry, now too far towards flat minimalism, and hopefully we'll eventually settle down somewhere in the middle. The tough part with being in the middle is that it requires more thought for every single decision, rather than sticking to one set of rules with a very clear theme or directive. Interested to see how things will unfold and if it will be possible to strike an elegant, happy medium. Or we simply build dynamic UI dependent on your age bracket ;)
"Just In Time" said above: "When designing there is a constant struggle between making something apparent right away and keeping it from being distracting once learned." From a user's standpoint, I truly think that some designers worry about that way too much and as a result, they institute design changes moreso to satisfy their concern (and to keep them busy) than to address any real user problem. With iOS6 and prior, there were very few instances where the simply labeled skeumorphic content got in the way enough to be a distraction, at least for me and for most of my friends who I polled for opinion once iOS7 came out. Once iOS7 introduced all the bright, grey on grey, harder-to-read presentations with flat content, small thin font, and reduced (if not removed entirely) "ambient content" that previously helped the user quickly identify what was "functionable" and what was "just background," the UI went from "just worked from the get-go" to "distractingly unintuitive from the get-go." Plus, the move towards something "simpler" since designers now imagine that all users don't need the additional "ambient content" after the UI is "once learned" completely ignores the fact that there is not a finite # of users. There will always be new users starting from square 1 who must stumble and figure things out, like the author of this article points out, rather than be aided by the skeu help of iOS pre-iOS7. It's very reminiscent of "smart phones" before the iPhone where little was intuitive. Plus, "art" is just more pretty when it 1) reflects the real world, and 2) doesn't look like something that "anyone" could create. Anyone of us with MSPaint could create the iOS7 calculator or compass interface. Few of us could have created the engagingly pretty iOS6 calculator interface, and even fewer of us could have created the stunningly pretty iOS6 compass interface. Jony Ive: Thumbs down to your selfish design leadership. :) At least provide the users an option to decide for themselves how rich of an interface to use. Case in point: feel free to view the Review ratings for OS Yosemite at the APP store. Many more 1 stars than 5 stars. Hopefully the people who are speaking are being heard. Nice article, I agreed with all.
I might also slightly disagree that "the runways of interaction are just gorgeous now." Instead, I'd say they're just different & over-simplified, kind of like the difference between playing a game of billiards in: A) the gameroom of a rich uncle's house with rich mahogany walls & ceiling, comfy leather couches, paintings on the wall, a green felt pool table, a crackling fireplace, and windows that overlook the estate, vs. B) the gameroom of Jony Ive's house where the walls are all windows which are covered with grey blinds, the tables are glass, the furniture is hard grey plastic w/o those pesky unnecessary adornments called armrests that just create confusion for the user, the pool table surface is 100% composite in shades of grey, and silent radiant floor heating fills the room with silence!
Ivan Burmistrov
Chris, I added a link to your article to our bibliography of flat vs realistic design:
Your article pointed out exactly what has been frustrating me more and more in computing... The visual cues that GUIs used to contain, that let you instantly know what you were looking at. I'll take an ugly GUI with a standard WIMP toolbar (File, Edit, Tools, Help, etc.) that lets me instantly know how to use any application (because it's self-documenting, and a STANDARD) over fufu minimalist design any day.

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