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.

12 Comments

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...
Jay
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 dot.com 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.
butteryak
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.
Stefan
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.
jesu
Meanwhile, this very blog post (via Cooper.com) 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!
Your Flat Design is Convenient for Exactly One of Us | Cooper Journal | Aaron Jorbin
[...] via Your Flat Design is Convenient for Exactly One of Us | Cooper Journal. [...]
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 Education and Facebook Paper | DeWolf LLC
[...] When designing there is a constant struggle between making something apparent right away and keeping it from being distracting once learned.  Even the struggle that’s going on between skeuomorphism and flat design could be boiled down to making something clear right off the bat (a 3D icon that looks like a button) versus simplifying the user experience (with less gradients and fancy textures).  Chris Noessel over at Cooper explained this concept very well over here…http://www.cooper.com/journal/2014/01/your-flat-design-is-convenient-for-exactly-one-of-us. [...]

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