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.