UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 1185 February 10, 2014

Some Thoughts on Being Flat

Now that we’ve all had a few months to play with it, I think most of us can agree that iOS 7 offers some very exciting user experience features that set it apart from its predecessors. Features like the use of translucent layers to keep navigational context, the added depth of parallax movement effects and transitions, better and more intuitive gestures, reduction of information overload, and the removal of some of the unnecessary visual noise through flattening and thinning the design all have plenty of merit.

It’s not surprising there are many opinions on the updates since this is the first full rethinking of the UI since the first iPhone. With the trend to go simple and flat, some design elements have been purposely avoided. As has been well documented, the new iOS has eliminated some of the common skeuomorphic, or metaphorical design, that has been so strongly associated with Apple.

Forbes contributor Tim Worstall describes skeuomorphism as a “catch all term for when objects retain ornamental elements from the past, derivative iterations–elements that are no longer necessary to the current objects’ functions.” Some believe this design technique is only meant to be a bridge from getting people to this new mental model and association, and not needed long-term.

I think it makes sense for Apple to move away from skeuomorphic design now that users are familiar with the way things work since this is not the first iPhone. When we think about skeuomorphic design, some of the old metaphors may not be relevant to the new users. For example, many tech users rely primarily on digital calendars and not the standard wall-mounted calendars that used to adorn everyone’s offices and homes. We no longer “tape” on VHS or use records for music consumption or do our note taking solely on lined paper–our way of life has evolved and so have our metaphors. Even though the skeuomorphic design has disappeared from iOS 7, many users can understand the different features through muscle memory and the jump from analog to digital in many processes.

Our way of life has evolved and so have our metaphors

In his article “Does Skeuomorphic Design Matter?” John Payne discusses how “Skeuomorphs are stories of utility frozen in time. These new cultural affordances work because they leverage a user’s past experience and apply that understanding to something new.” He raises many good points, but I think when it comes to digital, there is a new normal, as many have discussed. We use things in different ways and these skeuomorphic design elements are meant to be the bridge to get users over the hump and adopting a newer mental model.

I do think, however, that the new iOS lacks some perceived affordances. The lack of containers around buttons and spinners and floating airy text is cause for confusion—it causes me to wonder, “is this a button or floating text?” And soon after its release, there were some thoughts on whether this new flat approach is affecting usability. Some think the pendulum has swung too far to be simple, and many agree a skeuomorphic approach just adds complexity.

Since we have had some time to get familiar with the new design, our mental models have shifted once again. Skeuomorphic design and the analog metaphors helped us make the jump from our old non-digital world to our new mobile space. But the old way of thinking is gone—we no longer associate mail with an envelope or lined paper with note taking. Skeuomorphic design helped us get to where we are today: independent of old mental models of a bygone era.

 

Image of apple, pencil, and pad courtesy Shutterstock

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

User Profile

Jessica is an Associate Director of User Experience with Hill Holliday in Boston and has expertise in interaction design and usability. She has experience designing with desktop, mobile, and product design, as well as performing user research. Jessica holds a Masters of Science degree in Human Factors in Information Design from Bentley University. The focus for her degree was mobile and gestural interfaces and meta-cognitive aspects of human factors and HCI. She also has a Bachelors of Arts degree in English with a Certification in Technical Writing and Professional Communication. Other agency work experience includes Isobar where she worked on award-winning projects.

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Comments

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uxfindings.blogspot.com: I feel like I'm in a boat. On one side of the boat we have skeuomorphism. On the other we have flat design. Seems like our society keeps shifting their buts from one side to the other. Not sure if anyone else has been in a boat like this, but the problem with this way of moving forward is that we keep zigzagging ahead. We need to find the equilibrium between the two. Maybe the key to this equilibrium is in the way we employ skeuomorphism.

Creating affordance for clicking is a perfect usage. Decorating with skeuomorphism is not. At the same time, flat design falls flat when it comes to creating affordance for clicking, but rocks when it comes to beautifying your page without overpowering the main calls to action.

Thanks for the thoughts on this topic.

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I'm sorry, what was that?

It appears as if you decided you just *had* to write about how much you love iOS 7 without any sort of objective take on its shortcomings or, ahem, rip-offs. And how many also consider it to be a rather piss-poor paint job.

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There are many things I don't love about iOS7, so this article was not a love story at all. I think moving to a flatter design is more visually appealing and more in line with what others are doing (and yes, everyone can agree that Apple was not an innovator in this area). However, there are things as I pointed out, that definitely challenge its usability. This article was meant to be in reflection of all design moving away from skeumorisphm - and just timeliness of the recent iOS release.

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So, I've been following this flat design discussion since Apple dropped iOS7 on the unsuspecting public. I think the entire discussion is misguided.

It goes without saying that some traditional skeuomorphic interface elements such as a floppy disk or a video cassette need updating. Obviously we can't rely on old cultural affordances to move interface design into the 21st century. That said, as you alluded, the flat design trend is swinging far, far in the other direction, much to the detriment of usability. Simply removing dimensionality and other flourishes don't necessarily make the interface simpler or easier to use.

The examples you pointed out are perfect examples of this, "The lack of containers around buttons and spinners and floating airy text is cause for confusion..." Aside from iOS7 being slightly snappier, I find it quite aggravating to use. My eyes work much harder to find things, touch points blend in with the background, and affordances are sparse. It took me a couple of weeks before I figured out how to bring up the browser menu bar at the bottom reliably.

Interface elements should be designed that provide the best ease of use. If, within your overall design approach, that meas using drop shadows, use 'em. Dimensionality provides clarity. Borders make touch points clear. Containers help group related items together. And a "pencil" is still widely understood as a writing tool. An envelope, even if rarely used, may continue to be an effective affordance for email because its implied meaning is passed on within our culture. If it fits in with your design strategy, use all the tools at your disposal. Just because Apple and Microsoft have gone "flat" doesn't mean that's the only way to do it. It's not a either/or design decision.

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Well I disagree with why you think Apple dropped skeuomorphism. In my opinion they dropped it because others dropped it, including Microsoft. There is no shame in following on this occasion, as Apple have lead, and in many mays been the only design orientated company in their field.

In fact it is down to Apple's success that Microsoft employed designers for their re-design. Finally companies appreciate the importance of design and functionality is important with consumers.

It's not just the end of skeuomorphism, it's also the end of technically minded, but non visually orientated people controlling everything online. Which is how the first web designers began. They were not graphic designers, they were technicians.

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Nicely put Iain.

I feel like visual designers spotted the trend years before Apple ever executed on it. And still before Microsoft. To your point, there has been a shift in how business executives, technologists, and developers perceive the importance of interaction and visual design for digital products. Alan Cooper would be happy to know that the The Inmates are (no longer) Running the Asylum.

Cheers!