Is Flat Design Actually Awful?

Since 2007, the rise of mobile operating systems (and mobile apps) has changed how tech companies approach design. For the preceding twenty years (or so), the desktop had dominated as the “default” interface for the vast majority of the world’s computer users; with the advent of smaller screens, however, everything needed to change.

Rising competition between Apple, Google, and various hardware manufacturers also accelerated this design trend. Although all of these companies came to rely on the basic “grid of app icons” design for smartphones, many attempted to create something that looked distinctive at a glance. There was also the usability question: with so many people purchasing smartphones for the first time, designers needed to create icons and interfaces that pretty much anyone could understand intuitively.

For a long time, those needs meant that designers embraced skeuomorphic design, in which icons and other graphical elements had real-world equivalents; for example, the Game Center in iOS featured the green-felt background of a pool table, while the Notes app looked like a lined piece of yellow paper.

Within a few years of the smartphone revolution, however, skeuomorphic design was abandoned in favor of so-called “flat” design, which replaced all those real-world elements with minimalist shapes and colors. Apple’s iOS embraced this paradigm in 2013. Then came Google’s Material Design, an evolving standard that defines the Android operating system. And over the past few years, even websites have begun adopting the flat aesthetic.

Microsoft also embraced flat design, originally naming its variation “Metro” before trademark issues intervened. Now the company leverages what it calls the Fluent Design System, which includes guidelines for light, depth, motion, material, and scale when building software for the Microsoft ecosystem.

Objecting to Flatland

Jakob Nielsen, a Danish web usability guru, has co-authored a number of books on the subject of design. He is part of the Nielsen Norman group, which sparked quite a stir with a recent article about Flat UI elements causing uncertainty among users—a huge no-no. If that wasn’t damning enough, Nielsen also termed flat design a “threat to tablet usability.”

What does Nielsen mean by “uncertainty”? The firm conducted an experiment in which 71 respondents read nine pages from six different websites (topics ranged from e-commerce and non-profits to technology and finance). With some of these pages, the firm added shadows and gradients to make design elements stand out; with others, they “flattened” the design even more. The respondents found the pages with flatter design more confusing to navigate, taking an average of 22 percent longer to find a specific target.

That’s a pretty miserable result. But is flat design a pretty-looking sham? Has the entire technology industry gone down the wrong path when it comes to UX and design? Others don’t think so.

Going Forward

One article criticised the Nielsen Norman’s Group’s research methodology as inaccurate because it’s about design with “weak or absent signifiers,” rather than picking apart any issues with flat design as a concept.

This isn’t the first time that a Nielsen Norman article has fired a broadside at flat design; in a previous piece, the firm criticized Apple and others for sacrificing user-centric design principles in the name of “cool.” To wit, smaller and thinner fonts, paired with low contrast, may seem sleek and next-generation, but not everyone has 20/20 eyesight.

But let’s take Nielsen’s conclusions at face value for a moment. Is there a way to improve flat design so that it’s easier for users to navigate and read? Of course. That being said, Apple is committed to this “flat” path, along with Google: while there might be usability adjustments going forward, it seems unlikely that any current design schemes will be abandoned anytime soon.

For designers and developers who hate flat design—and there are definitely a few of you out there—that’s bad news, although at this point you’ve likely made your peace with the format. The trick now is to focus as much as possible on usability within the constraints of the format—user testing, as always, is a key part of that equation.

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