Flat Design Won’t Hide Your Usability Sins

By Baruch Sachs

Published: October 7, 2013

“The overall intent of flat design [is to] rely on typography and layout to convey hierarchy and complexity rather than less meaningful elements such as shadowing and glossiness.”

An ounce of gravy can hide a multitude of sins—or so the old adage goes. When it comes to food, gravy might seem to hide an inferior product, but for someone with a sophisticated and nuanced palate, its inadequacies would certainly shine through. The same holds true for the new paradigm of flat design.

Unless you’ve been dwelling in a cave, you know—like most UX professionals—that so-called flat design is the way to go these days. After all, Apple says so. But once you get beyond the hype of flat design in the new iOS7, you can quickly see that the flatness of the design was not really about aesthetics. At its heart, it was about information architecture, the desire to go deep without being distracted by aesthetic elements.

That, at least, is the overall intent of flat design, right? Rely on typography and layout to convey hierarchy and complexity rather than less meaningful elements such as shadowing and glossiness. However, despite the popularity of particular design trends such as flat or skeuomorphic design, we must not lose sight of what the customer sees. As a profession, User Experience talks a great deal about empathy. We pride ourselves on being able to see the world through our users’ eyes. With that understanding comes a responsibility to guide our customers toward designs that are appropriate for their tasks. Flat design might be trendy, but it is not necessarily going to be the best design style for every task at hand. Inevitably, if you start your design process by choosing what style you’re going for, you are starting in the wrong place.

Flat Design Does Not Mean Usable Design

“Implementations that employ the concept of flat design are not inherently usable.”

In the world of UX design consulting, a deluge of requests for flat design has already begun, and it is not going to stop anytime soon. Dozens of my clients are already requesting that I remake their application, Web site, or product by creating a flat design. However, while flat design is crisp, clean, and, in theory, relies on core design elements to make user interfaces usable, implementations that employ the concept of flat design are not inherently usable.

We still need to think about things like usability, layout, typography, data density, and all of the core principles of design to ensure that our user interfaces are actually usable. We need to keep all of these principles in mind as we handle the inevitable flurry of requests that we create flat designs for our clients. We need to think of all of this as we counter our clients’ naive belief that a flat design is all that matters—and will act as gravy, covering up bad data design or the fact that we haven’t followed basic tenets of usability.

“Flat designs give a sort of sameness to user-interface elements. When this happens, designers are truly treading in some dangerous territory—
especially when the goal of a user interface is to help guide and direct users through their tasks.”

One of the biggest drawbacks of flat user-interface designs I can see is that, when they are done badly, they can be rather boring and uninspired. If we look beyond the two-dimensional surface, we can also see that flat designs give a sort of sameness to user-interface elements. When this happens, designers are truly treading in some dangerous territory—especially when the goal of a user interface is to help guide and direct users through their tasks.

Our clients certainly do not want users’ staring at assorted muted boxes on a screen, wondering what might happen if they click or tap something—or whether anything would happen at all. We don’t want users to waste time figuring out what they should be doing with a user interface simply because nothing expresses a visual hierarchy.

I have heard recently that some advantages of flat user-interface design are that this style gives a clear sense of hierarchy and lends itself to distinctive placement of user-interface elements. However, in practice, we are starting to see quite the opposite. This is not because flat design is essentially a bad paradigm to follow, but because there can easily be bad implementations of flat design—just as with any design trend.

We should not be choosing to create a flat user-interface design simply because flat design is a popular trend. We should choose flat design to solve performance issues, for its design aesthetic, or because of a desire to rely more on typography and layout than on more superficial design elements. We should use flat design because it is a lot quicker to implement a flat design and frees up time, so we can really focus on solving information architecture and other core issues with a design.

Getting Back to Basics

“Sometimes flat design works, and sometimes it doesn’t. … To judge the best approach, you need to understand usage patterns. You need to know how people do their work.”

To avoid creating bad implementations of flat design, you just need to stick to the design principles that you were trained to use. You should create a comprehensive design plan that you’ve based on a clear understanding of user requirements, doing wireframing and usability testing before making any design decisions about the style of design you’re going to employ.

To help you decide how to style your overall user interface, you need to be flexible. Sometimes flat design works, and sometimes it doesn’t. In general, you wouldn’t want to add heavy textures or skeuomorphic touches to things that users are going to use frequently. However, they are perfectly acceptable for functionality that people use less frequently and may need a design boost so people will notice them. So, to judge the best approach, you need to understand usage patterns. You need to know how people do their work.

Now, this is not exactly sexy. This is the hard, unglamorous side of things. However, it’s exactly what successful flat designs do. They make the complicated look easy. But you can’t achieve that just by implementing a flat design. You accomplish that by getting back to the nuts and bolts of user experience practice.

Whatever design trend comes our way, we will face some level of pressure to conform to it. However, even if we are huge proponents of a given design paradigm, we still cannot forgo empathy. We cannot use visual design as gravy to mask inadequate user research or a lack of time spent on understanding workflows and user tasks. Instead, we need to stick to our user experience basics and use flat design—or whatever hybrid design approach that comes along next—appropriately, so we can deliver beautiful designs that are not just a delight to behold, but a delight to use.

8 Comments

Baruch, great article, challenging a bit of a blind trend. I find particular insight in your comment, “If we look beyond the two-dimensional surface, we can also see that flat designs give a sort of sameness to user-interface elements.”

In my opinion, this applies in spades to iOS7 and the associated native apps. The new visual design, with all of its merits, has paid wholly inadequate attention to the important attribute of distinctiveness. As a result, rather than knowing at a glance what app and app section is being viewed, one often has to look more closely, and even read the content to figure this out. As a result, it actually now takes more time to extract information from the native apps than in previous versions.

Agreed. Very good article. I would just also add that the flat design trend bares a striking resemblance to wireframes that have been skinned with a very simple veneer. When creating wireframes, you are developing flat, simple UX. As a designer, the real money spot is to know when to stop embellishing the wireframes.

Oh, and let’s not forget the A word, Android. They were making things flat long before iOS7.

And Windows Phone before Android. :)

Thanks, Paul. Glad you like the article. Flat design has a lot of strengths, but as you say, we can’t blindly follow it and need to recognize that there is a manageable risk here.

It’s almost a shame to have to call out the obvious, but I agree with your comment that it’s not going to stop soon. Hopefully, as UX designers, we can keep up our mantra that it’s about good design, regardless of any trends, and good design is measurable.

I love your glossy navigation. This Web site has very well thought out UX.

Firstly, read up some more on template-matching theory. You’ll hopefully arrive at the conclusion we humans can break design down into patterns that we later interpret and decode.

Don’t confuse usability in design with consistency/constancy. That was your first mistake.

Secondly, a minimalist approach to design reduces feature density, which is why it’s probably an attractive bias in play right now (trend wise), given it acts as a forcing agent to reduce complexity in application design—so it’s really less about the design style and more of an inward-looking trend toward the way teams approach design.

Thirdly, if the entire planet can navigate crappy experiences like , Lotus Notes, SAP, SharePoint—and I could name countless other solutions that have hit mainstream adoption—they can, in turn, navigate whatever crappy experience one throws at them.

To hide behind the word usability invokes my Behaviour Science rage-o-meter because that implies or invokes a set of tones that something isn’t usable—when even on its worst day it is.

The real tracking point you’re locking onto when you argue these cases is more to do with with incentive versus behavior—a form of cognitive dissonance. Typically, a user’s behavior will trend upward, especially in situations like workplaces where there is forced adoption, or duress.

The incentive, however, will always decay, but the rate of decay is really where you’d track usability—that is, if you do make a complex or hard series of patterns users have to navigate, they, in turn, will have a more accelerated decay rate than one who hasn’t suffered under this experience path.

Flat design, however, is somehow sending a confused message around these two tracking points. That is to say, the experiences generally aren’t bad—incentive/behaviour will at first have a healthy trend—but what does often become the lasting sticking point or the fuel to the decay fire isn’t usability, it’s often how shallow the feature density becomes.

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