Saturday, September 21, 2013

Flatten All The Things!

I'm not thrilled with this make-everything-flat design trend. I don't like flat iOS 7 or flat Windows 8. They don't utilize good usability principles. They both fail. It's poor design and bad UX practice. It's a trend, a fad, it's not good UI development. It actually makes things more difficult to separate visually. Things like drop shadows make it easier to identify an active window. Gradients help identify buttons. These severely flat interfaces aren't even particularly attractive. And realism isn't skeuomorphism. Skeuomorphism is when an interface functions like a real world counterpart. Apple's old leatherette Calendar, Contacts and torn-paper Notes were visually realistic but not skeuomorphic. They didn't behave like actual paper objects, and ugly aside, that was their real usability problem.

Flat works if it's high contrast, like Valve's game UIs. Light grey icons on white, like iOS 7 Safari is not how to do it. Valve has been doing flat, minimalist UIs for well over a decade and they do it right. Half-Life 2 for example present options and information clearly. Affordance is high, you know what to click on to interact with and what is simply information. It's clean, flat and easy to use.

Another example, those cool infographics have high information density but are easy to read and follow. I cant say the same of Windows 8 start screen or iOS icon mess. The start screen squares blink and dance around like a punch to monkey internet ad. The iOS main screen is a dense grid of squares and if you have sub-folders, you get white squares with little blobs of pixels that tell you nothing. It reminds me of those people who cover their desktops with so many icons they are constantly trying to find where they downloaded a document or application or even start a browser.

Yet another particularly unpleasant aspect of this UI flattening is that it seems to go hand-in-hand with anorexic text. Thin text and lines are bad for accessibility. The new icons in Safari are difficult for me to see and I'm not vision impaired. Microsoft and Apple, please note: low contrast, tiny text in large field of white is not minimalism and it's not good for readability.

Personally, I'll take highly realistic, shiny button over a tiny, thin stick drawing; at least I know what I'm looking at and will have a better clue as to what it does.

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