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Why Flat Design Matters

If you don’t read Semil Shah’s Twitter or blog, you should — it’s quite informative.

However, Semil tweeted something this morning that I have to disagree with:

Semil's tweet

Up until iOS 7, Apple’s mobile operating system had a heavily skeuomorphic UI. For those that don’t obsessively read interface design literature, a skeuomorph is:

a derivative object that retains ornamental design cues from structures that were necessary in the original

In iOS 1-6, this meant that app UIs looked like their physical analogs when they didn’t have to: iBooks looked like a real bookshelf, Notes looked like a legal notepad, etc. Everything looked like it was three dimensional, down to the fake shadows and lighting.

With iOS 7, Apple “flattened” its design from faux-3D to 2D, removing most of the fake lighting effects and textures, and moving from a skeuomorphic UI theme to a “flat” or “digital” UI. Buttons, switches, and levers no longer mimicked the look of their physical counterparts.

This design overhaul has been controversial among users, inciting a number of parodies about Apple VP of Design Jony Ive’s design decisions.

Semil’s first point is right: iOS 7’s new flat design doesn’t add additional utility to iOS native apps — it’s merely a fresh coat of paint. In fact, skeuomorphic UI was the right decision for iOS 1-6. Skeuomorphs are useful for cueing users to software functions because they draw physical analogs. For instance, touching a part of the screen that looks like an on-off switch in a flashlight app turns the flashlight on or off — and in the early days of consumer smartphone adoption, when a touchscreen-based phone was a crazy idea, Apple’s skeumorphic iOS made the iPhone the easiest smartphone to pick up and use. Skeuomorphism eased new smartphone users into a digital environment with its comforting faux leather and toggle switches that people understood.

But skeuomorphism’s strength — its physical analogies — is also its weakness. When you use a physical analog in design, you implicitly limit yourself to the physics that govern that analogFor example, in Outlook, emails are sorted by folders. This physical analog is easy to understand. People knew what it meant physically for something to be in a folder, and what it means to nest folders:

But consider this: in the above folder structure, what if I have an email that is both Personal and Travel related? I can’t possibly put it in both folders, because a physical piece of mail can’t be in two physical folders at once. And thus we hit a completely artificial physical constraint imposed by skeuomoprhic design.

Now consider Gmail tags, a “digital” or “flat” UI:

Email in Gmail can easily have two more tags without incurring the cognitive friction of violating physics. Furthermore, if you prefer a traditional folder structure, tags will support that too — just don’t use more than one tag.

In the early days of email, when people were transitioning from paper mail, the folder analogy helped ease the transition. Now that people understand email as its own mature medium, flattening design away from skeuomorphism unlocks the potential of digital data management.

More importantly for companies designing platforms, hanging onto skeuomorphism once a paradigm (such as smartphones) matures is dangerous. Whereas in the early days of technology adoption skeuomorphism draws users by flattening the learning curve (excuse the pun), later in the adoption cycle it can alienate users who are confused by your original design choices. A big insight from the time I spent designing enterprise software for Microsoft as an intern was the Save Button:

User research discovered that a lot of Microsoft Office users had no idea what the Save icon represents. And if they did, then their kids did not.

So back to iOS and Semil’s point: simply flattening the UI of iOS hasn’t added new value, true, because the change has been merely aesthetic. But where he is wrong is that flat UI is a major step forward — now that smartphones are a mature medium, users no longer need the training wheels of skeuomorphism to be comfortable. By flattening its UI, Apple has removed the constraints of artificially imposed physics from iOS, and enterprising developers will design ever more clever UI. I can’t wait.

Categories: design.