“Everything is a copy of a copy of a copy” which is a phrase copied from Chuck Palahniuk’s famous book Fight Club. Have you noticed that apps such as Facebook, Gmail, Twitter and Airbnb all look strangely alike? It is as though they have all been designed by the same company. But they haven’t, so what’s going on?
“Everything is a copy of a copy of a copy” which is a phrase copied from Chuck Palahniuk’s famous book Fight Club. With every new app update, it seems that modern design practices are determined to prove this point. Have you noticed that apps such as Facebook, Gmail, Twitter and Airbnb all look strangely alike? Or maybe you haven’t noticed because these apps have merged their designs so successfully that you hardly notice which one you’re using anymore! Open up a couple of these apps now, and you’ll find similarities between them so striking that it is as though they have all been designed by the same company. But they haven’t, so what’s going on?
If you’re not sure what UI is, it stands for user interface. It is how we interact with machines and navigate their various parts. Take your mobile as an example, the moment you put a finger to the screen you are engaging with the device’s UI. When you open an app, like Instagram, you are interacting with Instagram’s UI.
Ideally, a UI will be engineered to maximise usability for the user so that they can easily complete tasks. However, knowing how to design a successful UI is only possible if you understand user behaviour, which in the web development industry we call the user experience or UX.
Don Norman coined the term UX when he self-titled himself User Experience Architect while working at Apple Computer, Inc.. He champions human-centric design in everything he does, believing that it is the user and their behaviour which should dictate the final UI design of any project and not designer or stakeholder preferences. If the UI is engineered to complement the user’s natural expectations and gestures, then they should hardly notice they are using it at all.
As Norman says, “Good design is actually a lot harder to notice than poor design, in part because good designs fit our needs so well that the design is invisible.” Which is a pretty good description of what using our favourite apps is like now, right?
So how do you design UI that is so good people don’t even realise they are using it? The answer is minimalism. Instead of bright colours and patterns, abstract navigation and quirky alignment, today’s web designers are choosing to keep things simple by only including the bare necessities. Where colours used to be now white reigns, navigation is kept as simple and conventional as possible, and individual elements of content such as text and images take up more space. Just check out this timeline showing how Instagram’s UI has changed over the years:
The overall effect is a less busy, cleaner look and feel so that accessing all the functions of the app is a breeze which makes for a happy UX! The white navigation panel found at the bottom of the screen with a limit of 4 – 5 icons to click on, the large content at the centre of the screen and the white/ block colour banner at the top is the style of interface you now find used by the most popular apps. This level of standardisation may sound like the death of creativity to some people, but just look at what happens when you get too creative…
SnapChat is a prime example of how things can go terribly wrong when you mess around with UI. Although SnapChat’s design breaks the mould anyway, many of their loyal users abandoned the app due to a redesign in February of this year. At least 3 million users quit the app by Q2, 1.3 million petitioned for the update to be scrapped and celebrity Kylie Jenner asked her legions of fans on Twitter “does anyone else not open Snapchat anymore? Or is it just me… ugh this is so sad”. Not good! Users tend to take it for granted that apps will be designed to meet their expectations, and when an app doesn’t they freak out!
App fatigue is a real thing. Our smartphones are teeming with apps and there is always a new one to try out which means you probably have to delete an old app to make room, but which one? Then you have to figure out how the new app works, even though it is only a simple task you want to do. Not to mention the amount of updates apps require, which could completely change the UI and then you have to learn all over again. The stress of it! No company wants their app to be that app.
That is why web designers research what UI is working in the industry and what’s a flop, and the winning components naturally rise to the top resulting in the minimalist UI trending at the moment. At the end of the day, what works, works. Of course, there are funky apps out there designed to push boundaries and subvert norms, but it is often niche communities that popularise these apps. Amongst the big players, such as Google and Facebook, who are trying to appeal to as many people as possible, there are obvious advantages in the standardisation of UI.
At MadBit, we specialise in user-focused, mobile-friendly web design. If you have a website or app project coming up and would like to work with a forward-thinking, responsive development agency, get in touch today