UX global trends might be narrowing our minds

The risks of creating a digital world where every option looks the same.

This week I stumbled upon Michael Horton’ Medium post about a trend he spotted on some of the most used mobile apps. He realised, since the past year, most of them have simplified their design and displayed their typefaces in a way that they all look alike. Michael calls this trend “complexion reduction” and suggests it to be a new standard for UX.

Michael’s post triggered me to think about the connection with another signal of change I’m particularly interested in; the “sameness effect”.

The sameness effect is easy to explain, and it’s everywhere. Just think of the hipster coffee shop in your neighbourhood or the new hip brunch restaurant around your street. Their specific aesthetics define these type of places; they are all minimal and pleasing. Their decoration (design) is key to their personality. But, funny enough, I bet you could name a couple more places that look the same. They might even serve precisely the same food/coffee. And what’s even more disturbing; you can also find the same type of people there.

It’s something that is happening globally. You’ll see this in every city around the world. In some ways, it’s comforting; when you travel, even when you are miles away from home, you can still find a place that feels familiar. Tourists and more global-minded locals often crowd these type of shops, which assures my theory of familiarity and the feeling of safety.

In some cities and neighbourhoods, it’s even hard to find places that don’t have this look & feel. The whole area becomes a “sameness zone” for a particular kind of people with specific leisure behaviours, turning every option in the same choice, and every person into the same persona.

Some examples of coffee shops and restaurants with the “sameness aesthetics”

The problem with this effect is obvious; it kills diversity (every coffee shop looks the same, with the same kind of people), and it narrows our minds (if all options look the same, everyone thinks the same).

It’s a safe choice for entrepreneurs/business managers, so it keeps expanding; if people love going to these places, you should open another one of those. Why should you take the risk for something different?

Complexion reduction and the sameness effect

Coming back to Michael’s article and the “complexion reduction” trend, we can see a clear connection to the “sameness effect”. Creating a flat and unified digital aesthetic is like letting our neighbourhoods get filled with the same type of shops and restaurants.

The danger here is to end up seducing people to fit in a particular user type (persona) and leave them with a narrowed digital imagination where differences are not appreciated but seem like an accessory or uncomfortable option.

These kinds of apps appeal to millions of people, so they have the power to shape the way we behave and think digitally worldwide. So if all these apps are starting to look the same, does it mean we are all the same? Will we turn into the same digital persona? Are they forcing to standardise or simplify our digital experiences to the point that our differences don’t matter anymore? Is this trend contributing to a world where everyone moves around comfortable circles of people, places and choices?

I understand there are fundamentals of UX design, and some of them could be universal, but is the designers’ responsibility to keep exploring different ways of showing information, excite people to try new things, and contribute to a more vibrant and diverse digital experience.

As designers, we should try to separate what decisions are part of a UX principle that benefits users, and which ones are just another consequence of an already too centralised and homogenous digital industry.

I’m a creative consultant focused on strategy and the creative process. I’m also the creator of Triggers cards, a brainstorming tool for creative projects. Reach me out on Twitter, Messenger or email.