The World Is Not Flat: Reimagining the user experience to make the internet more accessible.

An argument for shiny buttons and wood textures in 2017

I recently finished watching season 1 of HBO’s WestWorld and not to give it away but one of the themes was that of an inventor grappling with the degree of realism most ideal for the robots he had created in the fictional amusement park. His dilemma formed around what the humans interacting with his creations would prefer: a hyper-realistic android that would be nice to look at but at the same time result in moral conflicts versus a purposefully lifeless construction that would numb the experience yet set clear boundaries between humanity and machinery. The web experience as we know it was presented with the same dichotomy when skeuomorphism gave way to flat design in 2007, which then became the visual language of choice and hasn’t changed since.

Skeuomorphic (/ˈskjuːəˌmɔːrf, ˈskjuːoʊ-/) design is the mimicry of real-world objects by software elements. It was popularized by Apple in the 1980’s and helped a generation that had never encountered a personal computer immediately familiarise themselves with an incredibly intuitive interface. It greatly reduced the cognitive burden on the user by aiding in their understanding of an interface on a plane freshly-encountered. A popular example of skeuomorphism is Apple’s pre-iOs 7 iBooks app that explicitly referenced a bookshelf with wood textures, depth of field and natural shadows, and took interactive cues from the real-life experience of bookshelf interaction.

Image via Apple

Elsewhere, skeuomorphism was seen in the way website buttons often carried an extravagant sheen and strong drop shadows in reference to the real-world buttons that the user would most probably have been accustomed to before switching their computer on for the first time.

This all changed when, in 2007, Microsoft introduced to the world their new, flat design language, then dubbed “Metro UI.” Boasting expansive single-hued blocks, bright palettes and semi-abstract iconography, it heralded what was to become a definitive change in the way designers purveyed interfaces. Apple hammered the proverbial nail in the coffin when, in 2012, they released iOs 7 to universal gratitude. Replacing a slew of realistic icons with sometimes obfuscated abstract iconography and a vibrant palette, Apple set the pace for “flat” user-centred experiences on the millions of iOs-carrying smartphones that to many users had become the screen of choice. 
 Flat design was welcomed all over the world. It was simple, sleek, and amplified what really mattered on the screen. It also allowed for a more efficient responsive web and faster loading times on sites.

Image via Microsoft

So why the return to skeuomorphism?

When the world shifted from hyper-literal aesthetic a few things had to be taken into consideration. The first is that at the turning point of the internet visual language, the USA enjoyed an Internet penetration of 75% and similarly advanced, a mobile-penetration of 82% compared to 3.67% and 17,75% respectively in Sub-Saharan Africa. Such a shift was justified considering the proliferation of personal computers and normalized screen-time behavior that user interface designers could then leverage for a more abstract representation of the same. Africa by comparison, 10 years later has yet to catch up as internet penetration currently stands at 27.7%.

Internet users (per 100 people) via WorldBank Data

In 2017 Africa has many users to whom the internet is a uniquely new experience and yet they lack the use of skeuomorphism as a crutch on which to rely as was afforded to developed countries when conditions were the same. As a result of this, many commonplace interfaces are intimidating upon first-encounter and the adoption rate for new technologies is low. This limits subsequent growth in sectors that rely on the internet and has far-reaching real-world implications.

“Skeuomorphism purveys a very high level of trust”

I had a brief conversation with Keith Kalyegira of Ugandan Capital Markets Authority last year. He mentioned that inasmuch as the government and the private sector had strived to create an environment conducive to a digitized banking industry, a large portion of the intended market opted rather to save their money using old fashioned methods. Typically in perceived-as-safe places, usually under a bed, in a mattress or similar location. This story, while specific to Uganda, is a very familiar one throughout the continent where even in countries as developed and as progressive as South Africa 12 million people live in extreme poverty. The problem with African user interface design assumptions is that, apart from introducing a new behavior (eg. remote banking), it does so using a visual language that is likely to alienate the user yet the solution could very easily lie in an empathetic design language.

Skeuomorphism purveys a very high level of trust. This is because user interface design is rooted in the assumption that if at any point a user feels unsure about how and where to proceed they are very likely to not use a service and it is well documented that recognized visual devices aid in communicating familiar experiences and thus prompting intuitiveness.

Even when looking beyond the scope of visual devices, much can be done within the realm of written language. Fast on the heels of the advent of minimalist UI design came the brevity of text on the world wide web. “Homepage” became “Home”, “About Us” became “About” and so on. This made everything slicker as a whole and communicated familiar messages more succinctly. But for those to whom familiarity to the web is a luxury, such brevity is alienating. There exists, even within this modern conversation, a shaky polarity that alienates and overcompensates all at once. Ecommerce-enabled websites will use familiar naming conventions for relatively new layers, for example: “Shop”, “Online Store” and “Shopping Cart” while still being stoic in other sections with language as mentioned above.

Looking further, written language can be used even beyond the personal computer and smartphone realm to introduce new behaviors. This can be achieved on platforms such as USSD which are available on every phone, including feature phones, which still hold a significant market-share in Africa. Familiar-sounding phrasing that contextualizes tasks for users to complete make the experience more enriching and build on trust.

“A bad user experience is bad business”

The UX School anticipates that by 2020, $1,4 trillion will be lost due to bad experience design, and to bring it back to the user, an abandoned user journey could limit an attempt at formalising a business, accessing banking products to grow business, or improving the quality of life. To put it simply, a bad user experience is bad business. Design experts designing for the Sub-Saharan context should relook the use cases and reimagine the personas for which they are designing. Another thing to note is that recent advancements in browser rendering mean that many of the data-heavy effects of skeuomorphic design that led to its erasure a decade ago can be achieved using browser-side code at a fraction of the data cost. This means that real-world experiences can be reproduced for the web using nothing but code and can be reformatted for different screens. Service providers, in either the corporate, non-governmental organization or government entity space should consider the use of approachable design when introducing new products as a matter of survival. As such, I propose that a UI toolkit be developed for sales enablement and access to market within the continent. This will serve as a guideline for effective communication across digital platforms and assist in ushering in what is widely touted as the fourth industrial revolution in Africa, which is one that is digital, data-led, and accessible.

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