Push-me Pull-you — Flat design — Is ‘perceived affordance’ out the door?

What does a handle on a door communicate to you? Pull-me! Annoying if in fact you need to push the door to open it, even worse if the handle is further misrepresented with a sign that says ‘Push’: https://youtu.be/5CyXED9mKUc

Visual cues help set our expectations as to how we are to interact with the objects around us. Changing those visual cues even slightly can have dramatic effects on how we interact with our world. Take traveling abroad for example. I recently travelled to Chicago for a project I was running for KPMG, using the underground and crossing roads is trivial for me in London, but in a foreign country it took much more effort to interpret the environment around me and interact successfully (and safely)… I didn’t get run over, but I had to pay much more attention and it took slightly longer to make decisions.

The same is true in our digital environment. My experience over the last 15 years of consulting on user interface and user experience is that ‘perceived affordance’, the ability to give cues to users as to how they should interact, is the single most important concept to get right when building interfaces. Even more so than ever as user’s spend more time flicking between interfaces, their decisions and interactions are rapid and they don’t have time to ‘think twice’ about an action. It needs to be instinctive, natural. Interfaces need to communicate what is about to happen, what action is required.

Flat design is a gorgeous trend, one which my agency Contra have adopted wholeheartedly, but as an interface designer / consultant I have to work harder than ever to ensure that the interfaces I work on clearly represent their meaning to the user. The risk of not paying enough attention to this is obvious. Users won’t know what is expected of them when interacting with my work, they will get ‘lost’. Also, my clients will not get traction with their projects and will ultimately lose their user base / their competitive edge. It can even impact on their brand and their ability to market themselves.

A classic example of a disregard of perceived affordance can be found in the original Windows 8 release. Would any user, without being educated of the fact, instinctively move their mouse to the bottom right corner, click Settings > Power > Shut down to turn off their computer?

So, when you design your next flat UI, ensure that a button looks like a button and a title looks like a title. Ask yourself if it is obvious what you are asking a user to do at any given stage. What visual cues are you giving them? Are those cues consistent across your interface? Do your users need to learn how to interpret your digital world afresh or can they transfer their understanding from other digital worlds over to yours? How much effort are you asking your users to invest to learn your interface?

Start with these, get the basics right. Ensure that Push means Push and Pull means Pull and that your flat design doesn’t end up frustrating users and increasing friction.

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