Complexion Reduction: A New Trend in Mobile Design
Michael Horton
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Skype’s new mobile UI and when not to use Complexion Reduction

Michael Horton wrote a great article entitled Complexion Reduction: A New Trend in Mobile Design.

In this article, he discusses many apps have shifted towards a monochromatic, almost wireframe-like design that simplifies the user interface, leaving room for the contents of the app.

He refers to this style of design Complexion Reduction.

I feel like this simplified, monochromatic approach works really well when the app itself is content rich and has a lot of color.

Instagram is all about colorful photos. Let them shine through by minimizing the UI.

Airbnb is photo rich and flipping through photos is a large part of the experience.

Apple Music merchandizes cover art and photos of musicians.

Medium has photos when looking at list views and wants people to focus on content when in the articles. Getting the UI out of the way while they’re reading makes total sense.

But, this style does not always work.

Look at the recent redesign of the Skype app on iOS. They tried to make it simple but unfortunately it turned out simplistic.

There is no rich color or content, so Skype’s new look comes across as barebones and boring.

They had to actually add a random banner with a background gradient and the Skype logo to fill in random white space.

Aside from the bland aesthetic, the interface is clunky and unintuitive.

For example, the icons are unintuitive and hard to understand.

What do the two different smiley buttons here do? You have to keep clicking on them and think about it.

And the message send button is annoyingly close to button that sends your location, causing you to accidentally send your location to people all the time.

You can’t necessarily attribute bad icon choices to complexion reduction, but with nothing else to look at, your eyes focus on what is present.

When what is present is flawed, it becomes magnified to the eyes of the user.

I’ve talked to a dozen people about the new Skype design and not a single person had a positive thing to say about it.

Though not statistically significant, I would wager that most users hate it.

The monochromatic color scheme was almost definitely fiercely debated internally because they decided to let the user choose between multiple color schemes (I’m assuming so they could see who in design/product team was more “right” on what users would prefer).

I’m all for Complexion Reduction when it’s making way for rich content to shine through. But without the rich content to back it, it looks boring, empty, uninviting, and unimaginative.

Don’t use Complexion Reduction just because it’s a trend (as it appears Skype has done) but rather when it makes sense because you have rich, colorful content and photos.

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