Mobile interaction design has been stuck for a decade. Meanwhile, designers are hailing flat UI as “progress.”

Rob Ryan
Rob Ryan
Aug 15, 2013 · 4 min read

Minimalism is the new black. Flat design has conquered mobile. And Physics is the new Photoshop.

Designers are out-removing each other everywhere. Redesigns of iOS7 have been flying thick and heavy. Our leaders — Steve Kaneko (Metro), Matias Duarte (Android), and Jony Ive (Apple) — are pulling us toward crisper type, lighter iconography, and a Swiss ideal of color in motion.

Time to call us out on our bullshit: we’re just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Pictures Under Glass is over

We have much bigger problems to sort out, as an industry. Two years ago, Bret Victor pointed out that interaction design has been headed into a major dystopian funk.

To me, claiming that Pictures Under Glass is the future of interaction is like claiming that black-and-white is the future of photography. It’s obviously a transitional technology. And the sooner we transition, the better.

You can tell it’s The Future because it’s the Flattest Possible Thing (Microsoft Productivity Future Vision)

Our pocket touchscreens are, “Novocain to the wrist,” as Victor puts it. Your “smartphone” pointedly ignores every nonverbal cue you make:

  1. Reference by pointing, body orientation, and eye gaze (deixis)
  2. The “personal space” between you and others (proxemics)
  3. Your facial expression
  4. Voice tone (sarcasm, sincerity, pride, etc.)
  5. Involuntary emotive sounds (sighs, laughter, crying, etc.)

No wonder our apps are stale — they’re imperfectly absorbing the broad spectrum of human communication. We’ve resigned ourselves to pawing silently with one fingerpad in two dimensions. Sadly, these touchscreens have been our vision of “The Future” since the Eighties. (See: this soberingly ancient tech on a 1987 Buick Riviera). And when we try to move beyond touch to gestural interfaces, we only end up making giant floating touchscreens.

John Underkoffler of the MIT Media Lab took Spielberg’s request for an interface that’s like “conducting an orchestra” pretty literally.

Minority Report was probably our high-water mark for gestures. Tom Cruise’s pinch-zoom gloves could do no wrong. These sci-fi interfaces taught UI designers three things:

First, a great demo set to music (e.g. — Iron Man) makes all the hard problems disappear. Second, gestures are young and unproven. We haven’t really figured out how “clicking” should work (a problem known as “clutching”). Early tests show people get tired waving their limbs around to point at things: a condition charmingly dubbed “Gorilla Arm.” And third: if this Valley bubble pops again, we all have a rosy future in Hollywood.

We’ve got researchers looking into new tech (see: MIT Media Lab, Disney Imagineering), but it’s been five years. Interaction design is still basically the same as when Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone in 2007. Your finger is a stylus. You poke the screen, and some pictures move.

Flat vs. Skeuomorphic is an idiot’s distinction

A flatter UI doesn’t constitute progress. It suggests your designers have their thumbs up their asses. Our job isn’t just to simplify the world around us into a Swiss grid: we’re the Santa Clauses of technology.

We bring surprise and joy to the people we serve. A modern product design team needs to be able to compose breathtaking music, produce heart-wrenching video, prototype sexy hardware, and write compelling ad copy. There are enough pretty buttons in the world. It’s time for us to pay attention to the big picture.

“We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams …” — Arthur O'Shaughnessy

Our team at Clinkle slaves over surprise and joy. We build physical toys. We script and direct movies with outside production firms. We prototype far-out hardware tech. We illustrate the office walls. We patent novel UI controls. We bend physics to animate the universes we imagine. We hire musicians to soundscape our UI. And we sprinkle easter egg mini-games liberally across our product, so there’s always something playful to discover.

We’re not trying to win any awards. Miles from here and months from now, a member will find a surprise tucked into their wallet. A smile will break slowly across their face. That’s the moment we live for.

    Rob Ryan

    Written by

    Rob Ryan

    director of design @dynasty

    Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
    Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
    Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade