A Look Back at Design in 2016


In the words of the countless Year in Reviews posted by Your Friendly Tech Corporations,

Indeed, 2016 has been a fantastic 12 months for the design world. We bring you the highlights:

Designers will remember 2016 as the year of the comeback, most notably with Yelp and Twitter.

“After 500+ unsolicited redesigns in 2015 alone, we began to realize that Yelp may not be the design force our two sponsored reviews said we were,” responded Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman. “In 2016, we’ve really listened to users. I’m proud to say we’ve combined every single feature from all Yelp redesigns — and some Foursquare designs — into our new platform.”

You can find the new Yelp at facebook.com/services. Five stars!

While Yelp’s redesign was no small or well-timed feat, no business’s rise has been as meteoric as Twitter’s. This year, the company surpassed Apple as the world’s leader in design and bank account size. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who also heads Square, Tesla, and SpaceX, credits the success entirely to its rebranding of ‘Favorites’ to ‘Likes’, represented by hearts.

“Our users weren’t fans of the Hearts originally, particularly the people logged in” said Dorsey. “It’s safe to say they ‘like’ them now,” said Dorsey, winking.

On the other hand, Apple design has fallen from grace with a series of missteps culminating in adding hamburger menus to all of its products — including, somehow, its hardware. The company’s design team, however, remains unperturbed. “It’s all part of a great plan to embed users deeply into our ecosystem. We’ve done this by designing products our users cannot find their way out of. They’re literally trapped with delight.” enthuses Jony Ive, Chief Design Officer at Apple.

“Paper is simply too limiting of a material to prototype on. We wanted to truly understand the layers of our UI during the design process” — Ive

This wouldn’t have been possible without Apple’s R&D division — which introduced ‘Force Tickle’, ‘Force Stroke’, and ‘Force Slap’ to the 2016 MacBook’s touchpad. A bevy of new to-do apps utilizing the new gestures have already climbed to the top of the App Store’s charts.

Apple has also officially retired its trademark phrase, ‘one more thing’. “One is too limiting — we have at least ten new things to explain each time,” said Ive on a frosted glass stage, before adding, “Aluminium.” Applause.

The last 12 months have also been a big year for design tools, and major tech companies swallowing little design companies.

In a landmark partnership with Disney, Adobe released Project Comet as ‘Adobe® Deathstar CC’. “Luke, this isn’t your father’s legacy creative software,” joked Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen as he collected a check from Disney for an undisclosed amount. Indeed, Deathstar CC includes many new ideas aimed at millennials, including the replacement of all practical tool icons with emojis. “In a word, it’s 🔥,” says Narayen. Well put.

After leaving the App Store last year, tool-maker Bohemian Coding has focused on using drones and Postmates couriers to hand-deliver the software to individual designers, diverting efforts away from updating Sketch itself (which they call a rock-solid, stable, and bug-free tool). When asked how it imagines competing with this model against browser-based tools like Figma, a spokesperson for the company replied, “Crap, that’s a thing?”

In other news, Alphabet, Google’s parent company, has acquired at least 187 new prototyping tools since January, each with no discernibly unique functionalities. “They do have different names,” reminds Google co-founder Sergey Brin, whose sole role at the company now is to fill Alphabet’s remaining letters. “With the addition of these firms we now have all the vowels, including ‘Y’,” he states proudly. Very true.

Alphabet itself has been a design innovator with the introduction of real materials to its software, including furs, cast iron, and (fake) reptile skin. “The dream of Material Design was always to use real materials. With Alphabet’s revolutionary haptic technology, we’re making my Burning Man visions into reality, ” Brin comments.

Material Design 3.0

Design Lead Matias Duarte added, “Thanks to Verily, we’ve also made progress with truly natural user interfaces,” revealing a small, pulsating, flesh-colored Floating Action Button, suspended in a agar plate. “This is still an early prototype, but take a look at how organic its touch response is,” Duarte commented, poking the button. The button let out a small scream.

When asked about whether there were plans to monetize this technology, Brin chuckled, took off his crocs, and vanished.

This year, Facebook also made huge strides into the literal. “We always knew the Paper app was really just a rough sketch of our vision,” dismissed Mike Matas, lead designer on the new Paper team. “We shut it down because we realized we had it all wrong — we built a prototyping tool called Origami to make Paper, when we should’ve been using paper to make origami.” Matas produced out of his pocket an origami Facebook logo — the result of a month-long ideation sprint.

The lightbulb moment for this shift came from M, a Messenger-based concierge assistant powered by a revolutionary combination of AI and David Marcus, VP of Messenger. Since launch, M’s primary contributions to humanity have included created drawings of pets, selfies, and family members. “We started to recognize a pattern. Paper, specifically patterned paper, is essential to connecting the world,” said Marcus. Now, Facebook is using the technology behind M to power paper prototyping, starting with traditional origami. Marcus and the paper designers will forego sleep to learn the art and train the AI. “The key is using positive reinforcement, like treats,” he reveals. Noted.

“Our paper prototyping efforts truly achieve Design’s North Star. My work here is done,” wrote Facebook Design Director Julie Zhuo in a poignant Medium post announcing her retirement.

Last, but certainly not least, was the mass advent of consumer virtual and augmented reality.

Oculus is continuing its branding strategy of targeting consumers who enjoy looking up other people’s noses, which proved wildly successful in Q1 2016.

Noting the organic development of the gesture with first generation Google Glass users, Magic Leap is making getting punched in the face a central part of the Leap’s revolutionary interface. CEO Rony Abovitz noted, “The face punch is such a nuanced gesture — the arc and velocity of the swing, the force and location of the impact — and many other variables — are all things we can totally measure with the Leap’s hardware. When you’re using AR, you don’t want to strain your eyes and hands navigating through complex menu hierarchies — interfaces like in Minority Report simply don’t work in the real world. Instead, a single punch to the face should do the trick!”

New interaction paradigms also demand new user testing metrics. Using the 3D microphone array built into Hololens, Microsoft unveiled a new analytics suite focused on sentiment analysis of a user’s vocal exclamations during tests. Early research demonstrated a strong correlation between the “Normalized-‘Whoa’-Frequency” score and a user’s likeliness to be impressed but have no idea what they are doing.

Not to be outdone, Apple introduced its own take on augmented reality. Early testing, however, has revealed that users are experiencing severe head and neck strain with its device. Apple representatives responded that the testers were simply “holding [their heads] wrong.”

So closes another exciting year for design. What’s next? 4D skeumorphism? Taco menus? A new LinkedIn dark pattern? If this past year is any indication, the future of design will be surprising, unexpected, and simply delightful.

Written together with Stephanie Engle. Thanks to Benjamin Zweig for a non-trivial portion of the ideas. No Yelp redesigns were harmed in the making of this article.

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