Your UI isn’t a Disney Movie

My previous short article about gratuitous animation really struck a chord with people. The response has been phenomenal and it’s been awesome reading others’ frustrations with overly animated UIs.

To be clear, I’m not anti motion design for UIs. Far from it. I have a problem with animation that serves only to get in the way of the end user.

One of the clearest signs of a competent UI designer is restraint. It’s about knowing the capabilities of your chosen platform and then not using them (until the perfect opportunity arises).

Rather than just bemoaning the use of unnecessary animation, I’ll do my best to suggest scenarios that would benefit from considered use of animation.

I look forward to hearing your comments and suggestions about this topic.

If you liked this article you might also enjoy The Unsolicited Audit Ep.1

A Contrived Example

The following is a quick, contrived example that I came up with to demonstrate the Disneyfication of UI motion design. Although this is an exaggerated example, in truth there are many UIs out in the wild that exhibit this kind of garish motion.

Click here to see a live version of this demo.

It’s almost like we’ve abandoned visual skeuomorphism and replaced it with behavioral skeuomorphism in which our digital objects act as though they are made from jelly, or dangling from invisible rubber bands.

Stop Wanton Animation

Animation is like cursing. If you overuse it, it loses all its impact.

Animation Principles

I’ve heard some UI designers suggest Disney’s animation principles as required reading for UI designers. Unfortunately this helps to promote the idea of UI as entertainment, which invariably leads to a UI that slows the user down.

Many UI motion designers seem to treat their user interfaces like animation portfolios. Unless you’re hoping to get picked up by Pixar, you can probably steer clear of animation easing like “Bounce” or “Ease-in-Out”.

What is an Interface?

In computing, an interface is a shared boundary across which two separate components of a computer system exchange information.
Interface (computing) — Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

It’s the interface’s responsibility to mediate an information exchange which makes it so important. The challenge for designers is to determine when their design gets in the way of this central UI tenet.

Motion in UI Design

Here are some simple principles that have worked well for me and which I recommend:

  • Be able to justify the use of each animation in terms of benefit to the user. “It looks pretty” doesn’t qualify.
  • Keep animation duration at or under 300ms
  • Avoid Linear animation easing. It makes motion look slow, uninteresting and mechanical.
  • 99% of animations should use a simple “Ease-In” or “Ease-Out” animation easing.
  • You only rarely need more exotic animation easing such as Spring, Bounce etc.

Some UI Examples

Please feel free to criticize/pick apart these examples. Your comments and suggestions often help refine my own thinking on these matters.


Notification Example 1

Click here to see a live version of this demo.

A simple animation that only lasts for 300ms. There is a very subtle layering effect whereby the message is faded in 100ms after the red card’s animation starts. The use of motion in this example does enhance the users experience of the app because it helps draw the user’s eye to an important notice that can’t be ignored.

That Escalated Quickly

Notification Example 2

Click here to see a live version of this demo.

The demo above uses animation that escalates in intensity.

  • On the first click the notice fades in
  • On the second click the label shakes

If the user continues to click the button then an optional modal overlay could be used to draw the user’s attention to the issue.

Additionally the button itself could change color to indicate a failure on subsequent failed tries.

Card Expand

This is one of those simple, yet very effective implementations of a card view which is commonly used on mobile. I really like this interaction because it allows the user to maintain context. Even though our view of the list is obscured, we know it’s sitting right there behind the expanded view.

Card Expand Example

Click here to view a live version of the demo.

I’ve purposely slightly delayed showing the close icon for the card and I’ve used a transition that animates both position and opacity. This draws the user’s eye to an important UI element which the user will need to be aware of to be able to dismiss the card.

Hierarchy of Importance

As designers and developers one of the most important things we do is to decide which elements of our UI are more important than others. We do this in a number of ways

  • By using headings
  • Underlining, or making text bold
  • Use of color
  • Use of shapes and images
  • Motion

You wouldn’t make every sentence of a document into a heading. The same principle applies to animation. Consider every animated element in your UI to be the equivalent of a heading in a written document. It should be used to signal the importance of an element. Overusing it simply flattens out your hierarchy and dilutes the message you are trying to communicate.

Functional vs Aesthetic Animation

Programmers often talk about code in terms of ‘code smell’. This refers to features of programming code that may not be outright bad, but which do set off a seasoned programmer’s spidey sense to potentially poor code.

If you begin to hear team members talk of UI animation using terms such as ‘delighting’ the user, your ‘design smell’ alarm bells should probably start going off. Animation for animation’s sake is (almost always) poor design.

Remember, less is more with regard to animation. Functional always trumps purely aesthetic animation.

Don’t let your animations get in your user’s way. There’s a reason why an airplane’s navigational UI doesn’t use any animation. Adding an unnecessary 300ms animation to your UI probably won’t kill anyone, but it will annoy your users far more than it will ‘delight’ them!

Final Thoughts

By all means use animation in your UI. Use it as a high-bandwidth way to quickly communicate important information. Favor functional over purely aesthetic animation, and value those precious milliseconds your users are devoting to your UI.

If you liked this article you may also be interested to read about effective prototyping.