From Form to Function, Our Thoughts On Design Are Changing

Design is more important to business than ever before, because it’s an essential driver of user engagement. Looking at the recent evolution of user interface design might give you a sense of how user expectations have been changing and what’s coming next. But before we dive into details we need to find an answer to one important question — what is design?

What is Design?

Most people (even some designers) perceive design as visual elements that are added to a product after it’s done; a process that comes at the end of a product’s development, and is treated like a decoration that the designers slapped onto the real work of the engineers. While design is visual aesthetics, it is also much more. As Steve Jobs once said, “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” Design is both how product looks and how it works.

The Evolution of Graphical User Interface (GUI) Design

Computers and humans don’t speak the same language. To make interaction possible, designers rely on graphical user interfaces. The recent evolution of GUI makes it clear that design trends are evolving for users. In order to prove this point let’s examine the GUI changes in the last decade.

From Complexity to Simplicity

Towards the end of the 2000’s GUI design started to change significantly due to the rise in popularity of mobile devices. This huge shift in device preference led to designers having to rethink interfaces from scratch, which in turn led to global changes in GUI design.

Looking at the history of the web, we can see that a decade ago websites were rudimentary in terms of design. But visual appearance wasn’t the only problem in this approach to design. Websites tried to provide as many options as possible: all the information a site contained seemed to be available; everything included on a site was ‘equally’ important. Designers thought that it would make websites more valuable to users. Unfortunately this often led to a cluttered interface. In the example below, you can see how distracting a cluttered interface can be from a usability standpoint.

Ryanair’s old website design was completely overloaded with promo information and redundant links.

With the rise of mobile devices designers began to realize that user attention is a precious resource and should be treated accordingly. This lead to the highly focused and very prioritized interfaces. Such interfaces have just the right amount of information available at the exactly right time users need it.

Ryanair’s website now. Site guides users through the flow and make each step clear for the user.

From Skeuomorphism to Flat Design

Do you remember when all touch screen apps looked very physical? At one point in time, almost all apps used a skeuomorphic design style which was based on symbols borrowed from the real world.

The bookshelf metaphor was intended to help users transfer previous knowledge about bookshelves (as a place to store and organize physical books and magazines) to the digital environment. Wooden shelves are irrelevant to the app’s functionality, but were supposed to reinforce the metaphor.

Skeuomorphism wasn’t just a pure design trend, it played an important role in usability. When touch screen devices were fairly new to many users, designers had to make sure users would understand how apps worked. Skeuomorphic designs help users understand how to use a new interface works by making the design familiar. That’s why the iOS Newsstand app in the example above looks like a physical bookshelf. As users progressively became more familiar with touch screens, such design metaphors weren’t needed and this style went away.

When Apple introduced iOS 7 users had already become comfortable with touching glass, they didn’t need physical buttons, they understood benefits.

With the quick adoption of new technologies, there was a movement towards a pure digital look, called flat design. This new style relies mainly on flat textures and icons, typography, spacing, and color to bring order to the digital canvas.

From a Single Channel to Seamless Experience Across All Channels

Ten years ago a major design challenge was to make sure designs worked in every browser. Today, the major design challenge is to make sure your designworks on the devices your users use. There’s no such thing as mobile user and desktop user any more. There are users who may want to use your product in the same way, regardless of the device. That’s why continuity across multiple devices — creating a seamless experience across mobile, desktop, tablet and wearables — is so important. The goal is to put users at the center of your multi-channel design, offering an omnichannel approach that lets users efficiently use product regardless of the device.

Users want to be able to choose when, where, and how they interact with your product based on their personal habits and motivations. That’s why it’s so important to design for the entire journey, not a single Interaction.

From Pixels to People

Modern apps and sites are more than just the graphical representation of a solution — they are complex systems focused on solving user problems and generating valuable outcome. Despite all advantages, these systems have a serious natural barrier — graphical user interface. No matter how good a GUI is, people still have to learn to use it. In order to solve this problem modern UX goes beyond on-screen design and into a world of UI-less interactions.

Time-Saving Design

Today, users expect more user-devoted, frictionless experiences from their interactions with technology. They want to use products designed to save their time. Since time-saving design is all about respecting a user’s time, it’s clear why it’s on the rise. Modern apps strive to follow this trend by:

  • Anticipating user needs Take Dark Sky weather app for instance. Some users might still prefer to open a weather app to check the forecast, but the most useful thing the weather app can do is to alert user about suddenly changed weather conditions (e.g. notify user that it’ll be snowing soon).
Dark sky app for Apple Watch
  • Interpreting user actions and goals. When you open the Uber app for Apple Watch, it goes straight to a screen showing how long it’ll be until a car can come get you — no pulling out your phone to drop pins required.
Uber app for Apple Watch

Self-learning systems (SLS)

Self learning systems (SLS) powered software anticipates tasks that need to be done and simply auto-completes them for the user, or at least gets the user several steps closer to finishing the tasks. Software that functions more autonomously has a major benefit for the users — it requires much less attention. The basic building block of self-learning software is the ability for a system to learn based on experience, analyse incoming data, and take action in response to new events. The challenge with SLS is to design behaviours based on the fewest possible interactions, while focusing on people’s behavior. Why is it a challenge? Because you need to find a balance between saving your user’s time and providing just enough options so users feel that they have control over a system.

Nest learning thermostat

Nest is great example of SLS. It’s a semi-intelligent thermostat that can program itself around user’s life. Each time a user changes the settings, Nest remembers temperature adjustments, and after a few days users will be adjusting Nest less, because it pulls all it has learned into a schedule for the home. Yes, Nest has a lot of downsides (the most critical one is that the system often lives its own way), but still it’s a great example of the next wave of product. Looking ahead, self-learning software will be the one thing that distinguishes legacy apps from modern ones.

Conversational Interfaces

With the advent of iPhone Messages, Slack or WhatsApp, the way we exchange information changed irreversibly. Text messages have become an extremely natural way of communicating.

Chatting is second nature to us since we primarily interact with each other through conversation.

This trend led to the popularization of conversational interfaces. Essentially, a conversational interface is any user interface that mimics chatting with a real human. “Chatbot” is one of the hottest terms in our industry right now. More and more apps are leaving behind the GUI in favor of personal chat. Why? Because conversation feels natural for us and this property makes the use of chatbots much more intuitive than tapping on a bunch of buttons in traditional user interfaces. Another benefit of conversational interfaces is in detalization: GUI can only have a finite amount of options in practice, but speaking to a chatbot can in theory (if designed well) allow open ended discovery and interaction.

Messaging makes for a better user experience than traditional apps because it feels natural and familiar. Image Credit: Isil Uzum

Last but not least, teens and millennials — who represent the bulk of tomorrow’s market — spend more time on messaging apps than on any other apps or sites, creating a huge opportunity for businesses who want to reach this audience.

But chatbots aren’t a final step of conversational interface evolution. Voice interfaces will be a natural next step for chatbots. In the not too distant future, voice interaction will make up a large part of how we interact with the technology around us. The experience of using voice commands to control computers has already been transformed by a new generation of voice-interaction systems such as Apple’s Siri, Google Now and Amazon Echo. The latter doesn’t use a traditional GUI as a means of interaction. But the biggest challenge is to understand how people will interact with voice interfaces. This requires a better understanding of humans — not only the topics they are interested in talking about, but how they are going to talk about the topics.

Echo, a voice-interaction system from Amazon,offering voice interaction with a stationary device.

Conclusion

With technology continuously evolving, we are on a path that could make interaction with digital services more intuitive, more accessible, and more efficient. Next generation platforms continue to develop much more like human-to-human conversation. The interface of the future might not always be made of pixels.


Nick Babich is a developer, tech enthusiast, and UX lover. He has spent the last 10 years working in the software industry with a specialized focus on development. He counts advertising, psychology, and cinema among his myriad interests.

Originally published at blogs.adobe.com.


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