Don’t Blame Flat UI for your Design Problems

(Originally posted on Medium May 2, 2013)

Flat design has been embraced by many designers in the last year or so, and the trend is only picking up speed. There are even rumors that Apple—who is known, almost infamously, for their use of skeuomorphism in their native apps—is shedding the leather textures and heavy drop shadows for a lighter, flatter look for their upcoming release of iOS 7.

With every trend comes backlash. And boy are there some designers (and developers, and product managers, and great aunt’s neighbor’s dentist’s kids…) who really hate flat design.(“But how will my users know it’s a button if it doesn’t glimmer like the harvest moon?!” they cry.) The most recent bit of backlash is the assertion that flat UI, while it may look simpler, does not in fact make an interface easier to use.

Today, I read a retweeted tweet (say that 10 times fast) that stated “Flat UI makes interfaces 'look' simple as there are less distinct elements to look at. It does nothing for actual simplicity though.”

I disagree for several reasons.

First, yes it does. Literally making something look simple makes it simpler to look at. If a user doesn’t have to navigate textures and drop shadows and fake stitching embellishments, it’s much easier for them to find what they are actually looking for (unless of course what they’re looking for is a perfectly recreated digital version of a wallet/clipboard/journal/envelope/some kind of steam-punk-I’m-not-really-sure-what-the-f***-that’s-even-supposed-to-be-metalic-thing). Most users don’t care if your background is subtly and artfully textured to look like paper. Most of them wont even notice. They also don’t care that your buttons look like tiny pieces of candy that light up delightfully when they are hovered over. Most of them wont see your hover effects anyway as more and more of the internet is being consumed on mobile devices.

Things users do care about: understanding what you do; understanding how to do what they need to do; finding the information they need; trusting that you know what the f*** you’re doing (especially if they’re giving you something like their credit card info or even their email address.) You provide them these things by making your site/app easy to navigate, easy to understand, and intuitive to use. Making if look “simple” goes a long way in doing this.

Second, if your product is hard to figure out when all of the glossy, crunchy, shadowy lipstick is taken off, then you didn’t spend enough time structuring your pig in a way that makes sense. Your call-to-action doesn’t need to shine, blink, and appear to hover an inch above the page in order for it to stand out. It should stand out because of the hierarchy you’ve set up on the page.

Your product is easy to use because you designed information to be easy to find, because it’s in the exact place the user is looking for it, because your text is clear and easy to read, because you crafted a user a flow that pulls them through the process seamlessly. In an era of so many devices, you cannot rely on drop shadows, gradients, or colors (anyone use the web on a black and white kindle?). You cannot rely on bells and whistles to make your product usable.

Last, your users are not stupid, you’re just lazy. Your users will not sit, staring at their screen, befuddled because your buttons don’t have the glassy exterior of a marble. If you’ve done your job, they can do theirs easily, and they’ll love you for it.

Flat UI may not be your design style of choice. That’s fine; there’s a time and place for every aesthetic, and the world would be boring if everyone used the same one. But do not blame Flat UI for adding complexity to your product. You did that. The beauty of the Flat movement is that it is exposing the problems we’ve been trying to hide with brushed metal textures and cut paper’d edges. If your product is a hog, gussying it up wont make it any less swine.