Skeuomorphism and Flat Design: Where is User Experience Design Headed?

By Jason Kolaitis, Senior User Experience Designer on Aug. 29, 2013 View Comments

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The world is flat again—or at least, the world of web design is.

For the last 20 years, personal computers have employed dozens of real world metaphors, and Skeuomorphism has been used to make design elements look almost 100% like objects from real life (turning a digital page to resemble the experience of reading a physical book, for example). But lately, the pendulum has shifted toward Flat Design, which is based on minimalistic design principles and gives the impression of a two-dimensional look.

So, as UX designers, which way should we turn to ensure the best user experience strategy?

Originally, Skeuomorphs were used to make computer software more approachable to novice users. This popular tactic was the primary reason we got to the modern day desktop GUI, with free-floating files and manila folders scattered about the computer screen. But now that digital versions of object visuals have been around sufficiently long enough, many Flat Design advocates argue that we should use purely digital visual representations. Recent popular designs have gotten rid of beveled edges, gradients, shadows, and reflections, creating a user experience that plays to the strengths of digital interfaces, rather than limiting the user to the confines of the familiar analog world.

Skeuomorphism vs. Flat Design can best be exemplified in Apple vs. Windows applications.

Fake leather, wood, paper and glass are commonplace in Apple applications, in addition to real-world metaphors like bookshelves, paper shredders, and even casinos. Apple’s “Notes” application, perhaps the most heavy-handed of the skeuomorph players, literally looks like a classic yellow note pad.

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On the other hand, Microsoft’s new Windows UI style is at the opposite end of the spectrum. It’s a modernist Swiss style, where all excessive embellishments are removed:

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The new Start Screen makes use of flat, colored live tiles and a laterally scrolling canvas, also used in Windows Phone and Xbox 360 Dashboard. The design language places emphasis on good typography and has large text that catches the eye, which Microsoft sees as "sleek, quick, modern" and a "refresh" from the icon-based interfaces of Windows.

So when it comes to Skeuomorphism vs. Flat User Experience Design, do we have to choose one or the other? And if so, which is best? Here are the pros and cons of both methods that our Web & Mobile team considers during the design process:

Skeuomorphic Designs Flat Designs
PROS CONS PROS CONS
  • Typically more usable and intuitive
  • Cause strong associations
  • Enriched with visual metaphors
  • More approachable and easier to relate to
  • Encourage unoriginality and overuse in the design community
  • Cause confusion if an element can’t be associated with its real counterpart
  • Focuses attention on aesthetic rather than functionality
  • Clean and professional feel
  • Diminishes cluttered layouts; minimalistic and more aesthetically attractive
  • Endlessly adaptable (e.g. Window’s Modern UI scalable design, which performs well on mobile devices, gaming systems, and operating systems)
  • Lack of depth may not give enough information to know what are/are not actionable items
  • Minimalism may be too simple and actually cause confusion
  • Could be a fad and may not stand the test of time

With the release of iOS 7 soon upon us, Apple will be playing catch up in the marketplace with Google, Microsoft and the industry as a whole. Scott Forstall, the former Senior Vice President of iOS Software at Apple, was heavily criticized for his skeuomorphic design style, but since his exit from Apple Jonathan Ive, the new leader of Apple’s Human Interface team, will be focusing on a flat UI with “black, white and flat all over,” dropping heavy textures altogether.

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Regardless of whether Flat Design is able to stand the test of time, it is my opinion that great design ultimately comes down to a deep understanding of how users expect to be served by a system and a sincere empathy for the ways they think, feel, and want to interact with the world.

Designers have to conduct user research to design user experiences with the right balance of controls that have depth, and possibly analogues from the real world, along with purely flat controls that exist only in the digital world.

Of course, these approaches need to be part of a meaningful and unified design system, but it is clear that a thoughtless adherence to an entirely skeuomorphic or flat approach to user experience design is not the best way forward for designers if our goal is great design outcomes. A more balanced approach is required.

See how we improve user experience for our web and mobile clients.

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Posted in: UX Design