I tend to use a lot of cooking metaphors in my UX articles (because I cooked my way through college and I find them universally relatable). Like salt, certain design elements can really enhance the flavor, but too much can ruin what should be a great thing.
When it comes to design, far too often the pendulum swings to one extreme or the other. The thinking seems to be ‘Surely, if some is good, then a ton has to be better, right?’
Flat Design gone too far
Flat design has certainly been a victim of this trend. Originally, in part, a reaction to skeuomorphism it has gone too far in a quest for the flattest design possible.
(Yes, there are other catalysts for Flat Design, including (but limited to); better for mobile design, a focus on minimalism, greater consistency, highly adaptability, etc.)
The problems with trying to mimic real-world objects in a digital medium are many. There are no standards for how to make a website/application element resemble a real-world object so the designs vary wildly. It also creates inconsistency in the overall look and feel as elements vary in depth (some are flat, some 3D and some in between). Not to mention, the extra space it uses up to little effect in a mobile environment (it’s difficult to discern the styling effects on a smaller, mobile screen).
But the underlying benefit of skeumorphism is users immediately recognize and understand the interactivity of a website or application element; a raised button is clickable.
So what’s the salt? The salt is the flatness of your design; flat design is good, but too much can create problems.
Flat Design is like Salt, a little is good but too much ruins your creation
Although on the decline since its heyday in 2013, Flat Design seems to be all the rage with many customers. But what if their flat design is too flat?
I recently worked with a customer who was very insistent that their design was as flat as possible. However, usability testing revealed user uncertainty as to where the global navigation was and if it was clickable. The design was so flat users weren’t sure what was clickable and what wasn’t. That’s a huge problem.
No design is good if the user can’t figure out how to interact with it
Not matter how great your design, if it slows or prevents users from interaction, it’s a bad design better suited for a gallery than an application or website.
I don’t want to crush the creative design spirit, because it really is important, Affectiness (the immediate, mostly emotional reaction to an application or website) can have a major impact on the user’s perception of quality.
However, nothing is more important than the user being able to complete their task. After all, we’re in business aren’t we? Making sure the user can find, buy, solve, or understand is always paramount.
As always, test, test, test
So, how flat is too flat? As always the answer is testing, testing, testing. In general, push your design team to embrace Flat 2.0 and add subtle effects to highlight interactive elements. Focus their creativity on ways to cue users what is clickable without breaking the overall style. Then test! Create high-fidelity prototypes (I personally recommend Axure, http://www.axure.com/) and test with real users.
If you see hesitation or your users answering ‘maybe’ when asked if they think something is clickable, ask your design team to ‘up’ the interaction styling effects.
At the end of the day, just keep in mind that too much of anything isn’t good. Balance is crucial in good design but when in doubt always lean toward your user’s needs.