The world of web design, like fashion, tends to be characterised by identifiable trends. Some come and go, and some are longer-lasting. Someone does something cool, that something wins an award, gets lots of publicity, and becomes a source of excitement and inspiration to the design community. And so a trend is born. This process is inevitable, recurrent, and, in my opinion, potentially harmful.

When a cutting-edge new website design begins to gain momentum, there’s a certain inevitability about what will happen next. ‘Design inspiration’ galleries across the web begin to feature it, and, without fail, other sites with very similar aesthetics begin to emerge. Before long, those same galleries are full of websites that have adopted that particular style. Some examples we’ve seen over the years:

  • Skeuomorphism (a polarising approach, it’s the act of designing a tool in a virtual world that resembles its real-life counterpart, which, advocates claim, will help users more quickly understand how to use it.)
  • Highly textured
  • Swirls and flourishes
  • Minimalism
  • ‘Flat’ Design
  • ‘Material’ Design (very ‘now’)

And so on. If you’re interested, this interactive design trends infographic breaks many of the last decade’s trends down very nicely, with examples (in a neat twist of fate, this site is itself a rather ‘trendy’ experience from an interaction point of view; see below for more on that).

So what’s the problem?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that trends in general are bad; in fact, being ‘on trend’ can be an indicator that a company is up to date, and understands what’s current. And as a designer, I know it’s only natural to get excited about sparkly new things; I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve found myself looking for an excuse to have a go at making ‘something like that’. My concern is just that any one design approach isn’t going to work for every application. I think we should be careful not to apply a particular style to our next website design just because it’s popular, if it isn’t appropriate for our subject matter. I’ve fallen foul of this myself in the past – in all the excitement to make something trendy, I find it can be all too easy to become distracted from what I’m supposed to be doing, and find myself tempted to design for fashion, instead of user experience; for form, rather than function. [inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”” suffix=””]It can be all too easy to find myself tempted to design for fashion, instead of user experience.[/inlinetweet]

Trendy vs. usable

Besides visuals, another facet of web development trends relates to interaction design. In the modern web development world, advanced techniques and more capable web browsers have made it possible to produce incredibly unique and innovative digital experiences. However, as certain techniques become trendy and, as a result, more accessible, examples begin to spring up everywhere. Take parallax, for instance. When the first sites to use the technique surfaced, it was as if there had been a revolution in the way people interact with digital content. However, this came at a cost. Parallax websites were resource-heavy and unreliable/unusable on certain browsers and devices. An extreme example (forgive the fact that it’s a couple of years old) is Flatvsrealism.com; a feast for the eyes with amazing visual impact and creativity. But it took me over 10 seconds to load, and I’m pretty sure I don’t have a large enough data plan to look at it on my phone.

FlatVsRealism
Flatvsrealism.com – award winning for visual and technical achievement

As impressive as Flatvsrealism.com is from an impact and storytelling point of view, I feel that this type of approach is best for the sort of site you play around with for 2 minutes, tweet your love for, and then never return to. Parallax is an example of something that, when used well (such as in this beautiful design for the game ‘Firewatch’) can inject personality and style into a website experience. But it’s a classic case of something for which, when overused, enjoyment is fleeting, and does little to serve the user. “I’m trying to read this text, why the heck is it moving? And why is it moving sideways?!” 

I don’t mean to pick on Flatvsrealism.com in particular. It’s clearly designed to be a showcase, and sites like this are great. In fact, I think they’re important. They show us what’s possible. I just think that we need to be aware of the temptation to apply these techniques too liberally.

If gov.uk put all their content on one long page (with a hundred screens-worth of scrolling), had each section fade in from the left and right alternately, while a super-high-res photo of the houses of parliament drifted across the background, people would be banging down the doors of the Government Digital Service. Because the gov.uk website is about content. It’s about communication. And in my line of work, that should be the primary objective.

Gov.uk
Gov.uk – award winning for design and usability

It’s obviously not appropriate to compare these two completely different sites, and I’m not making a case that we should emulate either of them. One is not necessarily better than the other at the purpose they each set out to achieve. But my point is, it’d be nice if we could rein in our joy about the latest parallax site and get a little more excited about (or at least, appreciate) those sites that just work really well. One reason why this is unlikely to happen in any significant way is because usable design—‘good design’, if you like, isn’t flashy at all. In fact, as Jared Spool might say: if, as designers, we’ve done our job well, the design should become “invisible”. So, I won’t hold my breath for this type of thing on inspiration sites anytime soon.

Delightfully pointless?

Another common term among the web design/development community is ‘delightful design’. You might think of it as ‘polish’, although that might be underselling it. Delightful design is often characterised by micro-interactions: subtle detail, animation and humour in interactive elements of a website that seek to make the experience “pleasurable”. Google’s dead keen on it.

At its best, I’d like to think that delightful design has good intentions, that it aspires to create an experience where the user feels that the website understands or can predict what they want, providing interactions that feel serendipitous, helping them to achieve a state of flow. There are some fantastic examples of that in app design. The best apps are made to perform specific tasks, or deliver content. That’s it. Well-designed apps aren’t trying to persuade you to read all about them, to look at all their lovingly-crafted interfaces and visit every one of the pages in their IA. They get out of your way and let you get on with doing something. Because the reality is: users probably don’t care that much about your organisation. They only care about the content or services you have to offer them. And even then, they only care if they can actually find that stuff.

An example that comes to mind of a product that feels delightful (to me at least) to use is the note-taking app Evernote. But Evernote doesn’t meet the usual characteristics of delightful design. It doesn’t use any bobbing icons or floaty boxes. It isn’t even humorous. But it just works so well, and seems to contain very few extraneous features. Everything’s there for a reason.

Sweets and treats

Delightful design at its worst, similarly to the techniques I mentioned previously, feels like we’re just a bit too keen to make things spinny and smiley, floaty and bouncy. Don’t get me wrong: delight in design, where it serves the user experience, is all well and good by me. I’m not saying that a sprinkling of pleasurable elements isn’t welcome. That moment when just the right action—the one you were about to look for—appears right there before you, where you expected it to be, feels like, well, maybe not magic, but perhaps as close as a website UI gets.

But let’s not make websites as a two-year old child ices a cake, and just throw on all the sugary stuff and shiny bits we can find, just because we can. When we do that, we miss the point of the icing. The icing isn’t about the icing, the icing is about the cake. Actually, it’s about the overall experience, and too much icing doesn’t add to that, but takes away (have I beaten this analogy to death yet?).

The next trend?

The next trend–if you ask me–needs to have, above all else, the objective of delivering users to engaging, relevant content. That’s not to say we should take a regimented, ‘no-frills’ approach; it’s also important that we create experiences that engage and resonate with people. [inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”” suffix=””]We need to do our very best to understand what it is the user has come to our website to do[/inlinetweet], and help them to do that thing. Because if we can’t, it won’t matter how innovative our site is, because our visitors, those for whom we have gone to all the effort in the first place, will simply go elsewhere.

What do you think? Join the conversation on Twitter, and let us know.

Cover photo credit: TNS Sofres (CC BY 2.0)