Flat Design and Flat Aspirations

What fascinates me about the flat vs. skeumorphic detabe is the amount of passion attached to the concept flat design. Sure, the internet is known for heated, passionate debates. But there’s something else that makes people crazy about flat design, and I think it’s hope.

The allure of flat design is in the promise of a visual treatment that makes designs more usable, and products more successful. It’s a movement away from something we feel is holding us back. We’ve grown tired of denim pockets and wood boards and we want to see better interfaces. We want apps and websites and digital interfaces that work well, make us us happy, and showcase the best design can accomplish. But flat design isn’t a recipe for good design, it’s just a different visual approach to interfaces. One that helps avoid unnecessary clutter in one design, but over-abstracts another design into a usability problem.

In reality, either approach could ruin a product. In flat design, buttons that don’t look like buttons are confusing people. Hyperlinks that are masquerading as regular text are throwing users off. With the so-called skeumorphic approach, angry designers are protesting against unrealistic leather-bound stitching and unnecessary typewriters*. This is all true if we look at the extreme sides of the spectrum.

Many of the examples we see in the flat vs. skeumorphic debate represent the worst of both worlds. Reading these conversations and the subsequent comment threads provides a decent list of what not do when attempting good design. What’s missing in these discussions is an approach to making design good.

Good design is less about spotting trends and more about going back to basics. When we run a design critique at our studio, the question of “is this design flat enough?” never arises. We talk about what we’re trying to solve, for whom, and why our ideas work in that context. My favourite collection of design resources right now is the Hack Design series. It features a variety of articles on central design topics like typography, user experience, graphic design, and mobile.

Strong building blocks empower us to build the design that’s best suited for our situation. They help us determine when to stay away from too many gradients and when a strong visual metaphor may work best. Likewise, the look and feel should depend on the brand message and has to be well executed according to well thought-out design principles.

No design approach is right for every project. Choosing which style to use should depend on the purpose of the project and the setting in which the product will be used.

Picking sides in the grand debate of flat versus skeumorphic design is unproductive. Both approaches can make or break a product, and neither of them is ‘authentically digital.’ Screens are canvases for us to fill with purpose and meaning. And how we choose to go about this task is what matters most.

* No offence to the folks at Piffle, their apps are cool.


Further Reading

Great round-up of the debate by Sacha Grief: Flat Pixels


Methods Research

Practicing Your Interviewing Skills With Strangers

It’s important to practice interviewing because it’s a skill that’s different from just having a conversation. Asking open questions, not trying to fill silence with more ideas, finding the right balance between listening and sharing – all these things are a learned skill. And learning often means making mistakes.

But how do we make mistakes without putting our projects at risk?

Last summer I read a blog-turned-book titled Talk to Strangers. The book is a collection of autobiographical posts by an anonymous  author who goes by “People Person”. The author is a shy, lonely man in Los Angeles who realizes that a few years out of university, he has no close friends and feels entirely lonely in the big city.

What he does next is pretty extraordinary. Even though he describes himself as nothing short of an antisocial a-hole, he decides to make friends by initiating conversations with complete strangers on a daily basis. What follows is a collection of hilarious, touching, and sometimes embarrassing stories that eventually land him in a completely different life to the initial lonely planet he lived on.

His successes and failures (and there are plenty of failures), made me realize this might be the most convenient, low-investment way to practice interviewing. Just like People Person, you can do this anywhere: in line at the store, on the bus, on a flight. Anywhere where you have to be in the company of people for a few minutes or longer. Be warned, however: apparently elevators are a poor place to start.

Mission: Find out one meaningful thing about a stranger

There are many detailed resources on the skills you need for effective interviewing. For these short encounters, I would suggest focusing on one thing only: finding out something meaningful about the other person. People are great at making small talk but we know that design work is best aided by meaningful insights about people, like motivations, philosophies, and attitudes. How do we find someone’s motivation? We start with a meaningful action that was driven by it.

On a flight from NYC to London, I decided to find out how the people I met chose where they lived. I started with a simple question: Where are you from? Here are some of the stories I heard.

The hair stylist who doesn’t like NYC. The woman who sat next to me on the flight was from Poland but married an American and moved to New York with him. She left on a bridal visa, had a child, and they got divorced since then. She doesn’t like NYC but is a hair stylist and doesn’t want to go through getting a license in a different state. She also loves her client base. When her daughter is old enough, she will definitely move to avoid the NYC school system.

This story is a bit more detailed than your usual small talk. It goes to show that most people are pretty happy when asked about their lives or what they do for a living. It didn’t all come from “where are you from?” I had to ask some follow up questions:

  • How did you end up here?
  • Do you like it?
  • Do yo think you’ll stay here forever?
  • Where would you move next? Why aren’t you moving there?

The Flight Attendant Who’s Never Moved. When I got up to use the rest room, I saw that the flight attendant standing near the lavatories had a band-aid on his forehand. I asked what happened and whether he’s having a good break (he wasn’t on a break!). Then whether he was from London. He was, in fact, born and raised in Glasgow and still lives there because he travels a lot and loves the feeling of a stable home base.

Here’s the entire inventory of questions I asked him:

  • Are you from London?
  • How long have you lived in Glasgow?
  • Why have you decided to stay in one place?

I didn’t get as much out of this conversation. It was pretty ambitious to ask several open ended questions while he was rushing through serving the morning tea. Eventually, he seemed to be somewhere between irritated and busy. It wasn’t the best timing.

The Student Who Has Friends Everywhere. While eating lunch at the airport, a young woman asked to sit next to me because there were no other seats available. I agreed and immediately asked to borrow her phone charger even though I had one (you gotta do what you gotta do). She politely declined and explained that it is her lifeline for the next several hours since she has two 12 hour connections. I had to ask where she was going.

She turned out to be an American college student who wanted to travel so badly that she postponed her graduation to do it (talk about a meaningful action). As a rule, she chooses to travel to places where she already knows people. What is even more impressive is how easily she opened up and began talking about her life. It took perhaps two minutes.

Mission Accomplished

This experiment was useful but also fun. It felt a little less foreign and lonely to spend ten hours in airport halls. I got to share a bit about myself and spend a lot of time listening to people’s stories. Best of all, even when it didn’t work out – I could politely get back to my reading and try again later.

What’s important here is how much more I could learn about them beyond just demographics. These were people who based their life decisions on their family, who were desperate for a constant place to call home, and who put aside a normal life plan for new experiences. Now, that’s something we can work with when thinking about personas, user journeys, scenarios, and how to plan features.


Empathy Research

What We Reject Is Who We Are

To do good design, it’s not enough to ask what someone likes, we need to ask what they do. We need to ask what they never do. And when they tell us, ask why. And ask why again.

Likes and opinions are too fleeting to drive design. When doing user research, talking about product strategy, or trying to understand our colleagues’ obscure decision-making process, we have to dig deeper than just superficial opinions or generalizations.