Right now design is all the rage. Companies are promoting designers to the CEO level (design-e-o's?), incorporating design at the highest levels, prioritizing design, paying designers the big bucks, and generally going on a design spree. I'm all for it in many ways. Apple products that show the pinnacle of this kind of thinking are great--the iPhone is designed to "know" whether you are holding it up to your ear or have brought it down to look at the screen, and it shows you what you need to see in order to click, hang up, enter numbers, or whatever. If creating easy-to-use, intuitive products is by design, then by all means give me more design.
But designers right now are on a fad of "simple, clean, basic." And all too often, that equates to empty, featureless, and obscure.
Along with simple, clean, and basic has come "flat" design. Cartoons have become flat. Images have become flat. Icons have become flat. Buttons have become flat. The 3-D realistic images of the Apple iOS have turned into abstracted, flat symbols of their former selves (iOS 5 versus 6 shown below).
The major software companies have all gone flat (Microsoft Windows 10 and Office 2013 shown below):
And famously, Google has gone flat, exchanging its shadowed, 3-D feeling logo for a flat one.
But is all this simplicity and flatness benefitting users?
Was it really an improvement when Google, even before the new logo, got rid of the simple words across the top of the screen letting us know that we could choose gmail, maps, calendar, and more? Now, we have to accidentally discover that a decorative little group of squares (shown at the right), with no other labeling, which look merely like--if you will excuse the phrase--a "design" element, is clickable, and that all of the various Google functions now come from a drop-down menu there.
Then, instead of a drop-down menu of words, we see a series of flat images that only a person with a sharp eye for subtle distinctions can recognize as remotely suggestive of their functions.
Yes, the icons were labeled, but the text was in a pale gray, and the images dominated. We were clearly meant to make our choices based on the icons, not the labels.
The Google menu shown above was in use before their latest redesign. With the new, even flatter design, intriguingly, words have made a comeback, with the labels now darker and clearer, and the flat images relatively smaller, inviting us more to read the words than to rely on the flat icons.
Of course that begs the question: If I have to read the words, then why do we even need the icons?
Well, once we learn the icons by reading the words a few times, then we start clicking these more by a combination of position and appearance. And this whole business of making icons recognizable and familiar is an old story-after all, we've been learning to recognize icons for like 25 years now.
As we design our eLearning courses to have the modern, clean, spare, and flat appearance, though, we have to make sure not to throw familiarity, recognizability, and usability out the window. The last thing our learners need is a learning curve just to be able to use our lessons, from which they are actually trying to learn the content!
In the next article on design, I'll share some further examples of barriers to usability, and some good examples as well. In the meantime, what are your thoughts on design? (Feel free to share your thoughts as comments below.)