For some time now I’ve been arguing that modern trends in digital design seem to be putting aesthetics ahead of usability, with designers in a madcap dash to become flatter and more modernist than their peers.
A couple of times in the past few days I’ve seen evidence of this on major media sites. The example above from Forbes, the one below from Time (ironically as part of a big feature about one the people deeply responsible for this trend, Jony Ive).
In the old, old days you got a computer to do things by typing in instructions. In my early experiences entering commands like “RUN” or “LOAD” or “PRINT”. If you didn’t know what the special words were, you were kind of stuffed. But then you could reach for a manual that would help you out.
Then the world moved to menus. Rather than needing to know the special words, software would replace them with a set of written menus, and you’d just have to make some choices based on what was put in front of you.
Those menus became more visual, and were added to by the invention of Icons as part of the move to Graphical User Interfaces. The Icons would generally be representative of what you could expect to happen, a little like in the old days when shops would have an effigy of their wares outside on display (a boot for a bootmaker, a sheaf of wheat for a baker, the bloodstained pole of doom for a barber…). There’d usually be little words underneath the icons too, to help smooth out any ambiguity.
Then the images got richer, and the words smaller.
But now we seem to be heading to a world where the images are becoming increasingly minimalist, and meaningless so that we are left with abstract blocks and bars which are so unintelligible that enormous great notices need to be posted to explain what they are and what they do, as illustrated above.
There’s a balance here: if you look at the uber-usability wonk Jakob Neilsen’s site, they look like, well – not something of great beauty. But on the other hand they are eminently usable.
Something that needs massive pointers to explain basic usage, it strikes me, isn’t very usable.