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UI Minimalism: The Trend Continues

Now that we’re comfortable with iOS 8, we’ve almost forgotten the uproar that ensued on the introduction of iOS 7. The stark minimalism and flatness of the UI freaked a lot of people out, us included. “What happened to all the affordances?!” “How are people going to know that ‘Shuffle’ is actually a button, not just a word floating untethered in the middle of that sea of white?!” Well, it turns out much of our initial freakoutedness was kind of unfounded. When I asked some of my elderly relatives “how they were getting along” with the OS, they were a bit puzzled. “I like it. Seems to work fine. Why are you asking?” It was actually a good lesson in never underestimating the sometimes surprising adaptability of users, especially as we're always hammering away on the classic designer’s theme that “users hate change”. 

Suffice it to say, flat and minimal UI just makes sense when interaction models have had a chance to take root. Jony had it right. To evolve the UI so that it can handle greater complexity while remaining flexible, the visual tone had to be turned down so that motion and behavior feedback could be turned up. With Material Design and Windows Phone doing the same (for a while!), we see this trend perhaps being the “new world order”, not just soon-to-evolve fashion. 

So it’s with interest that we’re seeing how far products and brands want to go with minimalism. Last week Adidas published a new app simply called “Confirmed”, which is focused on delivering very specific functionality to an equally specific user group. In essence, it gives sneaker buyers a heads-up that a new shoe is available and can be reserved for purchase at a specific brick and mortar store. Oh, and it only works in New York City. Given that the sneakerhead culture and economy has gotten so sophisticated, it’s no surprise that Adidas would develop an app that would appeal to this incredibly thin but hugely influential market. What’s more interesting to us is that the approach they’ve taken to the app’s design is so unapologetically minimal. For a fashion brand that makes products like the “ZX Flux Multi-Color Prism”, you’d think they might want to assert a bit more bling in this app, but it’s restrained in the extreme. A monochrome UI presents hard-edged black buttons with white type, and the only “adornment” is the Adidas logo in black in the header. Talk about flat minimalism. 

Maybe taking austerity to the next level in this way won’t be so uncommon in the future. Now it’s not just weather apps that are stripping down to the bare minimum. Several “do one thing and do it well” app categories are becoming flatter and simpler, like Azoora for driving navigation, and to a lesser extent Pip for messaging. Recently we had to think “ultra minimal” when we got the chance to redesign the mobile HTML experience for Urgent.ly, a “roadside-assistance-on-demand” service. Typically users would find the service via web search, and the mobile web app would step them through the process of providing vehicle and payment information. Given the core use case, which usually involved someone stranded by the side of the road and in no mood to be “delighted” by a “playful” brand forward design, we stripped the design down to the absolute minimum. Starkly clear button treatments, ultra-conventional picker schemes, and a dead simple workflow (with only a light sprinkling of guidance language) was at the core of the design brief. While our focus was really just on the mobile HTML experience, our approach contrasts with that taken by Urgent.ly’s primary competitor, Honk. Their native app is bristling with swoops, fades, color shifts, and organic target shapes. It does look nice, but for what’s likely to be a “one time use app” with an acutely purposeful function, we think austere clarity will prove to be the better approach. Ultimately, we think there's more room for designers to experiment with highly restrained, austere interfaces that are geared toward functional simplicity, and we look forward to seeing more of them!

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