Design trends, and when you should ignore them

Nicolò Arena
By Nicolò Arena under Design 02 February 2017

Over the past couple of years, there has been a distinct trend that many product designers have started to follow. Look around, and you will see that some of the biggest digital products available today have undergone visual redesigns that reuse very similar, often minimalist, patterns.

There are three specific similarities and characteristics that define this new trend:

The latest UI redesign of Instagram is a good example of this trend. Some of the big visual changes made include removing the blue and dark grey colour throughout the product, making headlines bolder, and simplifying the bottom navigation and its icons.

What you are left with is a simple black and white UI in which the functionality is clear, and the content really has become the hero. This is UI that aims to get out of your way as a user and let you focus on what really matters to you. You can find a similar trend in evidence across Airbnb, and Facebook’s main app.

Great - but so what?

When you look back to the Instagram example above, it is clear that the UI overhaul was done in order to emphasise the core functionality of the app. Instagram have made it easier for people to do what they come to the app for: to share their photos with the world.

However, it’s also clear that many products have begun to look the same. Are they following this trend simply because it is a trend? If so, that’s understandable - after all, to continue the Instagram example, it is a highly successful product. In the UK, 14 million people use Instagram, with a large majority of those people being 35 or under - so if you need a new product to engage millenials, then you might naturally look to Instagram as design inspiration.

As a designer, it also reminds me of days gone by, when a UX designer or product owner might hand a set of wireframes to a UI designer, with the instructions to simply ‘make it look good’. In those cases, with a deadline looming, it’s not uncommon for the UI designer to just copy popular, trend-based interfaces. This ‘over the fence’ method is not only inefficient for both the UI and UX designer - it runs the risk of getting it badly wrong.

Today, the lines between UX and UI designers are blurring, and the design process is more integrated than ever before. For your product to stand out, the experience has to be exceptional - your audience has more choice, and higher expectations, than ever before. That means superficially making it look good is not enough - nowhere near, in fact.

This is the exact reason that we don’t have UX or UI designers at TAB. Instead, we have product designers. This group is encouraged to embrace every product holistically. It is also the same reason we like to get designers involved in the process as early as possible - because an ‘over the fence’ approach cannot coexist with great product design.

For more info on how our design process works, check out this blog from our Head of Design. Below are three key steps we use at the beginning of every project that helps us to keep focused on:

1. Define the problem

Product design always solves a problem, and understanding the problem thoroughly is essential to this process. When discussing the product and its design internally, make sure to define the problem first before proposing solutions. Thorough research at this stage will always help a team come up with better solutions.

2. Be consistent

Consistency is key, so ensure you bring it into every single element you use in order to reduce the cognitive load for the user. When designing a set of interactions for a product, a consistent user experience will identify the product brand to anyone.

3. Use human language

Words can both clarify and confuse. Speak the same language as your users and try not to overload them. Be helpful and provide them with the info they need - and then get out of the way. It is important that you help them achieve their desired outcome first, and add personality to your designs after.

So, should I go minimal? 

The answer is - it depends.

Rather than focusing on a design style you think is nice, or ‘on trend’, you should instead question whether the design really helps people achieve their desired outcomes. At the same time, you need to ensure that the brand, the personality and visual identity of the product, shines through.

A brand is much more than logos or colour palettes. It also relates to how a person feels when using your product, including their perceptions and the context they are in. This is why the brand must be experienced within the product - and any interface trends must come second, if at all.

Before you automatically go towards, or against, the current preference for a minimalistic approach, consider the examples below:

Put desired outcomes first

When we built the Dial-A-Ride app for TfL, we did a great deal of user research to understand exactly what the core user group were trying to achieve.

It’s a world away from the UI of ‘on-trend’ products, but that’s ok. It’s built for Dial-a-Ride bus drivers, and its purpose is to help them move London’s most vulnerable residents easily and efficiently from A to B.

Our research with these drivers uncovered two key facts: one is that they are not familiar with the latest technologies and smartphones, and the second is that they are often on a tight schedule. The app’s job is to get them on the road as quickly as possible, heading to the right pick up. This meant that a fashionable, minimal UI would not have been beneficial to them.

Instead, they wanted a simple and straight-forward way to get things done. That’s why, upon opening it, the app’s big, colourful call-to-action buttons take precedence - allowing the bus drivers to access the information they need quickly.

Dial a Ride app for Transport for London

Digital spaces that feel physical

Many brands extend across both digital and physical - particularly in retail, and hospitality. The UI of your product may need to feel integral and familiar to the physical experience a customer has once inside your bricks-and-mortar environment.

Our work with Citypub is a good example: we wanted to create the look and feel that you get from one of the company’s popular pubs, and translate that into a payments and loyalty app.

We have created a continuous experience where the user has the same warm and cosy feeling across both the digital and physical world. The gradients of the images within the navigation menu provide a dark and warm feeling, and by adding the ability to pay for your drinks whilst sitting at your table, the app ensures that patrons remain cosy and avoid queuing.

Whilst we never set out to create a minimalistic UI, it turned out to be the best way to showcase the look and feel of the physical pubs within the app.

CityPub loyalty and payments app

Letting the content shine

As we can see from the Instagram example mentioned in my intro, content, and of course the medium in which it is shown, are critical aspects to consider in the design of your new mobile product. Where content is rich, and core to the app’s purpose and proposition, there’s a strong case for the minimalist design trend.

When building the new Visit London mobile experience for London & Partners (L&P), for example, we had to take into account that in a city as large as London, there is an incredible amount of things to do - and as a result, for the L&P team, a wealth of content and information to share.

With the focus on the rich content available, and the consideration of the smaller screens on smartphones as a medium, our work with L&P was a clear opportunity to use a more minimalistic design approach. Just like Instagram, the white UI makes the images and colours more vibrant and exciting to look at, while the simplified navigation makes it easy for visitors and residents alike to find and explore London as efficiently as possible.

Visit London app for London and Partners (L&P)

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The boundaries between interface and experience are fading more and more every day. The two areas simply cannot be treated as distinctly separate anymore. So don’t follow an interface trend for its own sake - focus on the desired outcomes people are trying to fulfil when they use your product, and create a seamless, delightful experience to help them achieve it. And never forget - ‘seamless’ and ‘delightful’ mean different things to different people, dependent on the context they are in.

Here at TAB, understanding the relationship between interface and experience is why we favour product designers who can think, and design, holistically - and we get them involved as early as possible in the development process.

If you have any questions or want to learn a bit more about how we do product design at TAB, you can tweet me directly or email us here.