This master thesis written by Amanda Karen Speechly in 2019 is about „Writing for mobile media. The influences of text, digital design and psychological characteristics on the cognitive load of the mobile user“. I chose this topic because it will be part of my master thesis which will adress the topic app design.
Level of design This master thesis is oriented to the scientific format and is very structured and uniform, but it is not graphically prepared to a high standard. Everything is tidy, however, not particularly appealing when viewed from a design background.
Degree of innovation This study explores the relationship between the author, the reader, and the text, focusing on the mobile media author who is tasked with balancing the functionality and humanity of digital interaction. She describes some unique points throughout her theoretical work, e.g. reader response theory for mobile text, cognitive load theory in context to mobile media or the emotional attitude towards reading on digital screens but overall it is more like a summary of what is already existing.
Independence On the first page of her thesis, there is a declaration that this master thesis is her own work. She references everything that is based on other work.
Outline and structure It is very fluent to read and the structure of the content is very coherent and comprehensible. The topics build on each other and illuminate the research question from all areas connected to the topic. However, a critical view/reflection on some parts may help as well, sometimes it seems to be a little unilateral. However, what I miss is a table of figures in the end, because she describes the figures in the text where you can also find the reference. You would have to read a whole paragraph to find the reference. Sometimes I could not find a reference to the figure, maybe she created them herself but I don’t know because there is no specification.
In the end she has two appendices, where in the first appendix she gives insights in the current practices in a South African context which is part of her practical work. She conducted interviews in Cape Town, focusing on identifying the typical processes used by digital designers and editors to develop and present content for mobile media. In the second appendix she presents the interview questions. Since the appendices are placed after the references, it doesn’t seem important I don’t understand why this practical part is appended (at the very end), because it is an important part of her research.
Degree of communication She wrote in the First-person perspective to describe her opinion in her own words. Her work is very informative with a lot of references supporting her statements and giving a good overview. Personally I think you can feel how important this topic is to her and how convinced she is of her statements.
Scope of the work The work contains 169 pages. The theoretical research is very broad and concerning all areas on this topic.
Orthography and accuracy She has a good sentence structure and the texts are fluently readable due to the good verbalization. I could not find any spelling mistakes. The texts are written neutral, not using pronouns, for example the user is always describes as „the user“.
Literature She uses a lot of references, they vary from 1997 to 2018. Most of the literature is already around 10 years old, which is not good especially concerning a work in the mobile field that is developing rapidly. But a lot of the psychological statements go way back, so the literature selection on this makes sense.
»If you want a great site, you’ve got to test. After you’ve worked on a site for even a few weeks, you can’t see it freshly anymore. You know too much. The only way to find out if it really works is to test it.«
– Steve Krug in Don’t make me think (2000)
To observe, if a (digital) product really fits the user’s needs and what are potential problems and pain points, there is a method called usability testing. I watched a talk of Steve Krug, experience professional and author, in which he explains why usability testing is so important and runs through some tips for improving your own usability tests. To break it down usability testing basically is watching people trying to use what you have created, even if it is just a prototype, and let them think out loud in order to have access to their cognitive process and looking for the frustration points, questions etc. It should start at an early state of the project and includes the user’s direct feedback into the creation process, to figure out the problems before you build them into your project and discover them at a (too) late status.
Why are we doing usability testing?
They take a lot of time to build, get the data, cost money and the main question is, is it all worth it? It is! There are many reasons for you to test your product in order to have a good user experience and improve your work. Steve Krug said:
»Usability is an attribute of good design«
He defined a thing as usable if:
A person of average – or even below average – ability and experience (i.e., most people)
can figure out how to use the thing for the intended purpose
without it being more trouble than it is worth.
A common issue is that a deeply involved person e.g. a designer is very into the subject and gathered a lot of information throughout the research phase of the project. While designing the product, she/he of course uses all that knowledge and creates the prototype as if the user has all that knowledge too, because it is just obvious to her/him and why should anybody think of it different? Usability testing gives the creators the opportunity to watch somebody else have the experience without former knowledge about it and let the participant use it in their own individual, intuitive manner. This discovers lots of problems in best case at an early state of the project and can happen in only a very short amount of time if well planned and organized. As Leisa Reichelt, Head of Research and Insights at Atlassian, said:
»You are not your user and you cannot think like a user unless you are meeting users regularly.«
In his talk, Krug also mentions that we are basically all users and we imagine that everybody uses it the same way as we do, but we are not our users. He says that users are incredibly diverse and all use is idiosyncratic (depending on prior knowledge, situation, goals…). Sometimes it can be very hard for us creators to remember that the user does not know what we know.
Usability issues can slow down the whole process of use, it can cause anxiety, be annoying and sometimes even scare people of to use something any further at all. Usability testing can prevent the product from all this, in order to guarantee a good user experience and usability throughout the process of use. Most usability issues and problems are contextual, it depends on the thing that you are building, there are only a few absolute truths in therms of usability and UX, says Krug. He gives a good example, talking about that people mostly get their jobs because of who they are as a person. He describes that e.g. people become a developer, because they like complicated stuff and figure out how things work. For a pure developer, interfaces can totally look different as if a designer or another involved person in the process looks at it and it can also differ from how the user would look at it. If you now take into consideration every member of a team, including developers, designers, project managers etc. it is sometimes just very hard to agree on something and make a decision and proofs the idiosyncratic use. A good solution can be to just test it and see how the user can cope with the discussed particular element.
In his talk, Krug gives a short introduction in DIY usability testing (nutshell version) and goes on by a live usability testing to demonstrate how easy it can be. After that, he goes on and introduces his 6 maxims, which you can also see in the video beneath.
For user centered design, it is necessary to be aware how the user would interact with your product or service, whether it is a website, an app, a streaming service or anything else. For me it influences my design decisions and helps to discover usability problems, that I sometimes would have never imagined to be a problem at all. Every design decision kind of starts off with a hypothesis, that this is how the user would like to experience something and this is also very much influenced by own assumptions and previous knowledge. User Testing proves your decision wrong or right and puts yourself in the user’s shoes to see the project from his point of view.
Don’t make me think : Web usability – das intuitive Web by Steve Krug
In this blog entry I will have a look on how to implement Glassmorphism in figma, but also briefly in code.
First you start off by choosing a colorful background or a simple background with colorful elements, which will be seen partly due to the transparency of the glassmorphic card element in front. It works very good with gradients, why I have chosen them for my example. Ones the background is set, create a card and choose a linear gradient for the fill, which consists of two white colors of different opacities. It is important to change the opacity of the fill, but not the opacity of the whole object. With a background blur, the glass optic becomes visible and you get a first preview of the look.
Add an outline to indicate the borders of the object. It later helps to establish the hierarchy. For a better illusion of depth, additional linear gradients that fit to the background can also be applied to the outline. A subtle shadow rounds everything off and helps to distinguish all the layers. Also the content is placed in an Overlay layer mode, which attaches it more into the card. By using noise, the frosting effect is created and gives the card the perfect glass optic.
But what about the visual hierarchy with this transparent elements? As in Neumorphism, also Glassmorphism uses the skeuomorphic approach of the real world counterpart, which in this case is of course glass, as a guideline for shadows and blur effects. When there are multiple layers of glassmorphic cards, each of them should receive a subtle shadow as described above.
The differentiation of the blur helps to show which element is at the top, middle and back. As in the real world, the farer away a frosted glass is from the background, the more blur the background seems to be through the glass. For applying this, just start with the back element and give it a blur value of 15, the middle one has to be a little more blurred, around 25 and the top one can be around 40. To make the hierarchy totally clear, it is also necessary to decrease the opacity from the top card to the lowest. In the image below, the top card has an opacity value of 36, while the bottom one has only 16. To complete everything, add the borders applying the rules from above or just use a white outline. Either way the outline has to have a lower opacity from the top card to the lowest card, for which one can orientate on the applied blur as well.
To make glassmorphic icons, the rules showed in the figma file above are usually implemented in a single element of the icon, which is placed in front of colorful background elements. The actual color of the icon is sometimes also displayed in the transparent glass surface. In the images below, you can see various examples of how Glassmorphism is implemented on icons. The simple step by step guide from above can be used to create the glassmorphic icons from scratch.
While Neumorphism is mostly used for interactive elements like buttons, cards, toggles and sliders, Glassmorphism is more used in a passive way. It is supposed to give the interface a smooth and modern look by reducing the style to only small and non interactive background elements like cards, icons, overlays etc.
As with Neumorphism, there is a generator for glassmorphic card elements available online which gives a preview and generates code to copy for your css code.
I found lots of tutorials how to implement Glassmorphism in code, one of the examples how to do it you can see below. Basically there are only a few lines of code in html and css (focus is on css) which are very similar to the principle of creating this style in figma.
When designing User Interfaces, there are several ways to implement Neumorphism or Glassmorphism. In this blog post, I will look at how to develop neumorphic elements like cards and Icons in interface design tools like figma but also briefly in code.
First, let’s start with Neumorphism by looking at card elements, which is the most present UI element of this style. The factors that have to be considered are the size, radius, distance, intensity and blur. It has all to do with the shadows, that generate the look of „attaching to the ground“. Due to its reduced color scheme it works best, if the neumorphic card has the same color as the background. Also rounded borders help the effect to stand out more. I tried it out myself in figma, it is very easy to do and by playing around with the blur value, the distance to the background seems to change. The more blur, the farer away from the background the neumorphic card seems to be.
By adding gradients, it makes the card element seem to become convex or concarv. Adding the shadows within the card instead of outside has the effect that the card generates kind of hole or window in the interface.
One of the goals of Neumorphism is to include the skeuomorphic approach, which means to combine the minimalistic design style with familiar objects of the analog world not only in the design aspect but also in their function, as I already analyzed in previous blog posts. The skeuomorphic approach also can be part of the icons. All the icon parts themselves have adjusted background shadows and lie on card elements with shadows, which gives them a 3D look and complete their connection to their real world counterparts. For realization in figma, the same rules as for the cards are implemented onto the icon elements.
For a button, you can also apply the rules mentioned before. The default button can simply stay in the normal or concarv mode, while the active button should seem like it is really pressed and attaches itself deeper into the interface, for which the inner shadows should be used. Additionally to imply the „active status“, the color can also change when pressed. It is important to keep an eye on the contrast and differences between the states of the buttons. It has to be very clear to e functional.
There are several tutorials how to do Neumorphism, there even is a Neumorphism card generator available online, where you can try out yourself and also see how it should be implemented in css code. You also can do this easily in code and don’t need a lot of lines. It is basically the same principle as it is in figma just translated.
In one of my former blog entries, I talked about the potential strengths and weaknesses of Neumorphism, also called soft UI. The most significant issue was obviously the accessibility. Also due to the skeuomorphic elements, it was not as flexible in its design style as for example a flat design approach. It has to be used restricted, in order to obtain a nice accessible und understandable interface. It works best with a simple UI and a strict limited hierarchy.
Say Hello to Glassmorphism In comparison to the extruding/intruding optically plastic effect of neumorphism, a more vertical trend Glassmorphism has evolved. It’s most defining characteristics are:
Light thin outline: visibility of the borders of transparent object
One of the strengths of this design trend is, that the user can identify the hierarchy of the elements quickly. It is very easy to detect, which layer is in the front, middle and back because of the see-through objects. Just as with neumorphism, this style shines especially bright when it’s used on just one element. The right amount will ensure, that also people with vision problems will be able to still understand the user interface. With over-usage, such as integrating it as a default material design for the background, card elements and Icons, it restricts the accessibility and also can lead to a boring and unoriginal design.
Neumorphism is best used for buttons, sliders and toggles, whereas this should be avoided Glassmorphism. Glassmorphic elements work best as (floating) cards and overlays, which we know is problem for neumorphism, because all elements attach themselves to the background. As with all UI designs, it is important to visually group all elements on the cards and define a hierarchy for this as well.
History and Future The system behind Glassmorphism is not as new as one might think, the panel blur is being used in several ways since 2007, where it was first introduced by Windows vista with Windows Aero and later integrated by Apple in iOS 7 in 2013.
Pulling down notifications and see the icons fade out behind a panel is nowadays integrated in the standard UI. Microsoft’s Fluent design system goes heavy on this effect as well. They call this particular element The Acrylic and showcase it as an integral part of their design system. Apple has since greatly reduced the blurry-glass effect in their mobile OS, but recently brought transparent-blurs back with Mac OS Big Sur. However, on Dribbble – a platform for discovering and connecting with designers, Glassmorphism is used for desktop applications as well as mobile devices and seems to be not at all limited to a specific device. But also Dribbble is more about the design being pretty instead of accessible, therefore there are also lots of examples where Glassmorphism is definitely overused and also the designs are not restricted to an operating system.
Since Glassmorphism is used in the current Mac OS version Big Sure and also on Microsoft Fluent Design, I would predict the trend will definitely become more popular and rise, to also be more present on our mobile devices.
In the past few years, haptic feedback has spread strongly to the digital world and accompanies us on almost all smart surfaces. There are three classes of tactile displays, distinguished by the type of input that is delivered to the skin. Input is delivered by either static pressure (where the skin is pressed), vibration, or tangential skin stretching. This is made possible by different technologies. Electromagnetic motors present vibrotactile cues, for example in wearable displays. Electrotactile displays are based on a dense array of electrodes.
However, haptic feedback can also be obtained without touching the display at all and perceive it through mid-air contactless interaction. Not only can one touch the computer like this, but the computer touches one back as well by simulating the touch through the air. So the user doesn’t have to be in contact with any physical surface.
Turning ultrasound into virtual touch Ultraleap is a company that is on the mission to make digital worlds feel more human. They have united the world’s most advanced hand tracking with the only haptic technology that creates the sensation of touch in mid-air. They have a team of more than 150 spread across the world, with locations in Silicon Valley, US and Bristol, UK. Ultraleap has developed a virtual touch technology, that works with sound waves through ultrasonic speakers. These sound waves are timed specifically, so that at one point in the air, they all add up together at the same time. Sound waves are just pressure waves moving through the air and all the different pressures that come together at one point enable to have a very localized point of high pressure, which generates enough force to slightly displace one’s skin.
See yourself, how this is working.
This technology opens endless possibilities and is a real step to make interfaces more accessible and human. From the automotive industry, to gaming techniques in all areas of application (like VR, AR, XR etc.), interactive Installations, museums, but also future mobile device applications and interactions for visually impaired people.
Ultraleap also enabled a touchless interactive play experience for LEGO. Using the Ultraleap‘s haptic technology, LEGO fans and families were able to move, rotate and build virtual LEGO bricks on an Ocean Outdoor digital billboard, while feeling the bricks in mid-air. The haptic sensations consisted of circles and lines: users could touch the stud on top of virtual LEGO bricks and feel the edges of the blocks. Different sensations were produced for wheels of different sizes and also there were “crumbling” sensation when builds were broken down.
Ultraleap has taken haptic feedback to a new level. Skeuo- and neumorphism could benefit extremely from this immersive technology. Their lack of accessibility could use this particular mid-air form of interactive haptic feedback as an advantage to be more inclusive and place themselves in the design world. I think most mobile devices like we have now will continue to be more interactive in the future, but just not in the touch way we are used to now. Technologies like this are the future, and also because of the pandemic in today’s world, I think the development of these devices will continue and become more widespread around the world, and just possibly replace common ways of interaction completely.
Not only are our interfaces becoming increasingly flat, but so are the devices on which the interface is presented. The analog, haptic factor is diminishing, because what was previously a physical button, for example, has evolved into a digital button on a flat screen. In an exchange with Konrad Baumann, we talked about the areas in which the flattening of devices has changed the most or is becoming increasingly prevalent. Of course, it is present in almost all industries due to digitalization, but the mobile devices and also the automotive industry caught our attention the most in its change.
In our conversation about the automotive industry, we mainly looked at the car dashboard, as well as its functions, and addressed the following factors:
The aesthetic, digital and futuristic factor of displays
Flat and smart design changes interaction and functions
Distraction factor is much greater, due to expanded range of functions
Physical and haptic advantages of, for example, push or turn knobs and analog buttons are almost completely eliminated
New use of senses, since the sense of touch is not as effective due to the flat interface (you can no longer look at the road and feel the rotary knob with which you want to adjust the volume, but must actively direct your gaze away from the road to the display or act via voice control)
tactile feedback while driving (lane assistant)
simple intuitive display that does not require any special instruction
These factors of the touch display brought me back to required haptic feedback. A flat display allows much less access because you can’t feel the interface the way you would like to intuitively with your hands. The flatness of the digital interface would prevent you from feeling surface textures, materials, elevations, etc. of the input options. Therefore, a digital interface requires and includes haptic feedback. Haptic feedback in digital interfaces, as mentioned in my last blog post, means that forces, vibrations or movements are applied to the user via the interface. This allows the user to haptically feel what they are seeing and doing through a digital interface. We can perceive familiar objects very quickly and also very accurately if we use only our sense of touch. This action of “active touch” is called haptic sensation or simply haptics. Since we use our hands primarily to explore the world tactilely, haptic sensation is closely related to the function of our hands and the way we use them. Often it does not require explanation of how to use the sensed object, as this is intuitively applicable based on the texture and properties – picked up by the sense of touch.
»Haptic exploration enables us to perceive both the geometric and material properties of objects. The former refers to features such as size, shape, orientation, and curvature, whereas the latter includes attributes such as surface texture, compliance, and thermal characteristics. The size and shape of objects that fit within the hand can be perceived on the basis of skin indentation and the pose of the fingers, because the hand can enclose the object.« – Lynette A. Jones (Senior Research Scientist in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, 2018).
Just by touching and feeling, the surface texture and interaction with a particular element can be made out. Compared to hearing or seeing, we can perceive bidirectional signals through haptic perception. The information we can extract about the properties of an object is closely related to the movements we make to perceive those properties.
»Haptic sensing is critical to our experience of the world, from providing us with information that enables us to use just the right amount of force to lift a glass of water from a table, to finding the light switch on the bedroom wall in the dark.« – Lynette A. Jones (2018)
However, the sense of touch is thought to have a narrower bandwidth than vision or hearing, meaning that the amount of information it can process in time is less than that of the other two senses. In everyday life, it is mainly hearing and vision that dominate our interaction with the world, which is why we often rely on the information we pick up with them. Especially when interacting with digital displays, however, haptic feedback is a way to integrate the sense of touch to provide information, and make the digital world more experiential and, most importantly, accessible. Concerning the car dashboard, the sence of touch and haptic feedback is very important. Everything that includes vision or audio, distracts the driver. Preparing tactile or haptic feedback can prevent directing the gaze away from the road.
»Understanding how we perceive these various aspects of a surface is important in a number of areas, from the feel of consumer products that we hold, such as phones, handles, paper, and fabrics, to creating such textures artificially on flat screens.« – Lynette A. Jones (2018)
Related to my starting point of researching the benefits of skeuo- and neumorphism in the field of Interaction Design, haptic feedback is an indispensable factor to consider when applying these design styles. These capabilities allow the real world signifier of a skeuo- and neumorphic objects to be felt, transferring the analog world into the digital display. The real world counterpart of skeuomorphism can thus be made more tangible, thereby mitigating the accessibility difficulties of neumorphism.
In Part 1 of the topic Skeuomorphism in digital music production programs I talked about the little development of skeuomorphic design elements in common music production programs and their plugins for musicians and producers.
One of the effects of social and cultural change is that, for current generations, it is often no longer really a question of how the hardware works in detail, but simply of being able to get active in the selected area as quickly as possible and get started straight away. Music in pop culture often consists of digitally generated sounds, where the link to the original sound of an instrument is sometimes hardly recognizable anymore. What kind of access to the interface would be needed today that laymen or people without this presupposed access to analog music could use the interface intuitively, and does something like this already exist? What would an interface look like that is suitable for the complex demands of musicians and producers, but is oriented towards current design trends and new approaches?
For my research, it was also important to me to examine current music programs that may be approaching music production programs and their plug-ins with a modern design and a different, more up-to-date design. My focus is to look at other design approaches in this area and see what the possibilities are. I looked at the following examples from this field regardless of their exact function, intuition and interaction in the music industry. This was purely about new design approaches and visualizations in music production programs and plugins that stand out from the sea of similarity because of their visualization.
The examples shown above provide an insight into how music production programs and their plug-ins can also look different. At first glance, it seems that the interface is much easier to use due to the reduction of elements and the visualization of sounds in this way allows one to experience one’s own composition visually as well. It gives a glimpse into the possible future and modernization of music production programs and their plugins.
Interfaces are getting flatter and flatter. New design approaches like the flat 3D effect of neumorphism go back to the skeuomorphic direction and give flat design a new direction. These very effects of “getting flatter” and “going back” lead to a loop in design where we constantly reflect old values and thereby come back to them in new ways. These effects require haptic feedback (at least in mobile devices), because the boundaries of an analog operable element blur in digital implementation. Haptic feedback means that forces, vibrations or movements are exerted on the user via the interface. This allows the user to haptically feel what he/she is seeing and doing through a digital interface.
Through my previous blog posts, I’ve noticed the opportunities and possibilities of using the modern and intuitive design elements of neumorphism and flat design for interactions, especially in the field of music production. It would be a great experiment to see how this design approach affects music production programs and their plugins. By potentially combining this with haptic feedback or sound for controls and allowing the elements to be flatter, but still maintain their sublimity and realism for interactive use, could revolutionize the design of music production programs. At best, the results would be improving usability and an overall better user experience. By incorporating the new design trends and the simplification that comes with “going flatter“, it would also be possible to make programs more easily accessible to non-professionals or amateurs in the field.
Digitalization has not only brought a technical change that has affected almost all areas of life, but also a social and cultural change. Dealing with technology is assumed as a matter of course nowadays, because that’s what modern life consists of. Everything should work as quickly and easily as possible, be intuitive to use, and best of all, everyone can use it themselves without a lot of external tools. But what does intuitive design mean for different industries and at this point in time?
In view of this question and under the aspect of skeuo- and neumorphism, I had a discussion about the music industry in cooperation with a hobby music producer. Indeed, this very industry is characterized by skeuomorphic design elements in digital music production programs, mainly in plugins.
Music production is of course a field that is very hardware related. It therefore made sense to take a skeuomorphic design approach in digital music production programs to represent digitally, often almost 1:1, how it works in analog. The target audience for programs, such as FL Studio, Ableton, Cubase, Logic Pro X, are not amateurs who have not handled an instrument or a mixing console before. Musicians and producers, with a passion for music, composition and analog instrument and mixing console knowledge are the ones who (should) use these programs.
However, this raises a question for me: as has been shown through the research in my previous blog posts, there has of course always been modernization, other design styles, other approaches to design, especially at the level of interaction and intuition. Interfaces that we use every day are constantly changing and trying to adapt more and more to the needs of their target audience. However, I could hardly observe this very change in digital music production programs, especially in plugins. These interfaces adapted to the new technical requirements, but many of them remained almost unchanged in their operation and the design elements used.
A knob still looks like a knob, a slider like a slider and a deployable instrument can be operated just like in real life only via digital inputs or buttons. Cables provide the right connections and show how the digital elements would be connected to each other in an analog way. Why is that?
For me, as a layman in this field, it is not really intuitive to use, as I partly feel I have to learn the instrument or mixing console first, to be able to use the interface. Not only through the instruments, but also the design elements that are based on the mixing console, I can not comprehend without a minimum knowledge in this industry or by trying out a lot. In the interview with the hobby music producer we came to talk exactly about this and in some areas he simply could not imagine any other design solution than the one just used, because it is intuitive for musicians and producers, which as a layman can not be understood at first sight. For example, there are still ten elements next to each other, as it is on a real mixing console, rather than making it a flat dropdown menu to select individual wanted elements.
Intuitive does not mean the same thing for all industries and depends on existing prior knowledge. Other types of intuition also require a different type of interface. However, I think it also has a lot to do with Never change a running system, which indicates the little change in the music production programs and their plugins.
There are some changes going on and there are some other approaches, which I will talk about in my next blog entry. I am not interested in showing or telling what is better or more intuitive, because that is subjective. I want to explore how things are and have changed, how they could be different and how other approaches affect people in the music business, but also laymans.
Neumorphism is definitely the design trend of 2020. It combines the skeuomorphic design with the famous flat design and thus creates a special flat but realistic 3D-looking effect. It is aesthetically very appealing, but what about the usability? To answer this question, I researched about the strengths and weaknesses of neumorphism and how it would be applicable in real world situations due to its intuitive design approach. I stumbled about the therm „signifiers“ and how hints contribute to good usability. This lead to a research based on the background of human perception and usability.
Signifiers, not affordances
„As time and technologies change, as we have moved from individual to group, social, and even cultural computing, and as the communication technologies have become as important as the computational ones, how well have our design principles kept up? We know how to behave by watching the behavior of others, or if others are not there, by the trails they have left behind.“ — Don Norman
Don Norman, co-founder and principal of the User Experience/Usability consulting firm „the Nielsen Norman Group“, World Leaders in Research-Based User Experience, wrote the article Signifiers, not affordances about powerful clues, that arise from what he calls „powerful signifiers“. He states that a “signifier” is some sort of indicator, some signal in the physical or social world that can be interpreted meaningfully. Signifiers signify critical information, even if the signifier itself is an accidental byproduct of the world. Social signifiers are those that are relevant to social usages. Some social indicators simply are the unintended but informative result of the behavior of others.
To understand social signifiers, he gives the example of catching a train: You know your train’s departure will be soon and rush to the train station. When you arrive and there is no train, you are automatically looking for clues, if you have missed the train or not. If there are still lots of people at the train station, you know, it may just not have arrived yet, if nobody is there anymore, you probably have missed it. So the state of the train station, the presence or absence of people there, works as a signifier. This is an example of an incidental, accidental signifier. That is the nature of signifiers: often useful, but of mixed reliability. Other examples for social signifiers can be a crosswalk or even trails that signify a shortcut through a park or a planted area.
If you think about that for a moment, everything we are doing is a learning process and to evolve we need constant signifiers and explanations how to continue. We permanently interpret clues or signs that enable us to proceed in a certain way, that especially show us how to proceed. We orient ourselves on the basis of our previous experiences, not only in the social environment, but also in our technical competencies. It has a lot to do with intuitive usage, that comes from signifiers provided for us. In the design field, this is essential for a good usability and a good user experience. People search for any signifier that might guide them through and help them to cope and understand, anything that might signify meaningful information.
„Forget affordances: what people need, and what design must provide, are signifiers. Because most actions we do are social, the most important class of these are social signifiers.“ — Don Norman
A signifier in the digital world is for example the scrollbar of websites on the side, which automatically gives you a clue about how much of the page you are viewing is remaining and on what point you are on the page. Also its length is showing what proportion is visible at the moment. The signifier is an important communication device to the recipient, whether or not communication was intended. For us to function in this social, technological world, we need to develop internal models of what things mean, of how they operate. We seek all the cues we can find to help in this enterprise, and in this way, we all act as detectives, searching for whatever guidance we might find. If we are fortunate, thoughtful designers provide the clues for us. Otherwise, we must use our creativity and imagination. But this is something users usually don’t want to do, which can also be an example for bad usability. The user’s mission is to not perceive the interface in that kind of way, that he has to think about how to use it. „Don’t make me think“ is usually the general view and approach, users follow.
Flat UI Elements Attract Less Attention and Cause Uncertainty?
To understand if this is really that significant for users and if so, how it affects them, I took a look at a study of 2017 on UIs with weak in comparison to UIs with strong signifiers on webpages by Kate Moran.
The study first points out that due to flat design, many websites have erased the cues for users to identify, whether something is clickable. Using eyetracking equipment to track and visualize users’ eye movements across interfaces, the researchers investigated how strong clickability signifiers (traditional clues such as underlined, blue text or a glossy 3D button) and weak or absent signifiers (for example, linked text styled as static text or a ghost button) impact the ways users process and understand web pages. They took 9 web pages from live websites and modified them to create two nearly identical versions of each page, with the same layout, content and visual style. The two versions differed only in the use of strong, weak, or absent signifiers for interactive elements (buttons, links, tabs, sliders). To drive the users attention to a certain area of the page, they gave them tasks on the page, for example: „You will see a page from a hotel website. Reserve this hotel room. Please tell us when you have found where you would click.” There were 71 general web-users, who participated in the study.
Two modified versions of a detail page for a hotel room: The strong version (left) included slightly 3D style buttons, and the light purple color was used only on interactive elements; The weak version (right) had flat ghost buttons instead.
The researchers tracked the eye movements of the participants as they were performing these tasks. They measured the number of fixations on each page, as well as the task time. (A fixation happens when the gaze lingers on a spot of interest on the page). Both of these measures reflect user effort: the more fixations and time spent doing the task, the higher the processing effort, and the more difficult the task. In addition, they created heat-map visualizations by aggregating the areas that participants looked at the most on the pages.
The results show that the average amount of time the user spent on the website with weak signifiers was 22% higher. Also, the fixation time was 25% higher than on the strong signifier pages, which shows the users had to look around more to get where they had to click.
Strong-signifier version (left): Participants were asked to cancel their rental-car reservation on this page. The heat-map shows most fixations focused around the target tab (as indicated by the red area). Weak-signifier version: (right) In addition to the focus on the target tab, this heat-map shows many fixations concentrated on the footer links, promotional items, and other items on the reservation form near the target tab. The increased focus on the weak page’s footer is especially troubling, because it’s a signal that the users were getting desperate.
The results of the study were very clear. For a good usability and user experience, you need an easy, seamless, enjoyable and overall intuitive design. The users should understand their options and possible actions immediately, because designs with weak clickability signifiers waste time and patience. The potential negative consequences of weak signifiers are diminished when the site has a low information density, traditional or consistent layout, and places important interactive elements where they stand out from surrounding elements. So it really depends whether (ultra) flat or flat-ish design is suitable or not.
But now back to neumorphism, what is its potential and where are its weaknesses?
There was a huge hype around neumorphic design in 2020, but also some criticism due to its usability. Based on the research about signifiers and the supporting study, I analyzed why there could be problems and how these problems define themselves. Is neumorphism just pretty, but not usable?
The three simple actions associated with flat design are: click, move and swipe. When a shadow is placed behind a card element in flat design, the distance to the background is shown and makes it a floatable card. This gives a movable feeling to the cards, so users are more likely to interact with them, not just clicking, but also swiping or moving them. This is something the user has learned from his past experience with technical devices and interfaces, but it’s also an intuitive approach.
In comparison to that, neumorphic UI elements attach themselves firmly on the ground. This creates the effect, that the user is sure it can’t be moved, because its attached. The neumorphic design can somehow mislead people to perceive the components function in the wrong way and gives a missleading signifier to the user. It conveys that things are constant, even though things like a dropdown-menu are temporarily. The actions that usually are intended to do get lost because of the clinginess of components to the surface.
On the other side, due to the skeuomorphic elements in neumorphism it’s so much easier to understand actions like toggle, buttons, sliders or even joysticks. These are real world signifiers, that lead to an intuitive action on the user’s side.
This solves lots of clickability and click uncertainty problems, which is something that flat design is struggling with, as I mentioned previously in the summary of the study of Kate Moran. She uncovers that flat design often uses weak signifiers due to the minimalistic elements.
In neumorphism, there is only a small but meaningful color palette. One color is only used for interactive elements, one for active or inactive states and so on, which increases the findability of interactive elements or certain states. The color palette makes these elements stand out from the surface and save a lot of time to find and interact with them. As it has been said in many other articles, the main problem with neumorphism is accessibility. The components don’t have a proper contrast ratio with the background. That is because many practices of neumorphism design only use the shadows and subtle changes in transparency to differentiate components and hierarchy which don’t have proper contrast ratio with the background.
Personally I think, neumorphism is a fresh, modern, flat and minimal 3D-design which is very meaningful, because the skeuomorphic design elements are very intuitive to use. It will not be applicable to every website or app, especially when you have a lot of (complex) content. But most certainly it would be a great opportunity to use it for simple applications, like a calculator app, compass or even the general app overview on smartphones. It works best with clear interactive elements like sliders, buttons and toggles so it could also work great for smart home apps or music production. It definitely needs some adjustments to make it more usable and clear, but it is evolving and has a lot of potential to conquer the design world and give it a new modern touch.