Zen and Digital Design: a Cultural Theory

So I’ve been browsing through some blogs recently, only partly because I’m required to for class, but also because people sometimes say smart things.

Recently, the smart things people have been saying are about software media design: websites, digital magazines, mobile magazines, mobile news apps, etc.

Well, I’ve started to identify some common denominators. Everyone seems to be tooting the same horn, and I wanted to put them all together to reveal something everyone’s been hinting at: the culture of digital user interfaces and user experiences, or UI/UX.

I propose that a culture of use and culture of design exists between the people designing the software and the people using the software, creating a number of subtleties that can be exploited to create fabulous software.

Let us begin!

The Visuals of Software Design

We’re far beyond the days of baroque start menus, flashy desktop icons, designers have been embracing something called a “Flat User Interface,” or flat UI. If you have a Windows 8 phone, you already know what this looks like. Here’s an example from dribbble.com:


The design focuses on a clean, minimalist approach with basic colors and ergonomic, easy-to-press-on-a-touchscreen buttons. Also notice the simplicity of the text and the lack of superfluous visual decorations.

Either way, you’ve been seeing this across the internet recently, from Instagram to this startup web mag Middle 8. Windows 8 is probably the most recognizable invocation of flat UI.

One can assume this change is being driven by user demand – software is more successful if it reflects this flat style. I mean, look at all these flat designed apps. But why would we switch from bells and whistles to a skeletonized, minimal design?

Well, as Adrian Taylor over at Smashing Magazine puts it, the bells and whistles were too much to handle.

As a constantly connected culture, we deal with a nonstop flow of information, some of it important and relevant, most of it not. We are constantly evaluating, filtering and, of course, creating content, and it all gets pretty exhausting… Becoming overwhelmed is all too easy, and a reduction of clutter in a user interface (UI) can create a little visual zen.

Of course, there’s a problem with simplifying design – no longer can you write the full name of a button’s purpose inside the button. The solution? Let a person infer what each button means by strategically placing it and adorning it with a symbol.

Maybe this experiment will make things clearer. Here’s a screenshot from Instagram, an insanely popular mobile app. What is the purpose of the button in the bottom left corner?


It takes you to the home page, and if you knew that, congratulations! You’re part of the culture I’m talking about:

Because many of our intuitive user interfaces are similar, people can pick up software and already know how to navigate it – the same way anyone who picks up a book knows how to open and read it. 

This phenomenon manifested when magazines first made the jump to tablet editions. Instead of scrolling up and down like a web page, users wanted to swap left and right, just like they would through a physical magazine. This was a big problem with designing Huffington, Huffington Post’s iPad-exclusive magazine, according to Josh Klenert, Director of Design and User Experience at HuffPo. (We talked briefly after a presentation about Huffington in New York this summer.)

The answer? Either embrace people’s natural inclinations or give them subtle hints about how to navigate your app. Klenert chose the latter, as you can see with the little arrow in the bottom right hand corner of the magazine’s pages.

From Robert Snow Photography
From Robert Snow Photography

The bloggers over at Nielsen Norman also highlighted the problems with awkward design:

Although tablet-specific applications have plenty of usability flaws, the problems are mainly the same as those that plague traditional application design: difficult features, a mismatch with user workflow, and poor instructions that people don’t read.

However, our good friends at Nielsen Norman upset me with the following statement:

The flat design threat is a fashionable trend that will hopefully subside before it hurts users (and companies) too much.

NN argued that because flat design is so minimal, many users have trouble determining how their intuitive gestures work (swipes, pinches, drags of the fingers.) I disagree – the Twitter and Gmail mobile apps have helped fight this problem with design that response to slight swipes, snapping whenever a full swipe triggers the effect.

This is the bottom line: by exploiting how your users will attempt to interact with your product upon first glance, you can design mobile media that not only operates smoothly but feels natural to the user.

I’ll leave my conclusions at that, but I want to ask you some questions:

1. Have you ever downloaded a new app and found it easy to navigate?

2. When was the last time you had to read a tutorial for a mobile app?

3. Do you use any apps to read/watch/listen to media on a mobile device? Does that app utilize intuitive design?