For all the rationale underpinning the field and for all the careful research and reasoning that shores up every new initiative, there remains an oft-overlooked truth in UX design. This truth is that UX design is as much ruled by fashion as it is function.
Users are subject to fads. Whims, design novelties and the latest fashions heavily influence the direction of the websites and products we consume. While this is by no means unnatural, it does mean that trends can toy with usability.
Sometimes, the designs we see implemented in technologies are fickle. They are swayed by the latest vogue and the desire to appear ‘cutting-edge’, rather than more systematic assessments of merit. So, when form follows fashion over function, what happens to the user experience?
Form And Function
To start, we need to look at the traditional concepts of form and function. Form following function is a classic design principle. Originally an architectural concept, it refers to the idea that the way we build and design a thing should be determined by its purpose. Transposed to digital design, then, this simply means that a product or website’s function should be the starting point in deciding how it should look.
In basic UX terms, function would be the back-end of a product. It pertains to the services an application provides and what kind of features it comprises. Form, meanwhile, relates to front-end user interface elements. It is the interplay of both form and function that determines the quality of the overall user experience.
This all sounds simple and logical enough. In practice, however, it is not always so easy for form to follow function – and both are subject to passing fashion.
A Modern-Day Dislocation
Today, form and function are increasingly dislocated. In an advanced digital landscape where our various technologies perform a vast array of functions, interface designs are becoming subtler and more sophisticated.
Take the example of the smartphone. Original landline telephones had a linear relationship between form and function, with obvious purposes for the headset and dial components. At a glance, the form made the function of the device clear.
The smartphone offers no such instant recognition. It is a slim, plain rectangle that presents us with no immediate clues on device functionality. As the function of the phone has expanded to meet our needs, its form has adapted to follow our changing behaviours when navigating technology.
So, the “form follows function” mantra is becoming outdated. We are now more likely to design based on multiple success criteria and the flexible, intuitive achievement of goals. Form is no longer defined by function alone. When it comes to digital design, fashion has long since entered the fray.
Fashion As A Foundational Factor
As form and function become smarter and more disrupted, we need to acknowledge the role that fashion plays on both. Fashion influences not only the way our digital services look, but also how they work. It is a deciding factor in what gets built, in the systems we use to build.
Typically, we assume that fashion is a design consideration – something that primarily impacts stylish interface elements. The reality is deeper. Though we might dismiss its weight, fashion is foundational to all digital development.
For example, fashion influences the languages in which we build products. Its impact runs code-deep. A few years ago, it was the trend to develop in Ruby. Today, coding applications in Swift is all the rage. Next year, a new language may be deemed the height of fashion; the vogue taking the tech world by storm.
Fashion also influences the tools we use to develop, design and deploy. In the words of Karl Beecher: “Tool B comes along to challenge Tool A, but the “hypsters” claim that Tool B is the best thing since sliced bread, so the world switches to Tool B at great cost”.
Fashion even frames the environment in which we work and the way we approach problems. Processes and methodologies are shaped by what is on trend. Today’s “best practice” is often tomorrow’s fusty hangover.
So, when you dig beneath surface-level interfaces, graphics and style guidelines, you still find fashion within the seeds of every product and service.
Fashion And Design
The impact of fashion on front-end design is more manifest. We can clearly track UX design trends over the years and see how they impact the products we use.
Skeuomorphism was the design movement of the first computer interfaces. As Mark Wheatley explains: “Back in the day, Apple, Microsoft and more recently Google were all using skeuomorphic design in their operating systems, with elements mimicking real world objects. As time passed, people got more familiar with this, and no longer needed to be hand-held”.
Next, the game changed with a push towards the super simple operating system. We began to see clean and minimalistic environments emerging as the trend à la mode.
It is a perfect demonstration of the fickle nature of fashion that many of these former trends are disliked today. What once we leapt on as the coolest in UX design, we now scorn. Meanwhile, still more of these former trends are enjoying a comeback – resurfacing alongside today’s hot fashions such as 3D graphics and surreal design.
The point is that design is caught up in the great fashion flywheel. Though we try to develop and design based on rational assessments of what is most task-appropriate and beneficial to the user, our hands are always pulled by what is in fashion.
Fashion And Usability
The pull of fashion on UX design is not bad in and of itself. Indeed, it can create thrilling user experiences and keep interfaces relevant in a rapidly-changing world.
However, the inconsistent, trend-based quality of fashion also means that it can negatively impact usability. Following fashion can lead to ill-thought-out choices that do not help the user. This is true across form, function, and the development of both.
At a base level, take the fashionable language chosen to code an application. While this may seem irrelevant to the end user, your choice of language can have invisible effects on their experience.
Say, for example, you develop an app in an up-and-coming language that is the latest talk of the tech town. What happens if, in a few years, that language has fallen into obscurity? You may find yourself struggling to find developers to work on the product, or stuck with an increasingly legacy codebase that needs refactoring.
This seemingly behind-the-scenes stuff can affect users in ways that would not be immediately obvious. Perhaps they need to perform inconvenient upgrades when you recode from the ground-up. Alternatively, it can mean the user ends up stuck with a poorly maintained product with bugs and performance or security issues. Either way, choosing a trend over a time-tested tool can damage the user experience.
Looking beyond code, what happens when you make functional product decisions based on fashion? For example, a few short years ago, adding social sharing buttons to just about anything and everything was deemed desirable functionality. It was ‘cool’, a recommended practice.
Unfortunately, studies indicate that 99% of users ignore social share buttons. While adding simple share functionality inside an app may seem innocuous enough, the result is excess noise and clutter. Plus, too many buttons (even if soundly ignored) are distracting for the user and add no value.
Next, and perhaps most obviously, fashion impacts the usability of form. That is, it affects front-end design and user interface elements.
There are multiple examples of fashionable design choices impairing usability, from the widely-denounced hamburger menu through to scrolljacking, ‘brutalist’ design and (more controversially) flat interfaces. Each of these examples has had a day in the sun. At one time or another, they were each a hot trend that inspired extensive bandwagon-jumping.
Today, we recognise that these trends – like many others before them – are lacking when it comes to usability and the overall user experience. As far as usability is concerned, there is much to be said for steering clear of fashions and embracing conventional, ‘boring’ design.
Friend Or Foe?
Fashion is neither friend nor foe when it comes to UX design. It can drive progress and help generate user delight. However, it can also lead to short-lived fads that damage the usability of websites and products.
It is crucial, then, to be wary of the draw of adopting the latest trend. Ask if the trend helps your users achieve their goals with greater ease and efficiency, or whether the draw merely lies in looking cool and current. Merit should always trump image.
So, weigh up each new UX design fashion with the same care you would weigh up a new feature or interface upgrade. Staying relevant is essential, but this does not mean that adopting every trend is a wise move.
Fashions fade, but ultimately, great usability is always in style.
(Lead image: Depositphotos)