Once reserved simply for communication, mobile devices are now the preferred tool for everything from healthcare management and fitness tracking to online shopping. With people increasingly relying on devices for everyday tasks and activities, designers are asking themselves what can be done to make these experiences more memorable. And the latest UX and UI trends are offering some intriguing answers.
UI design has become extremely simplistic over the years. The process of simplification started back in 2008, when Skeuomorphism used three-dimensional gradients and shadow techniques to make the items represented look like their real-life counterparts. Around 2012, flat design emerged, greatly reducing gradients and shadows, making them more subtle or removing them altogether to place a greater focus on accessibility and UX.
After Skeuomorphism and flat design came Neumorphism, which takes trends from the early 2010s and gives them a 2020s twist. Essentially, it means taking flat icons, buttons and other UI elements, and giving them a makeover. Introducing subtle, coloured shadows and gradients, and a carefully harmonised colour scheme preserves a cartoonish simplicity while adding an eye-popping realism that gives the elements depth and makes them jump from the screen.
The Neumorphism trend not only makes the design more beautiful, it also makes the experience of using and interacting with it more enjoyable. A design principle that has always resonated with me is: What can I take away from the design without taking away from the impact? When I learned this principle, the focus was on designing icons that convey information in their simplest form, but it can be applied across a range of design concepts.
Interaction with design is extremely important. This is where mobile has the edge over desktop: Although clicking is quick, easy and very functional, swiping is just far more fun. Other gestures available on mobile include scrolls, zooms and long taps. Gestures on mobile devices can have endless possibilities. Over time, as users’ learning habits evolve, gestures can have a dramatic effect on how we design and interact. For instance, the existence of a button could be questioned if a gesture works just as well and is understood by all users.
Although the Neumorphism approach has its advantages, sometimes designers go against the grain and reintroduce hints of retro inspiration to their designs. These styles could evoke analogue influences or abstract and geometric art. They represent familiarity and warmth to the user, making the design feel more real, homely and satisfyingly tactile.
Examples of retro-inspired UX techniques include VHS pixelated typography, screen tearing, glitch transitions and primitive 3D animation. It is more common on interfaces that are generally more adventurous, such as those used by music and clothing brands.
Covid-19 restrictions imposed in the past year have meant we need to adapt to a new, temporary reality. Among the features of this new reality are technologies based on virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR).
Once viewed by some as futuristic gimmicks, VR and AR have evolved from simple entertainment to functional adaptations and extensions of how we go about everyday life. Incorporating VR and AR into design has had an important impact on how people visualise things, because they immerse the user in a deeper and hopefully more enhanced experience.
AR is now being used in everything from museum tours to property rentals. Its growing ubiquity is likely to inspire UX designers to prioritise interfaces that can be easily adapted to a camera overlay.
With activities such as health and fitness becoming increasingly digitised, and users wanting to log and share data in a friendlier way, creative data visualisation has become more prominent in design.
The principle of reducing design to its simplest and purest form without reducing its effectiveness is being increasingly applied to data. Instead of spending hours looking at dull, confusing numbers, users can now see them presented in vibrant colours and simple shapes.
All of these design trends share the same goal: to enhance the user's experience and make the applications easier and more pleasurable to use. Apps are no longer simply tools; they are evolving into companions we like to spend time with and, in the case of smartwatches and other wearables, even extensions of our bodies. As past trends re-emerge and continue to evolve, it will be interesting to see where these trends will take us.