I've been "stewing" on an issue for several months with the upswing in flat, modern, and "Metro" design efforts I see everywhere. I noticed the difficulties early, in the large number of poorly designed "Metro" apps for my Windows RT tablet (see earlier journal entries) and later in the official apps built by Microsoft, such as the calendar, mail, or Outlook and the Office 2013 suite. I simply had difficulty using these products. I was slower and less productive. Repeatedly made simple mistakes. I was becoming increasingly frustrated.
I discovered that an over-simplification or almost total minimalism in the design and UI was the source of my complaints. "Flat Design", "Modern" and "Metro" (or whatever they call it now) are not Minimalism. Reduction of the extraneous, yes, but not a total elimination of all shadow, pattern, line, etc. While some of these elements exist just to enhance the visual "look" or style and are not necessary, many similar elements have a purpose. To help the user focus on the information and choices presented on the screen. To visually organize the website or application for better accuracy, work speed, understanding, etc. In the words of the Borg queen (yes, that's a geek sci-fi reference)..."To bring order to chaos".
The Windows 8 calendar is a good example. The simple lines that define the day grid in the full month view are either so light, thin, or disguised that I can't see them at all. With a screen full of day numbers, color bars for full day events, and all the other information presented and no visual grid to put them into order and give the data context, the entire view is a mess that I can't read easily. Which leaves the question...isn't that the point of a calendar month view? Quick, easy, fast understanding of your information?
Another example is the new Office 2013 online...the function "ribbons" are much more difficult to use without the dividing lines and color shading that visually "grouped" and organized the options. Even Microsoft designers seem to have forgotten that the ultimate goal of "Metro" was to focus on the information, which needs line, color, and graphics at times for focus and clarification.
Microsoft isn't the only culprit (just a handy example). I recently abandoned my three favorite Windows 7 themes. I loved them, but with the complete elimination of some line and shadows, I found Windows Explorer almost impossible to use, as I couldn't see the different "panels" clearly, especially things like column widths. I kept changing the "details' panel size accidentally when trying to highlight groups of files...couldn't see the panel edge.
Not exactly the same issue, but related enough for my purposes, is the increasing use of smaller and smaller graphics and type. I may be getting old, but I already have a 25 inch monitor displaying at 125 percent and a strong pair of reading glasses and I still can't read some text presented to me in applications and websites. Not all users are young with super vision and constantly having to "zoom in" is tiresome and unnecessary. If you or your client are trying to attract my business on a website...being able to read it easily without modification could make or break it.
I recently discovered an excellent article that takes this issue into much greater detail, which can be found here. Authentic Design, Smashing Magazine
So, my request to UI designers, app developers and other "Flat", "Modern", and "Metro" creators out there... before just eliminating a shadow, line or other element, ask yourself the question. "Does this have a purpose?" If you can't answer that easily, then be careful. Simplify, reduce, use your creativity to see how you can keep that item yet still maintain the style you are trying to achieve. Just hitting "delete" is lazy and could have undesired results.
As always, thanks for reading