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Will Flat Design Help You Win?


Before you pull the trigger on that hot, new website, you had better make sure the design is setting you up for real, measurable success.

The web is buzzing with “flat design” these days—basically an ultra-clean, fluff-free design trend that has everyone creating tutorials and providing UI downloads to cash-in on the craziness. Even Apple is hopping on board with the soon-to-be-released iOS7 software that has the design community a bit confused about whether or not this is a good or bad direction for Apple.

Flat designAs we watch design trends like flat design propagate across the globe, and as we consider these trends for ourselves as well as our clients, we need to stay mindful of this imperative rule: Always test into a redesign, especially when conversions are at stake.

It’s quite natural to assume that a “new and improved” design will perform better. After all—it’s beautiful. And while I believe that beauty definitely has it’s proper place, the truth is that the world of multi-device design and communication is getting more and more complex each day.

The Mobile World Is Not Flat

I recently came across an article by the Nielsen Norman Group discussing the release of a report on tablet usability. While the extensive report reveals that tablet usability is not horrible, I was particularly interested in the finding that one of the two main threats to tablet usability is flat design. A fundamental characteristic of flat design is the removal of shadows and depth on elements such as buttons, which have up until now been dependable signifiers for UI elements. It seems that on tablets, flat design elements may be getting lost or confused with the rest of the device controls—ultimately making it more difficult for people to determine what to do and where to click.

(The other main threat to usability on tablets is improperly rescaled design. Whether you are offering a scaled-up phone app to your tablet users, or attempting to repurpose your existing site to work on many platforms and/or devices through responsive design. I’ve previously touched upon this subject in my blog post “Responsive Design is Costing You Millions.”)

Form Follows Function

form follows functionAnother interesting study I came across discussed the readability of “outlined” or “hollow” icons—a new trend that is particularly strong within the new iOS7 as well as prevalent in a lot of flat design. The article emphasizes how studies have shown outlined icons (or hollow icons) create more work for users and create cognitive fatigue. In fact, our brains apparently trace the shapes of hollow icons twice as much as filled icons. The author’s main point here: It’s really not a great idea (or great design) to sacrifice usefulness for aesthetic. That’s a great point that I believe we can also apply to redesign efforts and its relationship to conversion optimization.

Fools Rush In

If you are just plain smitten by that fancy design that was presented to you at lunch, here’s a quick list of practical ways to safely test into the new design:

  1. Run a split test on a landing page with the different designs across multiple devices.
  2. Run a series of usability tests using prototypes of the new design before you launch anything!
  3. If you are brave and eager, start with a split test on primary CTA’s and buttons, and monitor conversions on those buttons across multiple devices. Don’t forget to monitor these tests closely!

Whether you are considering jumping on the flat design bandwagon, or just considering a new look for your website, be sure to test the impact of your new design on conversions before you commit your time and resources to a design that might hurt your bottom line.