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Sometimes a website I use frequently will get a major visual overhaul. Recently (within the last few years) the trend seems to be removing dividing lines and reducing contrast. I personally find this trend quite annoying. I find it makes the interface much harder to comprehend/understand because there's nothing to guide my eyes, just random things floating in space.

Is there a legitimate reason for doing this, or are all these companies just abandoning good UX in favour of "cool factor"?

Case in point, Google Sheets. It was updated a few days ago with a new visual design, and while I'm sure I'll get used to it, it immediately felt harder to see what was going on. Here's a couple of screenshots demonstrating the difference. Is it just me or does the sidebar in the second screenshot not have any sense of being separate from the main spreadsheet?

Original: original google sheets

Updated: updated google sheets

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It's just another step toward the philosophy of minimalism and "less is more" in design. The question becomes, how much can you take away before you're compromising the user experience by reducing affordances? You raise a fair concern. Under Google's Material Design philosophy, that right sidebar would have a subtle shadow underneath to signify some depth and separation, somewhat addressing your concern. Perhaps Google Sheets hasn't yet been updated with Material Design?

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I don't think Google Sheets is a good example. The new version removes a separator but adds a bold title to the group of inputs related to formatting options and that is in itself a type of separator. The separator delineating the "Add another rule" touch area at the bottom is also removed, but if the touch target click target is expands beyond the text area of the new button, then that's fine. The user shouldn't have to be concerned whether the user has fat fingers anyway.

As for other places where you see the removal of separators, it really depends on how's the design.

  • First of all, remember that perceived usability is often dependent on appeal. A clean but bad design that is well received in terms of aesthetics can be perceived as more usable than another better design with a low aesthetics factor.
  • Second, as I indicated in my note about the Google Sheets example, you can separate information areas in other ways other than the use of plain visual separation lines
  • Also note that separating lines can be overused, or lines can have excessive contrast, thus cluttering the design

That said there's instances where there may be a deficit in the visual division of information in a layout. One such case (IMO) is the Agenda app:

enter image description here

How many notes do you see in this screenshot?

There are some elements that serve as visual separators (the yellow dot and the date) but these are too weak to aid in quickly distinguishing the different notes. Titles don't count, because a single note can have multiple titles with a font size and weight similar to the main note title. Also note the strong visual competition from tags that further diminish the separating effect from said elements.

So yes, there's instances where killing visual separators can go too far, but abusing visual separators is also not good. Testing is key to determine whether there's really an issue or not in specific cases.

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