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I often argue with people that so-called 'flat' design leads to worse UX as it leads to a lack of clarity regarding actionable objects but also reduces the ability of the user to distinguish between UI components and various other page elements e.g.

mockup

download bmml source – Wireframes created with Balsamiq Mockups

Apologies for this slightly crude example, but the point is that it is much harder for people to quickly map out the various elements of a page if there is no depth and the 'but you could change the colour' argument just opens another whole can of worms around accessibility for colour blind users (many of which have problems navigating flatter designs). There's a whole host of articles online about problematic flat designs so I won't go into detail.

Could or should we be trying to move away from 'flat' design?

Is their any research or evidence to show a swing away from 'flat'? Are there any examples of how you can perfect 'flat' design and tick the UX boxes?

closed as primarily opinion-based by DA01, Graham Herrli, Joshua Barron, Vitaly Mijiritsky, JohnGB Jul 23 '15 at 8:07

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    Note that 'flat design' can still have 'depth'. – DA01 Jul 22 '15 at 18:53
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    I believe the question is based on a faulty premise. Whether a design is 'flat (and minimalistic)' or 'realistic (and detailed)' isn't necessarily a sign that it's a good or bad user experience. There are well designed flat interfaces and well designed realistic interfaces. And vice versa. – DA01 Jul 22 '15 at 18:57
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    Is Material Design the caped crusader we've been dreaming of? – MonkeyZeus Jul 22 '15 at 20:30
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    yeah I agree but actually flat interfaces lead to people focusing on aesthetics rather than usability as they want it to look contemporary and minimal rather than wanting it to work well. Sure good designers can do both styles well but flat design gives licence for bad designers/designs to get credit and usage because they're pleasing visually. – Chris Jul 22 '15 at 20:37
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    @Chris I disagree that that is the fault of any particular aesthetic. We could argue that all popular and trendy styles are a temptation to focus on style over substance (or in this case, style over usability). – DA01 Jul 22 '15 at 22:38
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Edit: The answer has been accepted but I would like to clarify and improvise a few things here. First, as far as visual styles are concerned, it's better to call it realism as against skeuomorphic. Realism would be a pure visual style. Second, flat styles can be misused resulting in bad UX, which does not mean that all flat designs = bad UX.

I agree that flat design can be misused that might result in bad UX. Quoting from NN/g

It has legibility problems, and they break away from the established convention of what a clickable button should be.

Coming to your questions:

Is their any research or evidence to show a swing away from 'flat'?

On the contrary, in a recent survey conducted by NN/g, 96% of sampled minimalist interfaces had flat patterns and textures. As pointed out in the article, the minimalist UI design trend has led to increased popularity of flat designs. Hence, it seems that the trend is not going away completely any soon.

Are there any examples of how you can perfect 'flat' design and tick the UX boxes?

Google has made an attempt to achieve this with Material Design. Although its not perfect, it's still a step in the right direction - a compromise between flat and realism. Material design may be aesthetically flat, specifically the colors, but it is multi-dimensional: it takes the Z-axis into consideration.

Let's hope that the trend changes soon and we get a better balance between flat and realism.

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    Thanks, I think on balance this is my preferred answer. I guess material design is kind of Google's antidote to the flat design work that lacks clarity and usability – Chris Jul 22 '15 at 19:25
  • Thanks! With Google taking the lead, I hope people will improvise on it and come up with a better design solution. – Adit Gupta Jul 22 '15 at 19:27
  • That NN/g feels it has legibility problems isn't a sign that it, as a style, results in bad UX in general. That's merely one thing to watch out for. – DA01 Jul 22 '15 at 22:41
  • As for the survey, that was a survey of minimalist interfaces, so I don't think you'd be able to spot any trend that would fall outside that particular category. – DA01 Jul 22 '15 at 22:42
  • @DA01 I've clarified a few points in the answer. Also, I've mentioned that the sampled interfaces were minimalistic. – Adit Gupta Jul 22 '15 at 22:49
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Which pendulum?

We can not say that this is a pendulum between flat and skeuomorphic design.I would rather use another metaphor: Evolution. In Evolution, it is hard to see things goes backwards in general but there are also rare cases.Personally, I don't think that skeuomorphism will come back like as it is.

Flat design is originated from minimalism idea which changed the product and industrial design during 1980's to 2000's. Many products are simplified and have basic shapes and curves rather than sophisticated equations. Minimalism has a philosophy in its background and I think that the same approach will shape some definitions in user experience and digital world.

Smart algorithms and intelligence will make things easier and users will be faced with less buttons or wizards or anything that they will complete. Intelligence will even try to shape your decisions and user experience designers are going find another jobs to use the strategies in other domains than GUI.

Standardization in re-usable elements, frameworks, efficiency of data collection are also going to make it faster.

In short, you will have less buttons in future, which needs more intelligence in back-office.

  • In short, your life will be controlled by algorithms. – immibis Jul 22 '15 at 22:35
  • @immibis Maybe and they can be also suggestive or preventive ones instead of controllers. – Abektes Jul 22 '15 at 23:14
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    Then how about "your life will be controlled by algorithms, but those algorithms will be tuned to make your decisions feel natural"? – immibis Jul 22 '15 at 23:16
  • @immibis Finally, a solution to the question of free will and choice: machines have it, and they push their wants on to us! Collective sigh of relief. – user67695 Nov 29 '16 at 21:04
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I like to imagine (hope/dream) that it is pendular, like this:

enter image description here

Naturally, as with any swing, it will probably fly backwards towards Skeuomorphism again for a while - almost as a reaction to the problems the completely flat aesthetic has created. Over time I like to think it will come to rest around that perfect middle where users are catered for throughout but the aesthetic can remain simple and clean.

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    There is a common misconception that flat is somehow the 'opposite' of skeumorphic. This isn't the case. Whether an UI element is skeuomorphic or not is independent of whether it is visually styles as 'flat'. – DA01 Jul 22 '15 at 18:52
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    ...for example, I can render a calculator button in a UI to look 3D and have shadows and highlights, or I can render it as a flat rectangle. But both are skeuomorphic in that they are intended to represent a real calculator button and share the same interaction ("push the button") – DA01 Jul 22 '15 at 18:58
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    How is this an answer to your own question? Where is your requested research? Where are your examples? This question / answer is practically an opinion piece you might find on a blog. – Joshua Barron Jul 22 '15 at 21:03
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    true @Joshua Barron. I was actually just writing the question originally and had this stuff built into the question then I saw the 'answer your own question' bit by the submit button and thought that maybe it added some value to the debate to put that section as a possible angle on an answer. It was more to get the conversation around the question. I'll consider deleting it and moving parts of it back into the question tomorrow. I did get a good answer so maybe it helped – Chris Jul 22 '15 at 21:07
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    Also note that, at least in terms of aesthetics, there is no 'dream spot'. Visual trends are always on a pendulum. The history of art shows many, many cycles going from ornate, to stripped down simplicity, back to ornate. – DA01 Jul 22 '15 at 22:46

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