The Verge has a long article about Google’s design process, which talks about the way that Google has tried to create a unified but attractive and effective look and feel to all its applications, across multiple platforms.
In some ways, the article is frustrating: lots of fawning praise for Google’s approach, relatively few actionable recommendations that rise above the obvious (‘have your designers and developers talk to each other’). For me, however, the money quote is when one Google designer interviewed says:
"These are objects. They feel, not necessarily real, but they feel virtual. They’re not trying to be fake things, not … fake leather, fake wood, fake brushed aluminum."
That, in case you didn’t spot it, is a dig at poor old Apple. For many years, Apple was the company that got design and UX right while everyone else was getting it wrong. It still does to a large extent. The elegance and success of Apple’s products such as the iPhone or the iPad is the product of much more than the superficial ‘lickability’ of its gleaming, futuristic interfaces. It’s the product of the way things work consistently and predictably, the way that the animations and the visual hints work to build an impression of objects that are, in Duarte’s words, "not real, but virtual".
Unfortunately, Apple has recently tarnished its reputation for making good design choices by embracing skeuomorphic designs (complete with fake leather) for some of its built-in apps in MacOS and iOS. Skeuomorphism isn’t always wrong: if you can give the user a hint about functionality or meaning by alluding to some real-world object, it makes sense. Slavishly reproducing the look or functionality of something in the real world, however, is almost never a good idea. It’s a kind of cargo-cult approach to UX. Apple’s crude and ugly designs for the Calendar and Address Book are particularly shocking, both because they come from a company with a long history of making good choices and because their appearance is so glaringly different from everything around them.
Apple’s clumsy flirtation with skeuomorphism has spawned a backlash in the form of the flat design movement (or, as some commentators would have it, the almost flat design movement). But flat design isn’t a panacea. The flat design of RealMac Software’s Clear to-do list app, for example, works well (so much so that the iTunes Store is full of Clear knock-offs) On the other hand, all the flat design in the world can’t save Microsoft’s bizarre and confusing Windows 8 interface (the UI formerly known as Metro).
The reason Clear works has less to do with the look of the interface and more to do with the way it works. It hinges on a set of easily-learnable gestures that are tied to underlying behaviors. Essentially, Clear gives the user a set of virtual objects that they can manipulate, objects that may not have any direct mapping to the real world, but which behave in consistent and predictable ways. Once you have that, you don’t need skeuomorphism. Flat design is all the design Clear needs. You could implement Clear so that its objects appeared to have depth and texture, but you wouldn’t gain anything by it.
Slavishly adhering to the rules of flat design is probably just as much of a blind alley as trying to minutely recreate every detail of real-world objects. Or perhaps not just as much - at least a flat design won’t create the kind of visual atrocities that you get from excessive skeuomorphism. But really what we should be aiming for is ‘just enough design’: enough detail, in short, to help the user recognize and understand the virtual objects and metaphors that underlie the application. A user interface is the map of a virtual world: the first and most important duty of a designer is to choose a design that accurately and informatively reflects that underlying ‘virtuality’.