The Story of UI Unification
In the early days of the Internet, web designers were free to unleash their creativity in a digital Wild West of few boundaries: the total absence of pattern libraries and popular design systems, pixelated raster graphics, and a wave of amusing if sometimes intrusive Flash-based animations. It was a heady time of experimentation for the design community, with usability often just an afterthought.
The era was characterized by innovations like floating flashing navigation, moving text, and animated logos. Funnily enough, this approach is now enjoying something of a revival in the form of brutalist design, partly as a reaction to the sterile and repetitive design patterns that have become so widespread in recent years.
Against the historical background, user interface (UI) unification is generally regarded by the design community as a positive trend. However, it is also seeing some pushback. Today we will briefly summarize the situation as we see it.
After around 2000, the typical internet user’s expectations began to evolve. Websites that emphasized more intuitive design captured the imagination of the public. In turn, designers gradually built a stronger understanding of which elements worked best. Some of the best examples of award winning user interface design were based on the reuse and adaptation of existing patterns, with the designer taking inspiration from large corporations.
Big Tech Driving Trends
Google plays a monumental role in how internet users interact with websites. That’s inevitable, given that 87% report using Google products on a regular basis! Similarly, Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines are highly influential, as designers worldwide strive to follow their lead.
A ‘follow-the-leader’ strategy makes perfect sense due to the sheer scale and loyalty of Big Tech’s user base, as well as the skill of their own designers. After all, it was Google that launched the first universal web unification project in 2011, following it up with Material Design three years later. Google established much-needed order, with a strong sense of meaning and purpose.
In the age of tablets and smartphones, touch screen user interface design has necessitated an even more user-friendly approach.
Fortunately, the overwhelming trend is that increased unification reduces user cognitive load. Online life becomes easier, with more versatile services. Regardless of the device used, today’s Internet is gentle and friendly, with pastel-colored interfaces featuring softly rounded corners and slight shadows.
Apple’s Animoji, and the fad for striking 3D objects and characters, have made our interactions even more cartoon-like. These techniques can make the most complex (and sometimes laborious) tasks a more enjoyable experience. See Roadmap, Notion, and Airtable for more examples.
It’s clear that UI unification provides a steady framework and has helped the Internet become more accessible and structured. A set of standardized patterns is also helpful to business; for example, companies that seek brand consistency across multiple platforms. At the same time, the recent brutalist revival shows that there is a thirst for more raw and original design in today’s often bland online landscape.
The trick is to find a balance between uniqueness, familiarity, and convenience.
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