How Complexion Reduction is (Probably) Going to Kill Your App

Posted 7 months ago by Marouchka Hebben

Last week, I was reading Michael Horton’s article entitled “Complexion Reduction: a new trend in Mobile Design” and it got me thinking. In his article, he presents what he thinks is a new trend in mobile design which takes mobile minimal design a step further. Basically, it means that more and more apps look strangely alike:

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Complexion Reduction means white apps, with bigger bold headlines, black and white interfaces with little to no color, and line icons for the bottom menu.

Now, let’s do a quick test.

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Did you recognize automatically which app was which? I did nothing but changing the order of the screenshots and removing the app logos. Looking at these four screens, you’re not entirely sure which app you’re presented with.

Medium understood how to make the reader experience easier and smoother on screen, and they came up with a very white interface, big fonts and bold headlines. Their design is entirely focused on the reading experience, and that’s part of the reason why they’ve succeeded. They focused entirely on why people would be using their apps (publish content and read) and created their design accordingly. While doing that, they also started a new trend that other apps followed.

We use these apps daily, shouldn’t we be able to tell them apart without thinking? How come their design got to a point where they look so much alike ?

What happened to the Instagram dark-blue header? Where is the very image-friendly Airbnb app? And, the first thing Steve Jobs would yell about is “Why the hell is iTunes designed with solid icons”? As a user, I do feel there was some copy/pasting here, and I don’t like it.

When I pointed it out to people around me, I’ve been told that this trend is a good thing: “I don’t want to care for an app. I want to use it to do something, so if more apps looked alike, it’s easier for me to use mobile apps”. I get it. We, as users, feel entitled to be given the very best of design when it comes to apps. Good mobile design is a given. We have all uninstalled apps from our phones just minutes after installing them because the interface and the experience were terrible.

So, if complexion reduction makes it all simpler and smoother, why shouldn’t we want more of it?

Let’s have a look at some other apps.

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You immediately knew which app you’re looking at, didn’t you? Whatsapp, Netflix, Twitter and Spotify all have distinctive designs that have all evolved throughout the years, and yet can’t be confused with any other.

Let me tell you why I think we should all stay away from Complexion Reduction in mobile design, and how it’s going to affect your app.

Your user experience is unique. Your design should be too.

You are designing with a single thing in mind: your users. Users change from one app to another. They expect different things from one app to another. There are many ways that you can make a mobile experience great. But it always goes down to your users. Understanding them and and their whole experience.

“With mobile design, you have the opportunity to create a personal link between your user and your app.”

For example, I’m a huge Reddit lurker (meaning I read way more than I participate). The desktop version of Reddit is quite unattractive to me, and I would probably have stopped using it if it weren’t for their mobile app. It’s not the best app I’ve ever used, but it’s perfect for what Reddit is meant for: it’s easy to scroll through the content, to access my favorite subs, to comment. And even more, it’s not because your app is “content-first” that your design has to be the same as any other “content-first” app.

Nobody will use a badly designed app, but we can use apps that don’t do anything different from another app just because the design is better. Good design is one of the fundamental reasons why people will keep using your app. Shazam would probably never have been so successful if the design had not been a single touch button. It’s engaging, easy, and perfect for their value proposal.

Say yes to best practices. No to uniformity.

Within the digital-friendly workplace I’m familiar with, I’ve heard things like “Silicon-Valley has already imposed its norm on us, we should just accept it and go with it.”

This is a terrible argument. Yes, Silicon-Valley is shaping our world to extents we might not even realize anymore. I mean, just think about the startup-y, hipster-y, Scandinavian-style interiors invading every space we know. Airbnb contributed to a great deal to infuse this aesthetic into our minds. It’s becoming increasingly annoying to me. I don’t want to have a coffee in the exact same place whether I am in Paris, New York, Rio de Janeiro or Bali. Of course, most coffee places need the same features to exist. Of course, there are coffee places that you enjoy more than others. Silicon-Valley only represents one way of doing things.

“Silicon-Valley only represents one way of doing things.”

“Best practices exist for a simple reason: they work. They’ve been tested, and people adopted them, they are familiar with them. This is good for you: it’s because you understand these best practices that you can use them to your advantage. I’m not preaching against colorless apps with white background: it might work well for you. But I’m encouraging you to create best practices yourself.

The best design is the one you haven’t designed yet.

And you know it yourself. No mobile designer has ever said “That’s it, I’m done. There’s nothing more I can do.” There’s always is something to improve. Just ask your users on a testing session. Trends fade. User expectations don’t. If anything, they grow more and more demanding. With over 2.2 million apps available on the AppStore (for all devices), users have no time to waste, and they won’t settle for less than perfect.

“Users have no time to waste, and they won’t settle for less than perfect.”

That’s why one of the most important part of a designer’s job is to relentlessly research. Research practices, research technology, research users. The app I’m working on now has a bad retention ratio, so I’ve spent countless hours sitting with users, trying to understand what could be improved. And now, there’s not a single development sprint that goes by without us conducting a testing session. So never take anything that works as granted, because even the best things about your app can be improved.

Diversity makes us more creative.

We love habits. We love what we see every day. We love our comfort zone. Change makes us uncomfortable and scared. Best ideas happen when you least expect it. When we’re confronted with the unknown we have to adapt, so we become more creative, more aware. We come up with new, challenging ideas.

“By multiplying our experiences, we get better at what we do. We get these crazy ideas that make us design innovative experiences. Plus, diversity makes us more empathetic by widening our perspectives so we ultimately design better products and interfaces.”

Look at Snapchat. A friend of mine working in digital who had never used the app was really baffled by the design when he first opened the app. Yet youngsters now use it way more than Facebook, and all those who were saying the app wouldn’t last long have been proven wrong. Snapchat has been widely adopted in spite, and probably because of, their disruptive design.

Treat your users to a masterpiece in design.

On average, we’re spending at least 90 minutes a day on our phones. 23 days a year. Near a month just being on our phones. Our phone screen, not matter how small it is, is making up for 5% of our eye and mind-contact on a given day.

So instead of trying to numb our minds with endlessly smooth and homogeneous design, it’s precisely on mobile that new experiences and design are needed. If apps look more and more alike, it would be like reading the same book every day.

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Mobile Product Owner & Design Thinking Coach. When I’m not helping client develop fantastic apps, I spend my time reading and drinking tea. Find me on Medium.

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