Marketing UK

The elegance of cards as a mobile design pattern

Latest in a series of cross-posts we’re publishing here from the monthly tech column we write for Marketing magazine in the UK. This article first appeared in the October edition.

We like Google & R/GA London's "Google Outside" pilot in London a lot. It uses Google Now technology and card-based design approach to great effect (though proximity can be a killer: did we need to be told the London Eye was 135m away).

We like Google & R/GA London’s “Google Outside” pilot a lot. It uses Google Now’s technology and card-based design approach to great effect (though proximity can be a killer, eh).

For half a decade or more, marketers have been told to expect ‘the year of mobile’ as we watch helpful graphs plot an inexorable path to where x marks the spot: the moment mobile overtakes desktop usage globally. And yet still we see mobile marketing spends failing to keep up with user behaviour (source: KPCB, Internet Trends report, May 2013).

Some businesses are notable exceptions. It’s no surprise that smartest and most marketing-savvy of CEOs, Burberry’s (now outgoing) CEO, Angela Ahrendts, recently declared a wholesale commitment to a mobile first strategy:

“Our design teams design for a landing page and the landing page dictates what the store windows will look like, not the other way round. In creative media, they’re shooting for digital, then we are turning it back to physical… now let’s do everything for mobile and then take it back to desktop.” (CEO Talk, Business of Fashion, September 2013)

Okay, so this approach may not work perfectly for every geography, category and every audience (Ahrendts is clear that their core target audience are Millennials), but if a company the size of Burberry can adopt behaviour like this and win, what’s stopping other organisations?

With the benefit of hindsight, the issue is easier to call. We’ve had at least three false dawns for mobile marketing:

i.  innovations in hardware, specifically tablets

ii. mobile apps

iii. responsive design practice

Don’t get me wrong, each of these has brought tremendous value in multiple ways, but none of these has provided a perfect solution to marketing on the move. We know most tablets stay at home. Branded apps fail more often than not (as I’ve shared before in this column, 80% of branded apps have less than 1,000 downloads according to Deloitte data published in 2011). Responsive design is an elegant solution some of the time, but of course can’t solve every communications and design issue all of the time, particularly with banners.

Truthfully, most marketers still stare at the real estate available on a mobile ‘phone and frown at the tiny little ad units with even tinier little links contained within them.

So what now? Enter cards. Yes, cards. They don’t sound like the key to the mobile marketing universe, but bear with me for a bit. Cards, aka modules, are not new in digital media, services like Pinterest and Flipboard are built on cards, for example. What is exciting is how cards are rapidly emerging as an elegant design pattern to distribute individual, small packages of information (if you’re a marketer, a light bulb should have just gone off in your head). Witness Twitter Cards (enabling multi-media data to appear in-stream alongside tweets), Google Now, Spotify’s Discover service, not to mention Google Glass, for which “timeline cards are core to the user’s interaction” according to their developer guidelines.

It’s important to note cards aren’t simply an html rectangle; think instead of a manipulatable pattern you can arrange in stacks, flip over or fold to expand or contract the information. Aggregated content can be marshalled and presented depending on different, personalised criteria: location, interests, behaviour etc.

Quite fundamentally, the likes of Google Now show us how mobile use is forcing a move away from a web that mimics the publishing world of old (linked pages of content), to individual, dynamic and shareable pieces of content instead. Cards that feel beautifully native to a mobile experience, not a mobile version of something born on a desktop. As cards as a communication canvas becomes a new norm, it strikes me the opportunities for more effective, more exciting mobile work will only grow.

Perhaps finally, we have found an elegant solution to the real estate of a small screen.

It’s a flat planet

One more in a series of tech columns we’ve written for Marketing magazine this year. This article by Adam on flat design appeared in the September issue.

Author: Adam Powers, Head of UX, BBH London & BBH Labs

Image credit: selection of modernist, flat graphic design by Brent Couchman http://brentcouchman.com/

Image credit: selection of modernist, flat graphic design by Brent Couchman http://brentcouchman.com/

Sir Jony Ive revealed his vision for Apple’s iOS7 operating system on September 10th, and the SVP of Design’s vision of the world is flat.

This redesign is about more than just eradicating embossed buttons and drop shadows. In typically thoughtful mode, Ive declared, “True simplicity is derived from so much more than just the absence of clutter.” For the first time in perhaps a decade though, Apple is joining a movement rather than creating one.

The flat design movement has been gaining momentum amongst technology companies for some time now. Looking back, it may well have been Microsoft Windows 8 design team that pushed things past the tipping point. They created a crisp, clean and minimalist approach where geometric shapes, bold colours and sharp corners dominate the rather nice operating system. The next flat design fans were Google, with their new aesthetic applied across a dramatically improved suite of applications (Google Maps, I adore you). Then came Yahoo’s elegant weather app, but many others have followed.

Like many art and design movements, flat design was a reaction to the dominant aesthetic that preceded it. Skeumorphism – the approach that borrows affordances from a user’s day-to-day life and translates that to screen-based design with the aim of aiding comprehension. All that stitched leather, aqua shine and drop shadow of the past few years was borne from that belief. It goes back further, to the days of WYSIWYG computer desktops where the workplace norms, such as files, folders and trash cans, were employed in the language of the operating systems to help us comprehend and participate in the desktop computing revolution.

Fans of this flat aesthetic, ahem, cite this change as a sign of the maturity of human and computer interaction. Our interaction with technology no longer needs to be disguised to make it more palatable. Flat design embraces the constraints and challenges of screen-based design and runs with it. Minimalist and utilitarian design that foregoes excessive ornamentation and is sensitive to bandwidth and functionality.

Before I get caught up in adulation of this latest expression of modernism, we should pause.

It would seem that flat design might come with risks. That (once?) esteemed voice of digital usability, Jakob Nielsen, has undertaken extensive user testing focussed on everyone’s must have tech – the tablet. After testing on a whole range of fondle slabs, Jakob concludes that flat design is not optimal for tablet devices. It would appear that the absence of hover-states on tablets, combined with departure of drop shadows and the ‘less is more’ conviction of flat design, means there is “…a dearth of distinguishing signifiers for UI elements.” i.e. It is harder to intuit what is and is not clickable and therefore things are harder and less satisfying to use.

This presents a very specific challenge, but I would suggest that there are a couple of wider reaching challenges that face the flat design movement.

The first is the ever present spectre of commodification of the web. Look at the search returns page on Google, the tightening embrace of iOS and Android design guidelines or the increasingly far-reaching rules for brands on Facebook or Youtube – it’s just getting harder for brands to cut through on tech platforms and services. Though the folks at YouTube etc. might argue that brands should focus on the quality of their content rather than the ease with which they can spray their colour palette across their respective brand channels. Either way, the flat design movement does appear to be at risk of further contributing to the commodification situation.

The second challenge that I see is that much of the impetus behind flat design is from Europe and North America – where there is long history with Modernism.

What does a critical market like Asia make of flat design, for instance? A Hong Kong based expert, working at the juncture of global marketing and technology, advised me, “Whether you’re considering ux design, user testing or anything else for that matter, you mustn’t think of Asia as a single market. China is as different to Japan as it is to Australia…and each has quite a different relationship with technology…”

Actually, one doesn’t have to look too far for some quite specific insights. This Tech in Asia blog observes that in China, Vietnam and Thailand, flat design may frequently be interpreted as overly austere or ‘…a lot of hot air…” It also proposes that for many of these commercially important markets, it is in fact ‘crowded design’ that performs best.

Somebody better tell Jony.