Deep UX Trolling

Eli Schiff retweets fall into a weird zone where I can't tell whether it's a genuine retweet ("I agree with this, and am therefore retweeting") or one of those joke retweets ("look at this daft thing someone else said"). At best, there's a baffling, written-by-a-robot quality to Schiff's posts. At worst, a kind of screwball Ayn Rand undergraduate troll quality that I find unsettling. Here's an excerpt from, ahem, "Fall of the Designer Part III: Conformist Responsive Design":

Ethan Marcotte, who initiated the responsive design movement, posited that there are three core pillars to the philosophy: "Fluid grids, flexible images, and media queries." Marcotte argued that "Thinking of design and implementation as separate concerns impacts the quality of both." He is right that the two are intimately related, however they are still distinct modes of thought.

Unfortunately for Marcotte, his responsive design techniques unintentionally led exactly to the separation and abandonment of visual design principles in the interests of putting implementation first. Today, responsive techniques allow design practitioners and engineers to argue that the centrally important aspect of digital design is whether it adapts to multiple screens using fluid layouts to the exclusion of any other need.

Thus application design has suffered greatly from lackluster responsive and mobile-first approaches. Instead of optimizing designs to each platform and usage paradigm, now designs tend to be one size fits all.

As far as I know, responsive design has never been one particular "thing." It's certainly not a monolithic and totalizing narrative that was authored by any specific person nor did it lead to the abandonment of anything in particular. In the context in which Schiff is referring to it, it's a set of web development trends and standards, constantly changing and arrived at tentatively. But responsive design, really, is just an attitude that reflects an overall turn toward user experience and platform agnosticism in tech business and service delivery.

The turn toward user experience, felt most strongly since 2010, certainly does have a few defining characteristics, but they're complex, contingent, economically-driven.

  1. There is an acknowledged need to provide a starting- or end-point for most experiences in a web browser. This is a good thing.
  2. More than ever, users want or need to interact with a single application or service across multiple devices, in both native and non-native formats.
  3. Users don't primarily engage with something based on whether the experience is native, non-native, or just a web browser. They don't care. They want the service or product.
  4. Tech business is no longer tech business. We're talking about transportation, clothing, and "service provider" startups we never thought possible. Uber? Airbnb? If you're selling a service like these, you better offer a consistent user experience.
  5. In the past, you developed your application for platform XYZ, and then people who were invested in platform XYZ came shopping for applications that ran on platform XYZ. Maybe they chose yours. Well, the 90s are over.
  6. "The Enterprise" is finished. We're a handful of retirement parties away from the end of the dominant software business paradigm of the 1980s and 1990s.

More Eli Schiff:

The vast adoption of the hamburger menu in web as well as in native mobile and desktop application design is proof of the misguided thinking that responsive thinking promotes. Instead of finding the ideal solution for each platform, the designer intent on implementing boring solutions can just apply the hamburger menu to each platform and call it a day.

Hamburger icons are controversial. But, I assure you, the ubiquity of the hamburger menu is not something that came at the expense of "finding the ideal solution for each platform." In fact, it is or was a genuine attempt to present the user with a consistent set of interactions. It's about helping the user find the menu options instead of forcing them to navigate some bizarre custom animation on an app-by-app basis, like the faux-sunrise HUD with blinking orbs I saw recently. It's about reigning in and finally putting to bed the excesses of the last decade's UIs. It's about putting the user first.

I'm old enough to remember a time when nobody considered what users wanted, or maybe they didn't know themselves. What mattered in those days was whether you could sell something to an IT manager or not.

It is therefore a mistake to entirely attribute the shift towards flat design to responsive techniques. In truth, responsive design was simply a convenient catalyst that allowed OS makers, developers and designers to obfuscate the need to pursue a principled practice of visual design. Responsive design was indeed one of the proximate causes of flat design's onset, but adherence to modern minimalist ideology was the ultimate cause. Responsive techniques are undoubtedly crucial to providing a multi-platform design, but they should not come in the way of a user-centered experience.