A Decade of Innovation

rocketair product design team blog author fuel for thought
RocketAir Crew
December 31, 2019
Decade of Innovation in Digital Product Design cover

How digital product design evolved in the 2010s

Requiem for the Duck Face

This is a drastic oversimplification, but when we think back on the state of web design in the 2000s, we’re going to remember it as the decade of the Great Myspace Takeover. Sure, there was no doubt a lot of stellar professional design work done in the years between 2000 and 2009, but in the same way that the ‘80s became defined by the unfortunate styles wrought by hairspray and spandex, what we’ll remember most about that era is all the gaudy amateur web design that permeated the internet during Myspace’s brief reign as the world’s dominant social media platform.

In hindsight, Myspace was a flash in the pan, but a flash that was blinding for the moment that it shone: From 2005 to 2008, Myspace was the biggest social network in the world; but by the time Facebook surpassed its daily visitors in 2009, the beginning of the end had already begun for Myspace’s time in the cultural zeitgeist.

As the 2010s dawned, Myspace had effectively been left in the dustbin of the 2000s, along with flip phones, trucker hats and duck face bathroom selfies. However, in those four years or so when Myspace reigned, it will forever be remembered as the go-to place for high school-aged millennials to express their personalities through all the objects and people they liked – a mood board before Pinterest influenced everyone to talk about mood boards – and doing so through the most flashy, glaring, maximalist designs possible.

In the world of amateur Myspace design, there was no color, no sparkle, no glittering font, no garish wallpaper that was deemed too much. Of course, like seemingly all of the millennial’s style choices, you could see echoes of their Gen X forbearers, who did a lot to set the bar by which all garish DIY design is measured via the GeoCities websites that popped up everywhere in the ‘90s during the nascent days of the internet.

But here we are now in the final days of the 2010s, a decade in which we saw amazing strides in UX and UI design, enabled by significant innovations in the technology and tools available to designers. As we end the decade, professional designers (many of whom were Myspace kids responsible for all that web glitter in the 2000s) have grown increasingly important to the success of companies across almost all industries; the online user experience – whether it’s on a desktop, a notebook or a mobile app – is now inseparable from how a business does business.

And so, as we begin rounding the corner to 2020, let’s look back on some (though not all) of the most notable developments and trends in product design over this past decade.

Jolt of Java

Let’s begin our look at product design in the 2010s by first acknowledging the enormous influence that JavaScript had on shaping website development this decade. Although learning how to code and learning JavaScript isn’t really a requirement for UX and UI designers – which means Java can fall outside of what we’re talking about when we talk about product design – when you consider that more than 94 percent of all websites are estimated to use JavaScript today, the developments in coding became inseparable from what designers are doing to improve the user experience. 

In fact, the Java impact on design was already being noted in stories being in 2010 about the trends that would be shaping the industry that year.

“As designers try to make their designs more intuitive, it is no surprise that websites are becoming more responsive,” Vitaly Friedman wrote for Smashing Magazine in May 2010. “Not only does this apply to user interfaces in modern Web applications (which are becoming as robust as desktop applications — and often smarter), but with the wide adoption of JavaScript libraries, ‘classic’ websites are becoming more robust and interactive, too.”

Because so much of what UX and UI designers are tasked with doing is making their products “more robust and interactive,” it’s easy to see how the broad adoption of JavaScript helped shape the direction of product design this decade.

Make it To Go

If product design in the 2000s was defined by what was happening with the kids and their Myspace pages (it really wasn’t, but still), you have to remember that all of those bathroom selfies being posted all over Myspace during that era were being taken with cameras; not camera phones, but cameras. This all changed with the shift to smartphones, which didn’t really become ubiquitous until this decade even if they were introduced in the previous one.

And unlike our Myspace reference, it is not an oversimplification to see the rise of iOS and Android phones as being largely responsible for shaping the direction of product design in the 2010s. While desktop design remains vitally important, it seems quite likely that this decade will be remembered as the era when mobile design took over. 

Carmel DeAmicis, editor at Figma, calls the iPhone, specifically, the “tipping point that transformed design’s role in tech” because of how “Silicon Valley, which had long exalted the engineer, finally began to appreciate the power of the designer too.”

It was no longer feasible to prioritize coding so heavily over design because designers’ “expertise made them particularly well-suited to the challenge of distilling complex technical systems to essential interactions” that were now necessary with mobile devices.

“Mobile made everything more complicated,” DeAmicis writes. “The screens were smaller than on desktop, and more varied in terms of size. They weren’t just clicking buttons with a mouse — they were using their fingers to swipe, tap, and hold, often while in motion.”

Multiple Responses

Another influence of the mobile expansion was that UX and UI designers had to not only make sure their designs now worked on smaller screens and were responsive to swiping and tapping, but that they still worked on desktops and laptops with larger screens, and still responding to buttons and mouse clicks. After all, most people didn’t move exclusively over to mobile, especially not at the office. 

This meant that responsive web design became an imperative design technique to master this decade, ensuring that a site adapted to a user’s behaviors regardless of screen size or platform. What has made responsive web design so important with the increasing influence of mobile platforms was not just to ensure that a site looked good on multiple platforms, but that a site could be found on a Google search across these multiple platforms.

By creating a single site that fits on a traditional computer, as well as on mobile devices, you also have a single URL, which makes SEO optimization much easier and more efficient. Google actually recommended the use of responsive web design once mobile grew in popularity, “since it perfectly meets their content and link standards,” as Ajeet Yadav wrote back in 2015.

Tailor Made

This decade saw UX designers using multiple strategies to get a deeper understanding of the problems and challenges users face – and building products that better respond to their needs. Whether through design sprints, empathy mapping, gap analysis, hi-fi prototyping, or just greater emphasis placed on user research, designers are finding new (or renewed) ways of tailoring their products to the people who will actually be using them.  

“As researchers, when we experience a user’s struggle first-hand, feel the frustration, and hear their words, we can’t help but empathize,” writes Jennifer Leigh Brown, a columnist at UX Booth. “But behind every UX’er is a team, a client, or a company CEO that wasn’t there. They don’t understand the users wants and needs.” 

These new strategies not only benefit users, but they help design teams get on the same page when working on a project. And just as importantly, they save the time and money that could be spent on redesigning a product that doesn’t meet the needs of the end user.

It’s the Little Things…

A small, but crucial method for making a site more intuitive and responsive to users across any platform has been the use of microinteractions. Since a micronteraction is essentially the call and response of web design – whether it be a swipe, a click, a scroll, a drag, etc. – these triggers have given designers the tools to help users better interact with a site in actionable ways (buying a product, liking a post, navigating pages, etc.) 

“A button color change to indicate it’s been pressed, a sound indicating a new message in your inbox — microinteractions all add up for a more fulfilling user experience overall,” Nick Babich noted in 2016, explaining why these small design elements were taking on outsized importance.

Because microinteractions “are especially useful to reduce the user's mental effort, also known as cognitive load,” this decade saw designers incorporating animation with microinteractions to communicate with their users in new ways, notes Oliver Lindberg. This has included redesigning something as basic as the 404-error page so that it not only gives better directions to users, but also looks vastly better than the old error pages.

Microinteractions are small additions to the overall product design, but they have become an unquestionably important tool for improving the user experience. 

The Earth is Flat

The move toward responsive web design in the 2010s also brought with it an industry-wide embrace of flat design for user interfaces. Pioneered by Apple iOS 7, Microsoft 8 and Google’s Material design, flat design was an ideal addition to responsive design, helping to scale a website’s content to fit multiple platforms and screen sizes.

“With the use of simple shapes and minimal textures, flat design ensures that responsive designs work well and load fast (especially important since mobile devices have slower internet speeds),” as the Interaction Design Foundation notes. “By reducing the amount of visual noise (in the form of textures and shadows), flat design provides users with a streamlined and more optimal user experience.”

Writing for Gizmodo in 2013, Gannon Burgett predicted that year would see “an uprising of designers and developers alike who are going to strive for a very simplistic approach to the UI of apps to arrive and be updated” as responsive design was increasingly utilized. (This prediction turned out to be correct, btw).

However, one of the drawbacks to flat design is the lack of three-dimensional elements, and so by the end of the decade we saw the rise of what’s been dubbed “deep flat” design. This basically incorporated 3D elements into flat design – “a clear shift towards adding depth and dimension to flat design without changing its main idea” – as Moses Kim wrote for UX Planet last December.

Meanwhile, Carrie Cousins notes that deep flat was essentially incorporating two design trends – depth of layers and animation – to create “a mash-up of 3D realistic and flat interfaces that are complex, visually interesting and showing up everywhere.” Kim points out that innovations in mobile technology this decade have helped aid in the development of deep flat design.

“The mobile industry with new powerful chips made it possible to not only render 3D objects but use them within the interface,” he notes. “Smaller screens are perfect for that.”

Word Up

As the decade progressed, UX designers began to place greater emphasis on how content fits into their overall product design: This includes not only the message the content conveys, but also what the design of the content is communicating to users about the product. Hence, the 2010s saw UX writing, copywriting and typography grow in importance.

“From stacked headlines with plenty of words to designs with all and few images, there’s a shift to text as a featured element,” according to Carrie Cousins, writing about this year’s design trends for Designmodo. “With the right typography, this trend can look amazing and provide a great deal of information to users quickly. Without good typography, it can fall flat and be disastrous.”

But the importance of typography in product design is not something that only took off in 2019; it was actually seen as a trend to watch in 2011, owing to “the huge amount of growth of font-replacement technology” and the fact that designers were “getting a lot [bolder] with typography as well,” as Brandon Jones wrote back then.

Meanwhile, UX designer Miklos Phillips explained what was behind the shifting attitudes toward content, pointing out how words “used to be an afterthought” in product design, mainly because designers are by nature more visually focused. However, the best UX design today is now “paying attention to the meaning of the words, the efficacy of communication, the overall tone,” and how all of these elements help establish the brand’s voice.

“In order to create a perfectly synced, holistic experience in style and tone, images and words on the screen have to work in unison from the start,” Phillips writes. “Today, writing is just as important as interaction design and visual design.”

This decade has seen a surge of innovation across the industry, due in no small part to the evolution of mobile technology and the development of new design strategies. As designers continue to utilize technology that has only scratched the surface of their potential – and incorporate new technology that emerges over the next 10 years – we are sure to see further innovations in product design that will yield even greater improvements in user experience by the end of the next decade.

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