Monday, April 2, 2012

Glyphs are the bellbottoms of the application world

Microsoft, Google, and even Apple have been working very hard lately to drain the color out of all of their applications in favor of grayscale icons called glyphs. Look at the sidebar in iTunes, or the beta of the next Visual Studio, or Google Reader and you'll see right away what I mean:

The new trend in software is now to look like the undead:
VS 2012, iTunes, Finder, Chrome, Google Reader

Stylistically, software has changed a lot over time. Remember when teal (#009999) was the "in" color for Windows apps?  How about splash screens?  No one uses those anymore.  Now, glyphs are in.  But for how long?  Look at clothing fashion - the gaudy, ugly, or non-functional styles will be eye catching at first, but flame out fast and look dated rapidly.  In fact, Visual Studio 2012 hasn't even been released, but the style already looks horribly dated.  (Sorry MS, you caught the trend on the downswing yet again!)

Software, like fashion and cars, has gotten into this trend of changing its look every year.  Sometimes the new look has functional benefits, but often it's change for the sake of change.  The thing is, we humans are very opinionated about change.  Sometimes we really like the new shiny-shiny, but equally often we reject the discomfort of re-learning what we already know.  Fashion and cars can change because their function remains - the pedals are in the same place, and the sleeves are too.  But software cannot change without directly affecting usability, and that's a problem.

You see, unlike cars and fashion where the desire is to purposely date the product to sell the next new thing, software doesn't work that way.  People will not buy the next version if the only thing different is the look.  Also, often the next version of a software product is given out for free.  See if clothing or cars ever work that way!  But even with Office where Microsoft desperately wants you to buy the next version, their customers won't do that if it just looks different.  It's features that matter.

But even within the world of clothing and cars, there are exceptions to the trendy churn of change.  Look at white socks and blue jeans - a staple in any wardrobe.  Have a look at models of vans on the road - can you really tell the difference between an '01 and an '02 Sienna?  Like jeans and vans, your software might just be more utilitarian than trendy, and that's okay.  Let me repeat that another way - the software you used at the ATM for years and years likely ran on IBM's OS/2 long after anyone else ran OS/2.  Why?  Useful, stable, simple, functional.  A known commodity.  Ever notice how the "save" button in every application known to man is still a 3.5" floppy disk even after 15+ years of not being actively used, and 10+ years of not even being able to even buy them?  A whole generation of people entering high school now have probably never laid hands on a floppy disk, yet they know how to save their files in Word.

For the time being glyphs look really trendy, and there's a push to make all apps match the trend.  Line of business apps included.  But watch out dear friend!  The release schedule for your line of business application is not the same as Microsoft's release schedule, or Google's, or Apple's for its products.  And your customer base isn't the same.  And your design team isn't as big as theirs, nor frankly does your software require a total visual overhaul.  In fact, let's all be honest and admit that this new trend in glyph usage is just a passing fad, and when it goes the way of pink bangles and bellbottoms your app will look dated while the world of software passes it by.  The same way it looks really dated now because you're skipping out on glyph-ing up your UI.