Mobile App Development

App Design Trends for 2013: Sleeker, Similar and Smaller

January 9, 2013

  • Nelson Taruc Nelson Taruc

As we say farewell to 2012, one question I get a lot as a mobile app designer is this: What will apps look like in the year ahead? Based on the past few months, these notable user experience and interface design trends will shape the look and feel of native mobile apps in 2013:

Flatter User Interface

Apple toned down the gradients and color contrast with its Music app.

Goodbye Skeuomorphism, Hello Minimalism: Android did it, Windows Phone did it. And Apple will too.

User interfaces in 2013 will be flatter, using fewer gradients, less gloss, more subtle drop shadows, and non-textured backgrounds. You can already see the transition with Apple’s reskinned Music and App Store apps.

Now, whether you love or hate skeumorphic design, the design impetus behind it was to get people, back in 2007, to get acclimated to a very unfamiliar user experience — touchscreen on a phone — by using real-world visual cues. And it worked great … back in 2007.

In 2013, many more people know how touchscreen phones work, so the importance of skeumorphic design, in my opinion, is less crucial than it was five or six years ago.

Rather than the conventional tab-plus-table interface, more iOS apps are adopting the upper left menu button to hide some of the top-level navigation.

Usability Convergence: I credit Google for driving this trend, and it’ll be interesting to see how many developers ultimately follow, but the basic gist is this: Usability differences between Android and iOS apps will blur as “best-in-breed” design patterns start to rise to the top.

An example: For some time now, Android apps hide some of the top-level navigation, replacing it with a three-bar icon to show or hide the menu, such as the YouTube app in iOS 6.

Now I could go into a whole spiel as to the pros and cons of this design, but the takeaway is this: More iOS apps are ditching Apple’s standard tab-plus-table conventions and using this Android pattern instead. After all, content is king, so hiding navigation is an appealing option.

Obviously, there will always be UX differences between Android, Windows and iOS apps. But in 2013, that list should start to shrink.

The next frontier in mobile device design: Wearable devices with smaller screens (such as the Pebble) that can work with or without another mobile device, such as a phone or tablet.

Smaller Screens: In 2012, the race was to see who could jam the largest screen onto a device and still call it a phone. I expect that race to give way in 2013 to a bigger trend that’s still under the radar for most designers: the move to smaller screens. Smaller tablets such as the iPad Mini and Nexus 7 were the first hints of this trend in 2012. Rumors of an Apple-designed watch also have bubbled up.

A smaller screen offers a more portable form factor and affordability. But more importantly, it’s also a vector to displaying notifications to people who don’t or can’t carry phones. So for designers like us, it’s time to start thinking how you’d, for example, display an email notification from your iPhone onto a watch or keychain.

And not just your own watch, but your wife’s watch. Or your kids. Or your entire enterprise sales force.

Admittedly, that’s pie in the sky stuff today. But as a design exercise, just take a second to consider how your apps would benefit if they could communicate with or run on a smaller screen, because that future is closer than you may realize.

I’d love to hear your thoughts as well! Please share them with a comment.