Designing Future-Proof UI

Thoughts on why UI has a limited lifespan, and potential measures we can take to ensure designs have longevity.

Future-proofing, by definition, is the process of anticipating the future and developing methods to minimize the effects of its shocks and stresses. In the case of UI, these effects will often provoke a redesign.

Let’s not kid ourselves—even for a great UI designer, fully future-proofing a user interface is difficult and unlikely. It’s not like we’re architects and our structures will be standing for hundreds of years for people to admire. 

No—when we design UI, we’re fully aware it can have anywhere up to a 4 year lifespan before it needs a refresh, or at least a significant update. We know this from experience and common sense.

Whether we like or not, every user interface we design has built-in redundancy and is destined to change or evolve after a relatively short period of time.

Almost every website or app we design today will likely have little to no resemblance looking at it 5 years from now. Only in rare situations is that not the case. For the most part, today’s designs will be forgotten.

We can make the biggest impact today, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re impacting the long term. I believe as designers we accept and internalize this, and generally avoid talking about it. There’s a certain unpredictability as to how and when our UI will break, and that has caused us to accept the ebb and flow of things.

Why Future-Proof?

Some might consider it a positive thing to update a UI every once in a while, and I’m not saying it’s bad, just an accepted way of thinking. 

Let’s look at the positive side of near-certain redundancy—we can learn from our mistakes and make it better. It can also be fun to revamp a UI to make it feel new and fresh, because we get bored of it. If we’re lucky, we get a second or even multiple attempts at the same UI (over the course of many years), because we strive to keep improving things. It’s in our nature.

But on the flip side, we naturally strive for our work to be admired long into the future, like a famous painting providing continuous delight to observers. It’s hard work to keep redesigning, even if we know when to. 

Much like architects, who generally have a guarantee of enduring work barring war or natural disaster, we would like our work to stand the test of time and be remembered. 

UI designers of the future should be like architects. We need to aspire to design and build beautiful things that last.

And that doesn’t mean UI can’t evolve and adapt to new circumstances. It means it could remain reminiscent of the original design; true to the original work. We should endeavor to take that leap and aim for long-term solutions, because ultimately it will help improve our designs.

The Causes Of Redundancy

There are both predictable and unforeseen factors that could force us to change or update our UI. There are also factors beyond our control that would make any attempt at future-proofing irrelevant.

Just take evolving and emerging technology as an example, which has so many underlying facets that drive specs, requirements and standards. A shift in the product and service offering can affect the UI design incrementally or completely over time. The measure of success of the product or service can also have a huge determining factor.

But there are design-related factors that we can prevent. If a UI feels outdated in terms of design or technology, has UX issues, doesn’t have flexibility or room to scale, or has growing inconsistencies, then it has a greater built-in redundancy. A redundancy that will escalate and become more of a resounding issue as time goes on.

We should look at all the factors that may potentially break our UI in the future, and start with the ones we can rectify.

Our choice is in how we adopt trends and patterns, how we systemize and architect our interface, and how much and in what capacity we make assumptions. All this can affect the longevity of a design.

Increasing The Longevity

If we want our UI design to stand the test of time and go beyond the conventional expiry date, we can incorporate a number of principles into our workflow and way of thinking that will make it less likely to cause big changes in the future, or put another way, more likely to cause little change. This isn’t a definitive guide, but these principals can certainly go a long way.

Be Wary Of Trends

If we’re able to tell the difference between short and long-term trends and anticipate them, we can try to ensure our designs don’t employ the short-term ones and take the path of depreciation.

A trend that doesn’t have a reasonable amount of positive traction in the industry and isn’t yet proven to work from a research and UX standpoint is probably not a surefire bet for stability. It must be used with caution. For example, it would be risky to work with trends that potentially impact performance, legibility and accessibility. 

Some trends can rise in strength to the point where almost everybody adopts them, and not following suit can make us feel left in the dust. The best example of this is the massive shift around 2010 from skeuomorphism to flat design. Though Windows 8 helped it become mainstream, it was the result of designers trying to reduce visual noise and clutter by getting back to old school inspiration found in styles such as swiss design.

More recently, a subtle trend emerged in an effort to make interaction more intuitive for users due to the negative feedback flat design was getting in UX research. It involved bringing back a tint of physical realism to provide depth to elements so the UX for interaction was more effective.

Google was a big proponent of this, creating a design language in 2014 called Material Design which combines flat with some of the more subtle elements from skeuomorphism like seams, lighting and shadow. As designers we should learn why these trends come about to predict where they might be going.

Integrating trends into UI that put more focus on the design or trend, and not the user experience itself are more likely to make the UI depreciate in the long-term.

Trends that tend to stick around for the long haul are often, but not always, represented by the big players. It’s always useful to analyze the direction and nuances of their latest approach to UI, because the time and resources they put behind them is beyond our comprehension. 

Yes, they have the financial muscle to constantly modify and finesse their products, but they don’t necessarily want to completely rethink them all the time. Just look how Apple handled iOS since it’s inception. Almost a decade later and the home screen layout has barely changed. Aside from becoming slightly more flat, the aesthetics are still reminiscent of the original design.

Taking a glance at the landscape as a whole is also paramount when doing discovery and inspirational research. We can usually start to see the hot trends in UI design emerge through prominent articles and talks, and gauge a fairly decent awareness. Researchers are quick to jump on trends to assess their performance in terms of UX.

Use The Right Patterns

Integrating future-proof design patterns is one thing, picking the right one is another. They should not only be established and accepted by the mainstream, but they need to be the most intuitive for our users in the context of the product or service. That doesn’t mean we can’t use original patterns too, but they come with inherent risk. 

Using common design patterns as quick solutions to the detriment of UX creates an unsustainable UI.

I’m going to touch on navigation as an example. It’s arguably the most important component on any platform. Historically, the first phase of navigation on the web was just text links and buttons. We began consolidating sub navigation into hover drop-down menus. 

When the web was introduced to mobile, we created the concept of responsive and mobile-first design and quickly accepted that it would be impractical to use some of the same patterns from desktop.

We resurrected the hamburger button from a 1990 interface to help reduce cognitive load and increase screen real estate. The notion of hover to open menus has dwindled to make way for touch based interaction.

Hidden menus have been criticized, gaining negative feedback from a UX perspective, but they are a mainstream solution on both websites and apps. They’ve even become common on desktop and larger scale interfaces as a means to reduce visual noise and maintain consistency across all devices. They will be around for a while and have a place, but they’re often a quick fix. Let’s not forget they can hinder discoverability.

We have to ensure our design patterns are not only a long-term solution, but the right solution.

Make It Consistent And Scalable

On highly complex UI with multiple designers involved, it’s easy to lose consistency and build up design constraints that don’t afford flexibility, both for the UI to adapt, and grow quite as well as it can. This occurs when new components are introduced that don’t follow a system or logic.

How well your UI can adapt and scale to different scenarios far into the future will ultimately be determined by how well organized and consistent it is. Not enough designers facilitate this level of long-term thinking.

As design inconsistencies in UI grow over time, so does the need to refactor the whole thing because it becomes harder to maintain, and can affect cognitive fluency.

This is why we should design and build a scalable, modular architecture that makes it easier to maintain UI going forward. With a modular design system and a style guide to instantiate it, we can ensure that future components are consistent and easy to integrate, and current ones are easy to adjust.

Reduce Assumptions

As designers, we’re assumption specialists because most of the time we just don’t have conclusive research or data to work with. We make tradeoffs all the time for reasons of practicality and time-limitations, and it’s in our nature to go with our gut; to be creative and original.

But why reduce assumptions? Every assumption we make produces a certain amount of fragility. It introduces another way our UI could break in both the short and long-term, so reducing them minimizes the risk of redundancy.

Every assumption in design adds a possible varying level of debt to the UI, a debt that we can’t fathom the consequences of until it’s too late.

If it’s possible for us to eradicate unnecessary assumptions wherever possible, we should, but that’s not to say we should be completely risk-averse in the design process. 

There’s a difference between taking risks in core design decisions versus minor enhancements and aesthetics that don’t affect usability and function. We should ensure the foundation of our UI is designed on surefire data wherever possible, and be mindful of our assumptive choices elsewhere.

Final Note

The truth is, all of this can be a bit disconcerting to a designer. Our work feels temporary and only meant for a short period of time, especially with the insane pace of technology. But there are definitely practices we can leverage to ensure our designs will have a better basis for longevity, whatever the future throws at them.

By Christian Miller  |  Follow me on Twitter