It’s suddenly 2022, and no one is really sure how it even happened. It doesn’t even feel that long ago since the first iPhone came out. But, it was actually the summer of 2007.
The release of the first iPhone set app design off on a path towards the smooth, user-friendly interfaces we use today. At the time, the apps seemed super slick and futuristic. But looking back on them now, some of them seem quaint and old-fashioned.
Fifteen years is a long time in the mobile app UI designers world. So is a decade. So let’s look back at the last ten years of UI app trends and examine the highs and lows of mobile design.
Then, we’ll look at the trends that are set to make an impact during 2022.
2012 UI Designer Trends
#1. Infinite Scrolling
Although it seems like second nature now, there was once a time when infinite scrolling wasn’t standard.
UI designer Aza Raskin invented infinite scroll in 2006, but it wasn’t for a few years that the browsing style replaced the “refresh” or “hit next” button on many mobile apps.
Infinite scroll took off around 2012, after being used on Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook, and Google Images. In fact, it became such a popular (and addictive UI element) that Raskin later apologised for its effect on society.
Infinite scroll is a great way to deal with unstructured information. Early iterations of infinite scroll tended to pair the technique with “back to top” buttons. It’s definitely one of the most impactful trends that any UI designer has made for smartphones.
Skeuomorphism was a big trend throughout 2012. This design concept has a pretty fancy name, but it describes something quite simple. Skeuomorphic UI design is a type of design that models buttons and interfaces on real-world objects.
During the early years of Apple iOS apps, this style was trendy. There are a few reasons for this, but perhaps the main one was that in 2012 only around 44% of the population owned a smartphone.
Early UI design had to account for the fact that not everyone was familiar and comfortable with smartphone devices and screens. To make apps more user-friendly and easy to navigate, a UI designer might decide to include a button or interface that corresponds to the real world. In this way, people would feel more grounded and at home.
One notable 2012 use of skeuomorphism is Apple’s iPhoto, which uses frames to display photos—looking back on it now, the chunky frames seem like a waste of precious screen real estate.
#3. Custom Navigation Bar Textures
Custom navigation bar textures, like Instagram’s nav bar, began to appear throughout 2012. Soon after, they became pretty widespread.
There were a lot of benefits to UI texture at the time. It helps apps stand out from the crowd and even helps to double up as branding on apps like Facebook and Instagram.
Overall, it’s one of those outstanding visual elements that has become so standard that it’s hard to credit its impact at the time fully.
2013 UI Designer Trends
#1. Flat Design
Many people attributed Windows Microsoft 8’s “Metro” look as the reason why flat design had a rebirth. But in 2013, shadows, textures, gradients, and other effects fell out of fashion and were replaced by a more stripped back, minimalist feel.
This kind of style is perhaps best summed up in the National Geographic redesign. It’s sleek, sophisticated, and uncluttered. Additionally, it really does what it can to maximise the space.
Another good example of the style was the alarm clock app Rise. Again, it was super stripped back with a barely-there design. Interestingly, it took advantage of gestures instead of buttons. Which leads us on to the next trend…
Just like in the Rise example above, if you really want to declutter an interface, you have to throw out a lot — including buttons. And so, hand in hand with flat design, 2013 saw an increase in apps that used gestures in place of buttons. We’d all become familiar with touchscreens, so this wasn’t a step into the unknown. But the way the designers used them did cause some confusion at the time.
Google Maps 2013 update relied on gestures to navigate around the app. For apps that need to declutter the interface so that they could pack in a whole other bunch of info and features, this was a really great idea.
Here’s an article about Google Maps gestures from 2013. What’s interesting is how many of these touchscreen techniques are something we do without thinking today.
#3. The Hamburger Menu Drawer
2013 was the year that the “hamburger” menu drawer went mainstream. There is a lot to love about this menu icon. Firstly, it’s unbelievably simple. Three straight lines stacked on top of each other. Secondly, it somehow communicates a list of options to interact with despite its simplicity. Or at least it does to some people.
The hamburger menu drawer is actually a reasonably controversial UI element. It’s not just that some people hate it; it’s that the people hate it with a red hot passion. As it turns out, the button has fairly low engagement with users, which means it effectively hides specific options. Another reason that people dislike it is that it’s inefficient and adds extra steps for users to navigate.
Though it has its critics, the hamburger menu drawer was a great solution to the problem of mobile screen real estate.
2014 UI Designer Trends
#1. Social Network Integration
By 2014, mobile had taken over desktop as the most popular way to browse the web. Everyone was using social media platforms, and everyone was using apps. So it was only a matter of time before they started being integrated.
Integration provided plenty of benefits for users and developers. Dating apps used integration to match users based on their respective Facebook friends. Mobile game apps encourage the user to post scores and other information on social media, which, in effect, functioned as free advertising.
Around this time, apps started to remove signup friction by allowing users to log in via their social media accounts too.
#2. In-App Events & Seasonal Features
Perhaps mindful of the troubling statistic that most apps are only used once before they were discarded, developers looked at ways they could lure users back. Two significant trends emerged in 2014 to counter this problem.
In-app events and other seasonal features send push notifications to users to inform them about events, updates and add ons to the app. This trend was particularly noticeable in the mobile gaming world, where new levels could be made available at specific times of the year.
Minion Rush on iOS is a good example, with a push notification that informs users about new Christmas themed levels around… you’ve guessed it, Christmas time.
There’s no better sign of mobile apps maturing and becoming the dominant way that people engaged online than 2014’s trend towards in-app customisation.
There were a few different ways that internet brands approached customisation. Social media apps like Tumblr gave their users a way to personalise their Tumblr blogs. Previously, editing colours and pictures were the domain of the desktop, but a 2014 update allowed users to change the look and feel of their page.
While for other apps, customisation was seen as more of a revenue generation tool. Apps like Starbucks used customisation to push quicker in-store checkouts and offer discounts and coupons. By understanding what their customers wanted, these brands were able to tailor their app experience around each user and not the average individual.
2015 UI Designer Trends
#1. Hidden Menus
2015 wasn’t the first time anyone interacted with a hidden menu, but it was the year when they became pretty popular. While smartphone screens were getting larger, they were also starting to compete with desktops, laptops, and tablets. When compared with these devices, smartphones had less room to work with, which led UI designers to hide features until they were needed.
Hidden menu features allowed designers to really pare things down to what was needed. Navigation drawers could slide in when users needed them and retract when they didn’t. Additionally, buttons or other components could expand when swiped to reveal their functionality. One notable example is float action buttons.
Above all else, these micro-trends aimed to keep the screen free of clutter while keeping the app functional.
#2. Native Apps
As the use and sales of smartphones grew, so did the demand for native apps. Many users preferred native apps over accessing mobile-optimised websites via their browser. In fact, Forbes declared website apps dead in 2015 and welcomed a new era where users could access smoother, more stable apps with offline functionality, reminders, and push notifications.
With mobile-optimised sites effectively offering similar content to their desktop equivalent, users wanted something else. And so, native apps became the norm.
#3. Increased Connectivity
Wearable devices became popular in the previous year, but in some ways, their potential wasn’t realised by app designers until 2015. Looking back, it may be remembered as the time when apps really started to become connected to the environment.
GPS and Bluetooth had paved the way in terms of location and connectivity. But apps like Apple’s iBeacon opened up some amazing possibilities, like serving information based on where the user was in a room or other areas.
2016 UI Designer Trends
While micro-interactions were used in app design before 2016, they started to gain some buzz around this time. Micro-interactions adhered to a vital interface principle: the system should always keep the user informed about what is going on.
In short, if apps need to perform some task, the user needs to be in the loop. In 2016, app developers started keeping users informed via small animations and noises.
One simple example is download progress animations. Another example of a micro-interaction is a sound effect that plays when you select a button to let you know that a feature has been successfully selected.
#2. Speech Functionality & Conversational AI
Speech functionality had been around in various forms, but it really started to kick off in 2016. Apps like Google Now and Siri were already fairly mainstream, but apps started including this technology.
But this technology went even further as an interface design tool when sophisticated chatbots started to be used for a variety of purposes. Conversational AI worked excellently for things with defined workflows. It could order a pizza or flowers, book restaurants, find you a Spanish teacher, etc. However, it fell down at more complex tasks. There was a lot of buzz, but it would take a few more years before this UI trend became more sophisticated.
#3. Anticipatory Design
As apps began to collect more data on users, developers looked at ways that could improve UI. While developers had used anticipatory design in minor ways, think Netflix or Amazon recommendations, 2016 saw more apps try to understand their user and make their life easier.
If Amazon and Netflix recommendations were all about keeping users engaged, 2016’s flavour of the anticipatory design was more concerned with getting out of the user’s way.
Apps like Digit and Nest pushed anticipatory design towards its logical next step. For Digit, that meant analysing your finances and automatically putting away a few dollars every day.
For Nest, a thermostat app, anticipatory design meant learning your heating preferences and adjusting them for you automatically.
Small steps on the road towards a more complex, automated UI.
2017 UI Designer Trends
#1. Cloud-drive Apps
While many desktop platforms have been using the cloud, 2017 was the year when apps embraced the cloud. But Dropbox, iCloud, and GoogleDrive weren’t just useful for storing media and accessing it wherever you want. They also freed up space on devices and allowed for more powerful apps.
The Internet of Things was the talk of 2017. A whole host of sectors embrace IoT, particularly healthcare, security, the automotive industry, and education. Apps were designed that could control your fridge, your food shopping, and even your central heating. There was lots of talk about smart cities that would run more efficiently.
It all seemed very sci-fi and futuristic at the time. However, some of the headier use cases have yet to be realised so far.
#3. Augmented Reality
Pokemon GO came out in 2016. It was a huge craze that convinced many app developers to embrace AR. However, while the trade was significant, it produced mixed results.
One of the best applications of AR was IKEA Place. It allowed users to use their phones to see how various pieces of furniture would look in their rooms. Many retailers followed.
Additionally, AR and VR were adopted by the real estate industry to showcase homes and other projects. Hardware sales were strong, but that killer AR/VR never really came, despite tons of investment.
2018 UI Designer Trends
#1. Strong Contrast
One of the most eye-catching UI design trends in 2018 was a move towards a distinctive visual style that used strong fonts and heavy contrast. As smartphones continued to be the device most people used, these designs made data-packed screens easier to read.
Cards were a UI design feature rooted in the need to cater to desktop, tablets, and mobile devices. This type of layout facilitated the responsiveness that was needed in devices. But soon, they turned it into their own stylish aesthetic.
While cards had been around for a while by 2018, this was the year that developers really embraced them. They are an excellent way to structure lots of different information, easy to understand, and perfect for clicks. Netflix, Pinterest, and Newsfeed all adopted this excellent design feature.
In 2018, a lot of developers started to use small animations to bring a bit of life to static screens. Functional animation was a great way to immerse users in apps, with helpful tips, pointers, and instructions. And, it often looked great.
2019 UI Designer Trends
#1. Bottom Navigation
Bottom Navigation made a return in 2019. This trend worked because phone screens were getting bigger. The original iPhone had a 3.5-inch screen, while the 2018 iPhone was 6.1-inches; however, bigger screens create their own problems.
For example, the bigger the screen, the more interactive elements moved away from the natural movement of the thumb. To compensate for this, app designers began to place navigation buttons into areas that were easier to reach for the user.
Twitter for iOS was one notable example. Plenty more followed, but with their own creative spin.
One interesting navigation design was bottom sheets. These features were perfect for one-handed navigation and let users swipe up to access features and tools.
#2. Passwordless Login
Passwords cause users friction in several ways. For user onboarding, it can be a pain to come up with a new password. Additionally, many people forget their passwords fairly soon after making them, meaning more hassle when they want to log in to the app the next time.
As a result, many app developers began to embrace passwordless logins in 2019. While social media logins had been used years before, users adopted new technologies for login methods. Biometrics and FaceID became more widespread, while temporary passwords could be texted to linked devices.
#3. Vernacular Targeting Goes Beyond Content
As smartphones reached wider audiences, developers naturally began to localise content. This started out by substituting a “like” button for something that resonated more with a local audience, like “garland” or “namaste”, in specific regions.
However, by 2019, design UI was going the extra mile. Developers served localised copy alongside colours, icons, UI metaphors, and other UX flows that would fit better in new markets.
2020 UI Designer Trends
#1. 3D Graphics
3D graphics were a big trend in UI mobile design in 2020. While this design feature took a look of skill to pull off, the result was apps that had their own look and feel. For any product or service, 3D graphics provide a great way to engage and delight the user. In particular, retail stores benefited from a way to show their products during lockdown measures.
You’ll remember skeuomorphism from the start of the article. It described a design style that basically replicated real-world objects and interfaces for digital design. While that style generally went out of favour over the decade, it made a comeback with a slightly more modern twist.
Neuomorphism obviously has its roots in the old style, but uses shadows, highlights, and glows to create some really amazing interfaces.
One great example is this Simple Music Player. It looks elegant and 3D and makes the most out of the buttonless phone display.
Fifth-generation wireless cellular network, or 5G, had a big impact on mobile apps. Virtual reality and augmented reality were two of the most significant areas that benefited from 5G in 2020. Gaming, shopping, real estate, and several other sectors benefited from this technology. However, 4G devices and networks were not always up to the task.
With video becoming the favourite format of web users, 5G offers a chance to use higher resolution video too. For example, Ultra-HD live streaming onto devices.
Finally, 5G is far more accurate than 4G for apps that use location data. The accuracy of 4G was said to be around 10 metres, while 5G has gotten that down to 1 metre.
2021 UI Designer Trends
The COVID pandemic accelerated the trend towards shopping online. Forced to stay at home, many more shoppers turned to the internet to buy food, clothes, and other goods and technology. Additionally, with brick-and-mortar shops shut down, retailers moved online to serve this growing market.
The result was some fairly big changes in how we shop online. We saw a lot of different advances over 2020 and 2021, like one-click ordering, voice shopping, and even omnichannel shopping.
Omnichannel shopping is particularly interesting. Brands can use AI chatbots to communicate with potential customers via their favoured and trusted applications like Facebook messenger and WhatsApp. The idea is to create a seamless, user-friendly process for buying goods.
#2. Super Apps
Super Apps have been popular in Asian markets for a long time. WeChat is massive in China and works as a payment processor, social media, ridesharing, shopping, and video game platforms rolled into one.
Gojek is another example from Indonesia. This app combines daily services, food delivery, online transportation, and more into one platform.
Other parts of the world have resisted super apps and seem to prefer the choice of separate apps. However, in 2021, that started to change. Apps like NaturalAi began to pop up on the AppStore, promising to change the way we interface with our phones. As part of their advertising, they suggest you’ll no longer have to look for apps. Instead, apps will come to you when you tell NaturalAI what tasks you want to complete.
Some familiar faces are making moves towards being super apps. Uber has branched out into food deliveries, while Facebook has made moves towards digital payments, flight and hotel booking, gaming, etc.
This trend is definitely a slow creeper, but when someone gets it right, it could explode.
A year is a long time in the UI design world. Neuomorphism is out, and glassmorphism is in. The basic look is transparent, with an interface that looks like frosted glass. Additionally, it takes advantage of layers, vibrant colours, blur effects, and subtle borders.
It’s a cool, futuristic look that can be seen in lots of designs, like Mac OS Big Sur and more.
2022 UI Designer Trends
So, after a recap of the last decades biggest trends in UI design, it’s time to look into the future. What will be the big design trends that will shape the app designs of tomorrow? Let’s take a look.
In October 2021, Facebook announced changing its name to Meta. The name change was meant to signal the social media giants shift into the metaverse — a social media forum where people interact using VR and AR.
In some ways, the metaverse is an old idea with a new name. However, there is technology now in terms of processing, 5G, and devices that can make it all possible.
Games like Pokemon Unite, Among Us, and even Fortnite all touched upon the possibilities of a metaverse. The idea is to keep users inside your app beyond just the game. For example, Fortnite has been running exclusive in-app events like concerts by big artists.
So look for a continuation of trends like socialisation, world-building, user-generated content, avatars and so on. The aim is deep immersion that feels almost real.
While this trend began well before COVID, it’s hard to imagine so many people embracing it before lockdown orders. Stuck indoors with time to burn, many people began using social games to pass the time.
With some portion of life moving online for many people, there are some excellent revenue opportunities here that will result from a focus on personalisation. Avatars and other in-game micro-purchases could become big business.
Some people are suggesting that scrolling is dead. While we’re not so sure that’s true, it does seem that some interesting new UI design approaches will be big in 2022. And perhaps the one with the most potential is scrollytelling.
Scrollytelling is a way to deliver content, illustrations, font, etc. in a compelling way that keeps the user engaged.
One notable example was the New York Times use of scrollytelling in their story “Snow Fall.”
Currently, web and app users are faced with a lot of information that is presented in similar ways. This can cause a degree of “blindness” to the content.
To counter this, many apps and websites are serving information in a way that will break through to readers.
Take the example below. It uses dynamic animated imagery activated by scrolling, that provides a unique and unexpected user experience.
#4. Inclusive Design
Inclusive design encompasses a broad range of practises that strive to make apps accessible to a diverse range of users. Partially, this is about personalisation, but it’s also about reaching out to users of different backgrounds, ethnicities, ages, genders and abilities.
There are lots of small and big ways that developers will use this trend in 2022. For example, Twitter has opened out its language options to serve more markets.
You can find other interesting options on sites like Pinterest that allow people to select a “skin tone range” for items they are looking for. For example, if a user is browsing for cosmetics, they can ask Pinterest to filter out recommendations to pick tones that work well for them.
Some other notable examples are things like Grammarly’s inclusive language prompts, Instagram’s Holiday Stories, and Metronome’s colour settings for people with colour vision deficiency.
Consumers are demanding that brands accommodate them and reflect their reality in several ways. So, we should see more of these additions in 2022.
#5. Animated Logos
When Facebook relaunched as “Meta”, it came with a new logo. And developers took note. Reinventing a logo to signify a pivot into the future isn’t easy. It’s hard to stand out and do something that feels completely new.
However, Meta’s solution was to make an animated logo. Most of the information we consume is from screens, so accommodating an animated logo is a far easier prospect than it was in the past.
So, expect lots of brands and apps to come out with new, eye-catching moving logos in 2022.
Cover Image UI design by Aurélien Salomon
About the Author
Joseph Russell is an award-winning app designer, app strategist and founder of DreamWalk. Over his 11 year career, Joseph has helped hundreds of businesses and startup founders plan, design, develop and launch successful apps.
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