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Soft UI is fun but not very practical.

This post was initially published on medium.com

Soft UI, which reminds us of skeuomorphic design, is a trend we observed recently in 2020. We tried it out ourselves and found out it’s fun to use, but you have to be careful with it. We want to approach this trend by applying the current trend to our app.

left: REWE App | mid: Soft UI | right: Skeuomorphic Design (both by Heiner Henrichs)

A trend called “Soft UI.”

Last year, the small, more or less hidden trend, Soft UI, appeared between all the already known trends on Dribbble. As we studied it carefully, we found many notable characteristics that we also find within current flat user interface designs. It seems that flat user interfaces have regained new three-dimensionality over the years. With more and more shadows or variants of card-styles that indicate interactions, our Flat Designs are becoming increasingly plastically. That’s something where today’s Flat Design and the new soft UI trend have something in common.

iOS Calculator App | left: Skeuomorphic | right: Flat-Design | Ressource: https://belitsoft.com/…/android-design-vs-ios-design

It reminds us of Skeuomorphic Design.

Before we test to design or app in Soft UI, we were looking back at Skeuomorphic Design. If you think of the old, last known Skeuomorphic Design of the iOS calculator, we are pretty sure that this design doesn’t fit in today’s flat design world. After looking at the frequently shared new interpretation of this old design trend and putting aside our doubts, we started experimenting with design elements in the skeuomorphic style. After that, we come across a surprising insight: The skeuomorphic design had something very characteristic that we haven’t seen for too long. It starts to please us very quickly.

Skeuomorphism but on higher resolution screens

While experimenting with skeuomorphic and Soft UI, we saw this trend getting more popular. Michal Malewicz about “Neumorphism in user interfaces,” videos about Neumorphism by Gary Simon, or tutorials about Soft UI by Caler Edwards, brought us closer to this trend.

Skeuomorphic-Design by Heiner Henrichs

After a few experiments with buttons in the Skeuomorpic design style and other designs in the form of the so-called Soft UI and a redesigned version of the flat design screens of the REWE app, it quickly becomes clear to us:
The Skeuomorphic or Soft UI plastically appearance of elements like buttons created for today’s devices and resolutions (e.g., iPhone 11) is different from that on old phones. It sounds like an unabashed thesis that is initially just a feeling. But then we realized that these elements’ appearance is different — an even more realistic one than before.

Our first attempts were not perfect, but something seems to work very well on it. It feels satisfying to design elements in the Soft UI style, and it produces the “I want to press it”-impulse, much more than a flat button does.
But what is the reason for that feeling?

Soft UI-Design elements by Heiner Henrichs

Soft UI has something honest and also wonderfully complicated.

Our impressions on Soft UI

Compared to classic Skeuomorphic design, Soft UI is like an approach from both sides. It is a further development of flat design, but it is still apparent: it borrows its style from Skeuomorphism. And that is precisely what makes it a fascinating and valuable trend. Soft UI is simpler and more manageable to use but supports this intensified impulse to press a button. But it also shares the limitations of Skeuomorphic design because it is also restricted in its nature. It is not as flexible as a flat design. The impression on our devices during prototyping is a strong and almost inviting visual design. As designers, it triggers a feeling of satisfaction because this type of design (even more when recreating Skeuomorphic Design) is fun to create. This design has something honest and also wonderfully complicated. Trying to recreate reality on a screen and abstracting it straight away to make it more applicable was worthwhile for the experiment alone.

Soft UI-Design by Heiner Henrichs

Conclusion

A word about the cons of using Soft UI.

It’s hard to compete against the flexibility of flat design. With Soft UI, we are limited to a less variable style, more complex, and certainly not always suitable for everything. You have to stay at specific rules to achieve a plastic appearance. That may sound like we aren’t good designers, but you come up against the limits quickly when you try it yourself, which makes you question the style for production use. When converting a design to Soft UI, it might be necessary to rethink your whole concept. It isn’t effortless and takes time to adapt all elements accordingly.
The use of colors requires much creativity. Colors of buttons on identical background colors do not work per se. Button colors and similar shadow- or gradient colors do not always support clickable elements’ three-dimensional appearance.

And a sentence about the positive sites of Soft UI.

It is a fun and unusual challenge to design our already favorite products differently. Recreating Skeuomorphic in 2020 or using Soft UI and seeing it on modern devices is fun. The discussion about the visual impression of a Soft UI made us reflect on our current designs.

The impression is different. We don’t feel like reintroducing an old design language, but it feels like something new. And that is the most important thing. It shouldn’t be about adapting all elements of our design and displaying them in Soft UI. It should be about to use it in individual cases, possibly for more minimalistic applications, to emphasize some elements that should have a highlighted click intention.

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