Black is the New Black: Navigating in black and white

If you search for the latest in web design trends in 2017, you’ll see a lot of pretty reasonable sounding articles all putting together roughly the same list:

  • Animation is starting to be used correctly and tastefully
  • Mobile-first design is becoming more of a norm
  • Hero images still haven’t gone away and are getting “trendier”
  • Single-page (i.e. “embrace the scroll”) design
  • Grid-based layouts
  • Personalization (though no one could agree what it meant)

Surprisingly, they all missed one, and it’s a big one. In fact, I’d argue that it’s almost as big as Hollywood’s obsession with orange and teal. I call it “Black is the New Black” and it’s the proliferation of dark grey or black text on a white or light grey background as navigational elements.

Let’s take a look at the global header and global navigation for some of the top websites in the United States as reported by Alexa:

1. Google

Google's website header as of March 19, 2017. It is black text except Google logo, and the selected item in the global navigation menu, which is blue. The selected item also has a blue underline.

2. Youtube

The Youtube global header as of March 19 2017. Except for the red in the company logo and the user's profile, all elements of the header are black or grey.

4. Amazon

Amazon's global header as of March 19, 2017. Below a row of images representing products, the brand channel is a very dark blue with white text for the global navigation. The sub navigation directly below is black on white text. Very few elements contain color.

9. eBay

Ebay's global header as of 19 March 2017. After a bright green advertising bar at the top, the global header is fully black on white text with the exception of the eBay logo and the calls to action to sign in or register (which unusually, are on the left side of the screen).

10. Netflix

Netflix's global header as of 19 March 2017. With the exception of the Netflix logo and the chose menu, all elements are white on a dark grey background. We know it's dark grey because when the menu's open, it's an even darker shade of grey. Chosen elements are red on black, which I'm sure makes a certain colorblind subset of the population thrilled since they can't see it.

All of these brand and navigational experiences have a few things in common:

  • They use almost no color in the global navigational elements
  • The chosen element’s state of being chosen is illustrated through a change in font weight or border
  • The navigation bar is almost indistinguishable from the brand channel (where the brand tells you who they are, and often where the search elements hang out) or the utility bar (where top-level utilities like “messages” or “log in / log out” are located.

It’s not surprising that designers would want to understate their global navigation; I think we can all agree that we don’t want the global navigation to have a stronger visual hierarchy than the content of the page. Picking a limited but accessible color palette such as a white background with dark grey text or a dark grey background with white text accomplishes these goals.

And in the era of “flat design” it’s not too much of a surprise that the navigation menu looks neither like a row of file folder tabs nor like a row of gradient-decorated buttons. There’s something very sleek (or maybe naked?) about a row of links floating in space.

But there are also problems.

It’s breeding like bunnies

(Incidentally, I raised rabbits as a kid and it’s harder to get them to do that than you’d think, but I’m going with the metaphor anyway.)

The examples above concentrate on strictly the global navigation, but that’s not the only place Black is the New Black is showing up.

Youtube, Facebook, and Amazon are all using black heavily in their local (left-nav) navigation bars:

Youtube's left navigation column as of 19 March 2017. The choices are black on a white background, the hover state is white on a black background, and the selected item is white on a red background. The subheadings are red on a white background, though.

Facebook's left navigation bar as of 19 March 2017. It is black text on a light blue background, with black headers. The selected item has an even lighter blue background with black text.

Amazon's left navigation bar as of 19 March 2017 (on my account, anyway). Technically this is more of a filter because it allows the user to view the breadcrumb of categories that brought them to the current page then manipulate a bunch of checkboxes to change the result set. Still, the headings are light grey and larger than the subheadings, which are the same color choices as the itnteractive elements except the subheadings are bold. Only brand elements like the Amazon Prime or Amazon Fresh logo are in color.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wix is using black on their Most Popular list as well as their global navigation.

A screenshot of Wix as of 19 March 2017. The global navigation uses black text on white for active items and blue text on white for the selected item. The list of "most popular" articles is also written in the same black text as the header and the body copy.

Alexa is using white-on-dark-blue for their global navigation and black-on-white for their in-page navigation.

The header of the Alexa website, which ranks the popularity of other websites (among other things) as of 19 March 2017. The header is a dark blue with white text, and the in-page sub navigation tabset, which in this case allows the user to toggle between "world", "country", and "by category" is black on white with a blue bottom border and bold text for the selected item.

And then there’s the New York Times:

The homepage of the New York Times as of 19 March 2017. There is no text on this page whether global navigation, in-page navigation, or body copy, that isn't black on white.

 

There is nothing on this page written in text, clickable or not clickable, that isn’t black on white.

Okay, okay, so maybe she’s called the Grey Lady for a reason and it’s a purposeful decision to cast away usability just to look like the newspaper. But CNN was never a newspaper, and they followed suit:

A screenshot of CNN's homepage taken 19 March 2017. Following the trend, nothing on CNN's website is in color except the CNN logo and the timestamp on one news article that occurred less than an hour ago. (But only the timestamp, not the title.)

 

If we had only been seeing this trend in the global navigation, we could’ve argued that people know global navigation is interactive because almost all websites place their global navigation in the same place, and it’s a learned behavior.  As the trend spreads from global navigation to local navigation to in-page navigation to plain old links, the amount of cognitive load the user needs to use to determine what’s interactive goes up significantly.

It’s difficult to tell the state of an element

For most of these examples, the primary global navigation is a tabset metaphor: you’re looking at one set of data under a specific category. If you didn’t come in the front door (thank you Google) or you have forgotten how you got to where you are, the global tabs provide you with a sense of environment and direction: here’s where you are, here’s where you can go.

So if the navigational elements don’t look like they have a specific state set, it can be confusing for the user to orient themselves. Amazon’s design  is probably the most difficult to use. Neither the global navigation nor the subnavigation change regardless of which category you’re viewing. Where are you on Amazon’s site? Who knows? Just search again and hope you get somewhere useful.

There’s also the question of number of states. For global navigation on externally-facing websites we generally only see two states: active (which means you could select it) and selected (which means you already did). On internally-facing websites or applications, though, we frequently have a third choice for disabled tabs.

Why would you display a navigational element a user couldn’t access? One reason may be because you’re in tech support and you can see other people’s accounts but not modify them — you may still need to tell Mr. Smith where the Private Data tab is located even if you can’t view it.

Internal employees providing wayfinding for other users, whether they’re internal or external users, is the most frequent use of disabled navigation elements, but I’ve seen others in the wild. Sometimes to gain access to secure content, the user has to take other steps first, which could even include plugging in a dongle or drive. Sometimes authentication is required. Sometimes it’s a vendor product and it’s just what you got stuck with.

At any rate, if the user needs to know the tab exists but can’t use it, it has to have a disabled state. And therein lies a problem: if the selected state is grey and the active state is a different grey, what color is the disabled state (which is traditionally grey)? One could argue to introduce a third lighter grey, but then one has to be careful to make the disabled grey different enough from the active grey to look disabled while also not making it so light that it no longer fails color contrast testing for accessibility.

(Incidentally, I did have someone argue once that disabled items don’t need to be readable. Hogwash. Either you need to know what’s disabled, in which case they need to be readable, or you don’t need to see them at all.)

Let’s say that we find a suitable grey or font weight or something that differentiates disabled from active or selected. Great! Now we just need to solve the problem two more times, for the hover state and the focus state.

There is only so far that we can stretch font weights and underlines and borders if we limit ourselves to a greyscale navigation system.

It matches the body copy

In almost all of the cases cited above, the body copy for the site was the same color or nearly the same color as the navigational elements. If everything’s the same color and weight and nearly the same size, what’s clickable and what isn’t?

I’ve heard many a designer over the years claim that a user will explore a page and click on things to see if they do anything, but my experience in usability testing points otherwise. People don’t click things that don’t look clickable. As Jakob Nielsen says, “Life is too short to click on things you don’t understand.”

“Just click it to find out” on an iPad using a cellular connection on a train is not exactly the speediest way to explore a website.

I’ve hear designers and developers also justify decisions like this by “the cursor will change when they hover over it”, which may be true if the user is using a mouse, but fails miserably for my iPad. Hover states are not guaranteed and can’t be used as a primary affordance.

Finally, I’ve heard the case that users are smart enough to understand that something is an article title or breadcrumb or link just by what it says and will click because they understand what they’re looking at. That works fine for experienced web users, but for young people, those with cognitive disabilities or reading difficulties, or people who are reading in a foreign language, the affordance of a change of color or other indicator that something is a link may be the same affordance that helps them understand the words are an article title.

Affordances are important

Clean simple designs are important to ensuring that our users put the bulk of their thinking on the content we’re presenting and not the navigational framework around it.

At the same time, there are critical reasons to make interactive elements stand out from their non-interactive brethren: mostly that we want our users to interact with them.

We want the choice to click on something to always be successful. We want the user to trust the interface. We want to communicate state, not only by the context clues of the surrounding content, but by the visual and structural display of the content itself.

To that end, not everyone’s global header has to be black text on a white background (or vice versa). It’s not only okay to be different, but when designed well, it will give us a more effective design than those following Black is the New Black will be able to boast.

Navigation elements should always clearly communicate their state.

Links should look different from body copy, even if the link is to the side of the page or above or below the body copy.

Text should have significant enough contrast from its background and its neighbors to both read it and understand the affordances it carries.

Most importantly, there’s more than three colors in the world, and we should not be afraid to use them, especially when it results in a product that’s easier for our users to understand.

 

2 projects, 2 elections, 2 soundtracks

Since I got my first music cassettes and my first walkman, I’ve become obsessed with specific albums and just listened to them over and over. Music became entangled with specific people, places, and events. Raking leaves in mom’s side yard: Born in the USA. Riding the bus to school: Fascination Street. Walking through north Tacoma: Hunky Dory. Working out at the college gym: Achtung Baby.

As an adult, soundtracks followed me into my working life. Twice now, my work soundtracks have set themselves along with turning points…

Tones On Tail, Summer/Fall 2000

I’m fired up on A List Apart & Webmonkey articles, and learning enough CSS to think, yeah I could totally redo this site to go with the redesign that my boss wants to go with the “rebranding” we’re doing.

Meanwhile, I rip the CD I just got onto my computer; my sweetie has been introducing me to lots of different New Wave/post-punk that I missed because he’s four years older than me. It’s fierce and poppy and jangly, and I love it.

Time to fire up Winamp and blare Tones on Tail over and over while trying to figure out how to do an unholy hybrid table/CSS layout. Oh, and my first stabs at ASP to run a searchable database web thingy.

Not too long after the project is live, while I’m cleaning up odds and ends, fill out my “permanent absentee” ballot, waffling madly between Gore and Nader, and drop it off in the mailbox downstairs. Six weeks later, I’ll be at a new job with new web problems…and the election still won’t be over.

The President’s 2016 Summer Playlist (Daytime), Fall/Winter 2016

We finally get the go-ahead to go forward with the CMS migration I’ve been picking at for over a year. Time to put on the headphones, then.

All the content types. All the views. A theme that looks exactly like our current site, so hopefully no one on the outside will even notice. Editor roles, author experience options. Settings. And then the complicated stuff.

And then this delightful energetic mixtape from Obama. Almost perfect for just dropping into the flow. So I’m singing aloud to Jidenna and Aretha Franklin while yelling at code.

Summer moves into fall, an election approaches, and “we’re going to spend election week finishing up this thing.” But it takes longer than that, because it always does. And an election I was sure about curdles into something else, and music that was about fun becomes a source of defiance.

It looks like Spotify copied that list over into an “Obama White House” account, but I made my own copy, because now everything is off-kilter and uncertain.

Design Ethics in Practice

Designers don’t have to swear a Hippocratic oath, but as digital design continues to grow as a critical part of many industries, it will become more important than ever to follow a similar goal to “do no harm”. While the concept of “empathy” has been written about by designers to the point of being a buzzword, it’s an essential foundation to the purpose and value of design. It ultimately speaks to having empathy baked into your design process, and executing that process ethically.

As a researcher, I had to make these considerations, and thought I’d left them behind when I became a designer in tech. But when faced with working on a project that had cancer patients as users, all of my memories of old ethics training came back with new clarity.

This approach may be more familiar to those that have worked in behavioral or health research, but the same basic principle applies: when you’re working with your users — whether or not you’re talking with them and gathering information from them — you need to make sure to do more than listen. You need to actively take steps to protect them, and that includes their information and well-being. That means doing things like accounting for “edge-cases”, considering your users’ emotions, and trying to prevent things like this.

I’d like to propose a way to account for these concerns in practice. These are questions because there is no one correct answer, but asking these questions is only the first step. There is also an assumption that research is a part of your design process and that you are interacting with your users. Research is a big focus here because it’s a key part in making sure you account for diverse user needs, because tech has a BIG diversity problem and you’re unlikely to find out about them internally. But even if you can’t do any research, these questions are still critical to getting into the right headspace for taking charge of an ethical design process. So no excuses, look in the mirror and ask yourself:

Before your research (or When you start preparing to design):

  • What are your assumptions about who will use this product? What are your team’s assumptions about who will use this product? Where does your bias creep in? When you close your eyes and think of the personas you’ll make, are you thinking of stock photos of smiling white people in large offices and houses? Who are you not thinking about?
  • Have you thought about how this product can be used to harm others? What vulnerabilities can this be used to exploit? And what will you design to deter this? (Touch on this now before your team or leadership gets attached to anything.) Wonderful advice I’ve seen: ask yourself “How can this be used by an abusive ex to continue their abuse?”
  • Who have you picked to talk to about your design? A bunch of young white people? All from middle class backgrounds? Computer literate and savvy? Who are you excluding?
  • What information will you ask for when you talk to users? What will you actually do with that information? Just fill out the demographic section of your persona? Or do you actually need that private information to inform your design?

During your research (or Once you start defining your problem):

  • How accessible is the building where you’ll be talking to users? Does that Starbucks have a wheelchair ramp? Did you make sure to have comfortable seating? What are you going to ask users to do? How many times will they have to stand up and sit down?
  • Why are you going to Starbucks in your favorite part of town, and not the little corner restaurant in “that” part of town?
  • How do you treat people when you talk to them? Are you gawking at them as they use your product, and or you talking to them like another person?
  • How many people are going to watch this research? How much will they shit-talk about how ‘stupid’ users are, or about anyone that doesn’t look like them? (Don’t pretend that this doesn’t happen.) What will you say to stop them? Who is your team listening to? Who are they tuning out?
  • What other ways are you trying to get information about your users? Are you only talking to them? What other relevant background information have you looked up? Are you only looking at Medium articles, or are you trying to find news, books, and and other pieces written about their culture and history? Or are you just plowing forward thinking “people are people”?

After your research (or After you’ve started designing solutions):

  • How are you making sure to represent feedback from all of your users? If you don’t, who are you excluding?
  • What concerns does your team decide to address? Which users are they trying to serve, and whose needs do they decide can ‘wait’? 
  • When you are speaking with your team, what decisions do you defend? Which battles do you decide aren’t worth it? When you’re “the voice of the user”, whose voice do you choose to take on? Which users do you fight for, and which do you decide aren’t worth the cost?
  • Accessibility. It’s not a question. Always think about accessibility, but definitely think about it here.

This isn’t just about thinking about users in general when designing. It’s about thinking about how you’re thinking about people who will use the product you design. It’s about understanding what actual user advocacy is. It’s about having a plan if your team decides that PoC, women, LGBTQ+, people with disabilities, are not a ‘high priority user group’, and making sure their needs are not ignored or de-prioritized. It may not seem important for a pizza-ordering app, but 1) everyone needs to eat, and 2) what about an app for obtaining help with getting health insurance? or getting a babysitter for children? finding a job? “Tech” isn’t just some niche thing, it is an ubiquitous discipline that spans industries. That means that designing for digital tools can carry the responsibility that designing a door or a toilet would; you need to make sure everyone can reasonably use it, because everyone needs to use it.

These questions are not easily answered, but this is at the heart of what design is about: bringing some kind of improvement to people’s life and addressing a problem, not causing one. Design ethics in practice should bake in trying to be as inclusive as possible in spreading the benefits of the design solutions that are created. You can never please everyone, but who you choose to please and choose to leave behind is on your shoulders.