The COVID-19 pandemic redefined our lives in ways no one could have predicted. Our homes suddenly became offices, our kitchens became school classrooms, and our pets assumed new roles as therapists. While this time will undoubtedly be remembered with great sorrow, it will also mark the most monumental digital transformation since the very inception of the web. Food, fashion, education, entertainment, and more were lifted from our cities' streets and converted into online experiences. As schools, healthcare providers, and businesses worldwide scrambled to digitize, the role of the product designer was cemented as a necessity.
So, as an industry we dusted off our keyboards, dressed in our best problem-solving (sweat)suits, and dove into our design challenges head-on—showing just how much designers care about the future and making an essential contribution to a world. As the pandemic continues into 2021, product designers will be called upon more than ever to channel their skills into shaping the way we experience this new, uncertain world—filled with new rituals, healthier habits, and more effective digital products.
Knowing that product designers are more essential to the world than ever before, we sought to understand what product design trends would play the biggest roles in the coming year.
In conducting research for this blog post we were happy to find a myriad of intriguing inspiration. We quickly realized that the number of 2021 UX/UI design trend reports available has reached a near boiling point. There are dozens of excellent UX/UI design trends lists (our favorite is here).
And yet, we felt that something was missing from this collection of thought leadership. Design trend lists so often focus on colors, gradients, typefaces, shadows, backgrounds, and styles. Of course, these tips and tricks are extremely helpful and very easy to follow, but we thought the product designers of today and tomorrow could benefit from going below the surface level of what those suggestions bring.
We reached out to our ever-growing roster of all-star mentors to ask—beyond the obvious—what UX/UI design trends do they expect to see play out in 2021? We compiled their responses into the themes listed below, and we hope they help shine light into the future of product design.
10 UX/UI Design Trends to Follow in 2021
1. Imagine Physical While Designing Digital
While millions of people worldwide continue to distance themselves from each other due to the pandemic, digital experiences and online communication channels have become more vital than ever. This situation has sparked a new urgency to expedite online experiences to close the gap between available products and the consumers still stuck at home. One example of an effective pivot that occurred during the pandemic is from clothing company, Diesel, with their digital showroom. Diesel encouraged remote buying through digitally recreating the try and buy process.
2. Frictionless Proximity Interactions
Usage of our personal mobile devices has risen ever higher during the pandemic, while our willingness to touch surfaces in shared spaces—such as ATM machines and gas station pumps—has plunged. Even after vaccines have been widely distributed, people's collective trust in public experiences will be broken for quite some time. Proximity interactions will become more contactless, and a new series of frictionless experiences will be called for in order to give back the comfort and confidence consumers seek.
3. Design for Everyone
One in five people live with a form of disability. Remote work and forced isolation have increased our reliance on digital tools, provoking an even greater urgency to ensure that the platforms we all use are visually, cognitively, aurally, and physically accessible to everyone. Designers must carefully direct more time, attention, and expertise to creating adaptable and inclusive experiences for all.
4. Break the Grid (Responsibly)
Since the days of movable type, designing on a grid has been the best approach to fitting all elements of a layout together, both in print and on screen. Grids have made web interfaces faster and responsive across browsers and devices. However, grids have also arguably played a role in diminishing the unique look and feel of digital products and services. Designers of the future will embrace opportunities to create asymmetrical designs and, when appropriate, responsibly break the grid in order to invent new ways to display content and products on screen.
5. Much More Than Just Pixels
Design tools such as Adobe XD, Figma, and Sketch have democratized UX/UI design skills and fostered a new generation of designers around the world. However, the top designers of the future will not only be masters at moulding pixels into crisp, visually compelling interfaces. More designers will strive to be curious researchers and compelling storytellers who can uncover user needs via qualitative research, write clear narratives and rationales, wrangle pen and paper to sketch low-fi concepts, and deliver excellent UI design as the icing on the cake.
6. Design for Digital Wellbeing
The pandemic took many people’s mental health on a rollercoaster ride. On top of that, we now know that some of the most popular apps and digital services are designed to make us spend as much time using them as possible—maximizing advertising revenues for their shareholders. In the worst cases, these services are designed to be addictive. Designers should be more conscious than ever of the mental health consequences of what we create. We should design with empathy, respect, and integrity for the people who use these tools.
7. The Rise of the Social Media Mall
As health risks and government restrictions will prevent many of us from visiting physical stores and shopping malls this year, social channels will increasingly become the main way we discover, browse, and purchase products. It will feel ever more natural for consumers to buy items on the same platform that they receive recommendations, either from friends, influencers, or ads. Social e-commerce will continue to explode in 2021, and retail brands will invest tremendous energy and capital into meeting consumers where they are—online social platforms—by developing digital retail experiences.
8. Fewer Apps, More Browsing
After years of suggesting to consumers that “there’s an app for everything,” many brands are shifting focus away from apps to lighter platforms such as progressive web apps. Native apps can be difficult to convince consumers to download and expensive to develop and maintain, requiring frequent updates and diplomacy with ever-stricter OS requirements. More and more digital experiences will take place directly on the web, no matter the user's device of choice.
9. Build User Playgrounds
Today, so many digital services are designed with a relentlessly transactional lens, focusing exclusively on consumer demand and fulfilment in the name of boosting revenues. This methodology can come at the expense of users, who may develop digital fatigue and apathy. Designers have the power to herd users like sheep along the path to purchase, but they also have the creativity to invent playful, engaging experiences that treat users as active, empowered participants. As digital platforms continue to mature, there will be an ever-higher bar for quality of experience that designers must strive for.
10. Reinvent Rituals to Share Together
As we’ve grieved the in-person rituals we used to share with friends, family, and acquaintances, we’ve also craved new habits and coping mechanisms to help us make the best of our new circumstances. Products and brands in general are investing tremendous energy to devise ways to fill the empty space that those in-person rituals left. In 2021, designers will be tasked to create new experiences to replace in-person ones—an incredible opportunity to create experiences that are healthier, more sustainable, and most importantly, allow everyone to feel closer together—even while distancing.
We hope you found this list of UX/UI design trends for 2021 to be intriguing and helpful. We encourage you to use this list to spark engaging conversations with your design peers, and ultimately, design better products. Most of all, we wish you and your loved ones a happier and healthier 2021!
If you’re looking to use 2021 to upskill or make a career-switch into the rapidly evolving and exciting field of UX/UI design, we encourage you to explore our UX Academy program.