Does Flat Design Forsake Response?

When I first became aware of the Internet, I was running the Toronto office of direct marketing agency Cohn & Wells (later purchased by EURO RSCG). I had met a young guy (with purple hair) who worked down the hall and when I asked what he did, he introduced me to the World Wide Web. It was 1995.

Converting Website Visitors to Sales OpportunitiesWhen I first became aware of the Internet, I was running the Toronto office of direct marketing agency Cohn & Wells (later purchased by EURO RSCG). I had met a young guy (with purple hair) who worked down the hall and when I asked what he did, he introduced me to the World Wide Web. It was 1995.

Our largest client, Bell Canada, was launching a campaign to defend itself against telecommunications deregulation and I wanted to include a website as a response mechanism in order to support their position as an innovative industry leader.

The URL? — not exactly easy, intuitive or consumer friendly but the page itself took advantage of known visual cues that would stimulate response: Skeuomorphism.

Skeuomorphism is the idea that early computer interfaces would be more intuitive to users if an object in software mimicked its real world counterpart. For example, a “trash can” and “file folder” are two of the most recognizable skeuomorphic objects.

As the web matured, designers spent hours on designing and testing skeuomorphic buttons, adding curves and drop shadows as non-verbal cues to indicate that, yes, this is where you should click to take the next action. In fact, if you Google “best color of button for conversions” you’ll get over 1.3 million results. Article after article about not only colors, but shapes, sizes and shadows, and how they’ve been tested and refined for maximum response. For our Bell Canada landing page, the buttons were indeed large, colorful and action-oriented.

But now, the world has gone to flat design. For the most part, buttons are now no more than a simple rectangle. Some research suggests that rounded corners enhance information processing and draw our eyes to the center of the element, but that insight seems to have been tossed out the window.

Color seems to be optional as well — or color appears after you hover over the button. That seems counterintuitive to me, as the sole purpose of the button is to draw your eye to the action area and to click — if the button is lacking any color, it’s not grabbing my attention in the first place!

Other advice from experts is to clearly label the button with a message of what happens after the click/tap or indicate what it does using action verbs. As a dyed-in-the-wool direct marketer, I know buttons should be labeled with “Learn more” or “Add to cart” or “Download now,” but apparently others don’t find this the least bit important as I’ve spent many a confused minute or two unsure how to proceed on a website when the button was labeled “Awesome!” or “Got it.”

I’m also a strong advocate of the action arrow. That little “>” icon that is one more visual action cue. In my mind “Learn more >” is far stronger than just “Learn more” — especially when the button is flat.

For those of us who have grown up in the direct response world, we have studied, tweaked and tested our way to maximum direct mail response rates. Neuromarketers helped us study how the brain responded to various stimuli and we began to apply it to every aspect of marketing design from pricing to color choice. So why throw all that insight away and use a flat button?

I’m sure readers will tell me that it’s because everybody already knows it’s a button. But I beg to differ. “Everybody” doesn’t always include that older adult who may not be as web savvy as you are. And I, for one, don’t want to lose a single response. So with all of our energy spent on studying and testing conversion techniques, I would encourage someone to test a skeuomorphic button against a flat button and share the results with me. I truly believe there may be an “a-ha!” moment on the horizon.

Author: Carolyn Goodman

A blog that challenges B-to-B marketers to learn, share, question, and focus on getting it right—the first time. Carolyn Goodman is President/Creative Director of Goodman Marketing Partners. An award-winning creative director, writer and in-demand speaker, Carolyn has spent her 30-year career helping both B-to-B and B-to-C clients cut through business challenges in order to deliver strategically sound, creatively brilliant marketing solutions that deliver on program objectives. To keep her mind sharp, Carolyn can be found most evenings in the boxing ring, practicing various combinations. You can find her at the Goodman Marketing website, on LinkedIn, or on Twitter @CarolynGoodman.

8 thoughts on “Does Flat Design Forsake Response?”

  1. People say that 3D lead magnet covers outpull 2D lead magnet covers on landing pages, though I have not yet started using them on my own pages but probably should start.

  2. I agree with you, Carolyn. I’d add to your argument the point that visual clues are a time-tested standard in DR communications, irrespective of age group. Sorry you have to fight a battle that was won ages ago. Reminds me of the constant battle we have to fight against body copy in reverse type. Argh.

  3. I’ll keep this in mind. Also believe old school DM fundamentals mostly continue to hold true. I worked for Cohn & Wells NY! (With Penny Vane in 1995)

    Cara Bowler

    1. I LOVED Penny Vane… and miss her terribly. Glad you’re in agreement with our “old” DM fundamentals. 🙂

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