Neumorphism – also known as “New Skeuomorphism” has become a popular trend in Instagram and Dribbble website design samples. But what is it? When should it be used – and does it meet accessibility guidelines?

Skeuomorphic Calculator

Skeuomorphic Calculator
Source: Dribbble

Flat Calculator Design

Flat Calculator
Source: Behance

Neumorphic Calculator

Neumorphism Calculator
Source: Dribbble

Let’s start with what Neumorphism is — and what it isn’t.

Neumorphism is a technique used to make flat lifeless items look like they’re extruding from the background. It should not look like it’s floating on top of the background – but rather a shape that is a part of the background – much like molded plastic. In this designers are trying to bring real 3D realism of objects to flat digital design. But unlike Skeuomorphic design – which is hyper-realistic – Neumorphism elements are stripped down to the bare minimum. 

The way this is achieved is by using the same coloured shape as the background, and then using 2 different shadows – a light shadow and a dark shadow to create subtle depth. In this it creates a very soft clean sleek interface.

As the user clicks an interactive item, the shadows might change to make it look inverse or inset. This gives the user a real tactile feel as if the site were in actual fact a 3D interface.

Pretty cool eh?  Well not so fast….

Unfortunately not all trends are functional when it comes to the real world application. There are some inherent problems with this. Honestly it’s kind of like the dresses that you see at a high fashion catwalk. Absolutely stunning art pieces… but not practical for daily wear.

Visibility

While sleek and minimalistic it’s VERY hard to see – even for a person with perfect vision. Think about using this on your phone, outside, or in various types of lighting. Would you see the buttons? I know I wouldn’t!  Yikes! That’s not even taking into account the thousands of people with various types of visual issues. With that in mind this trend quickly becomes pretty unattractive.

“We all love the ‘pretty’ but we also need to remember for it to be usable by everyone.”
– Michal Malewicz

CAN we make it accessible?

If you’re using this type of design it’s imperative that anything that is interactive or integral to the site’s information has enough contrast.  For example if you’re using this style with a button – you should ensure that the text or icon on the button has enough contrast that it’s easily seen, or as shown below if there are multiple highly contrasted states. BUT the question is can it be identified as a button – in any of its states, on all devices, in various lighting conditions and/or by a person with less than perfect vision?

“Elements that trigger changes should be sufficiently distinct to be clearly distinguishable from non-actionable elements”
W3.org

The answer is no. 

It’s going to be impossible to say inclusively that everyone will be able to use UI designed in this style. If that makes you say “meh, that doesn’t bother me” – then I hope you’re also ok with losing out on a very significant number of potential clients! Remember a leading reason for abandoning a site is frustration. We should be looking into any and all reasons to AVOID user frustration, instead of creating them. The public is looking for an easy to use, simple to navigate site – that quickly serves up what they’re looking for. Unfortunately this design style could force the user to spend a lot more time trying to figure things out.

Because the Neumorphism style negatively affects users from both visually impaired persons to mobile device users this style gets a big thumbs down. Can you use touches of this design style? Absolutely! You can use this style on elements that do not impact usability – but you need to be very intentional to ensure that it’s done right. 

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