When I first started as a designer, I remember trying to place the purpose of design. I thought about experiences that were well-designed compared to those that were not. For example, when I click a button and expect a dropdown menu to appear, I feel discomfort when the menu suddenly appears. When the menu slides out however, I feel more at ease. I realized that when I use a UI with a lot of jump-cuts (a la things suddenly appearing) my brain has to pretend that all the in-between frames are there. When we use interfaces that actually animate all those in-between frames, however, we can take a shortcut through our visual cortex. The change in interface no longer disrupts the main task.
Think of the human brain like a computer. You have first, a main thread, and second, a GPU – a graphics processing unit in your visual cortex. You can feed people a lot of information through their visual cortex without interrupting what they’re thinking about. Animation allows the user to continue thinking. Imagine using your smartphone without animations. It would be like a tap and jump cut for everything you do.* A phone without an animated interface would be very costly for your brain to use.
I used to attribute the success of the iPhone to this well-designed, animated interface. I realized that even though the iPhone is beautifully designed, if the technology had not been there, the phone would not have gained as much popularity that it did. Rather, good design helped the product gain traction, but wasn’t the driving factor of success. The iPhone’s key asset was the full color touchscreen with internet connectivity. Before the iPhone, you could only view minimal, text-only versions of sites like NYTimes.com. Design then, drove the stickiness of the product, much like Flipboard’s addictive flipping UI led Flipboard to gain initial user adoption. Once hailed as the best iPad news app, however, Flipboard was soon surpassed by competitors such as Pocket and Feedly.
Good UI design makes a product sticky, which helps drive user adoption in the short run, but other factors are necessary in order for a product to succeed.