Flat Design: Why you should question Nielsen Norman’s research on the trendy design style.

Sean Dexter
4 min readSep 18, 2017


The Nielsen Norman Group is probably the most influential usability consultancy in the design industry. So, when they publish an article about their research findings titled “Flat UI Elements Attract Less Attention and Cause Uncertainty”, many designers perk up and pay attention.

In the few days after the article’s release I’ve already seen it shared several times as evidence of the weaknesses of flat as an interface aesthetic. But there’s a problem with that conclusion.

It’s not actually supported by the study that was done.

So what’s the issue? Let’s take a look at the very beginning of the article:

The popularity of flat design in digital interfaces has coincided with a scarcity of signifiers. Many modern UIs have ripped out the perceptible cues that users rely on to understand what is clickable.

While the title had clearly set the expectation that “flat design” was the subject of the research, the article immediately jumps in to an equivocation between flat design and design with “weak or absent signifiers”. It turns out the latter was actually the focus of the study even though we were promised the former.

Leaving aside the issues with calling anything “weak” before actually running the study, one might still expect (based on the title of the article) that the weak signifier scenarios tested were reasonably representative of flat design. However, a deeper dive into the full set of designs tested shows this was not true in most cases. Five of the nine scenarios asked users to find text links that differed only in how they were styled and colored.

The design on the left outperformed the design on the right, surprising absolutely no one.

Visually differentiating links helps users to know they are clickable? Who knew?

The thing is, changing the display of links in this way doesn’t actually tell us anything about flat design. Flat is characterized by a lack of depth cues, but neither of the designs above have any depth cues at all!



Sean Dexter

Sr Product Designer @ Meta. Prev: HubSpot & Cigna. I write about UX, agile, & product. Not speaking for any employer/s. linkedin.com/in/seandexter1/