In defense of chrome

I like visual chrome in UI…and I’m betting many designers secretly do too ;-) In the current (circa 2012) mood of anti-chrome dogma (i.e., skeuomorphism hate, fueled in part by recent “lust of the new” infatuation over Windows 8’s informationally ascetic aesthetic–which, BTW is still unproven among users) this may seem like a radically outdated statement. After all, a UI that’s so rich you “want to lick it” is just so 2001, right? Well, not so fast folks…

“Chrome” (not the Google browser ;-) unfortunately has taken on a negative tone of something that’s overdone, gaudy, mawkish, anachronistically applied visual flourishes for gratuity’s sake, not applicable to (and perhaps even interfering with) a digital product’s functionality. And just flat out “tacky” to some. I mean, who wants that??

Well, if done improperly in such silly ways (which is NOT new…remember Kai Power Tools, anyone born before 1980?) then YES, visual chrome can lead to just that effect of ostentatiously getting in the way. After all, design should always be invisible, right? Except when it shouldn’t be. 

What about visual affordances that offers clues as to the existence of and potential use for a feature, like a page curl revealing layers of functionality or (gasp) a button or (face palm ) a menu? Pulling in learned knowledge from physical metaphors into the digital space is not a sin. It helps with discovery, understanding, learning, and adds (if done well with subtlety and sensitivity) delight to digital austerity. Ascetism is great for monks. Not so much for complex products armed with layers, spaces and modalities of capability to be found and used. Especially when we have devices loaded with 30+ apps all trying to be cute with gestures and no basis to come back to. 

Chrome provides an anchor, a framing element to the space, actions, and content, with clear lines of demarcation, so you’re not tapping all over the place wondering what’s “active”. Nicely done headers and footers and sidebars, etc. can house primary controls, navigational aids/cues, and of course branding, thus creating a distinct space of meaningful value. A oft-stated concern with Windows 8 style is getting lost in a floaty, never-ending space of content, losing where you are within a seamless, unfolding infographic. Seams can actually be useful, not shunned.

Chrome enables place-sensing: where the hell am I? and how do I get out? what do I do next? And with animations and subtle touch/swipe gestures we can do even more compelling and useful anticipatory digital actions like peek, reveal, depth effects, etc. Thereby adding joyful moments, and balanced utility, creating a product that’s more than a Swiss poster infographic–as fetishized as we elite designers like to make them out to be. Posters are useful, but we’re talking about full-blown digital products and services, often within multifunctional mobile devices.

Some say this all contradicts the notion of “being authentically digital”. I say chrome enhances and augments what the digital space can be, bringing vitality and utility together, if done well. So instead of being gratuitous distraction, visual chrome can add value to an interface; simply a matter of finding that “sweet spot” of balance between affordance, content, functionality, discoverability…and delight. 

(Side note: there’s an underlying issue of “taste” here. Of course, certain textures, styles, treatments simply rankle folks the wrong way and become annoying. The faux leather in iOS Contacts and Calendar apps come to mind. I agree that could be done much better ;-) But it’s important to discern personal taste preference from functional intent to augment the interface’s capabilities, tackiness notwithstanding.)

Repeat after me: Visual affordances are a good thing. Subtlety is poetry. Nuance is elegance. Let’s make digital interfaces more than authentic but awe-inspiring. Chrome can help and shouldn’t be dismissed because we’re suddenly tired of it thanks to a new Window to stare at, or a few bad Apples…if you’ll pardon the puns ;-)

3 comments

  • Excellent article articulating why chrome is a good thing to enhance the user experience and provide helpful clues to an interfaces’ anchor points to navigate it successfully.

    Windows 8 is a great design, but I think it tries to much to be completely sterile to appease everyone. I am looking forward to see if Microsoft will allow designers the ability to add some flourishes that break the sometimes monotony of “authentically digital” or if they will saddle them with same UI components that they have now.

    We can only try and see if we as the designer/developer can break it I guess.

  • Hi funny you should mention the importance of chrome as indicative of a components usage, AND ProTools in the same post. I have done a lot of mixing and composing in Ableton Live (which arguably has a VERY spare UI) but am seriously considering switching to Reason, which actually strives to recreate the physical look and feel of audio components.

    My reason is that with such a diversity of extensions, plugins etc. available for audio work, it is helpful to use a UI that will give an indication as to the device’s aesthetic and ideal use.

    Oh yeah, websites/webapps too!

  • I’d add one more design argument for UI chrome: when application controls should be persistent, it separates UI from the objects that UI acts upon. Many applications are adding UI controls that float on top of the main application view (for example, in both OS X and iOS, the new QuickTime floats the play/pause controls over the picture of the movie). Although this does maximize the size of the application view, and generally isn’t too undiscoverable, it’s really irritating because of the interference with the image. I don’t want to have to make all those extra taps to pause playback without seeing all those controls floating on top.

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