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How Functional Animation Helps Improve User Experience

Since humans are visually driven creatures, the impact of imagery only increases with the help of animation. Our eyes innately pay attention to moving objects, and animation is like eye candy — catchy and bright elements that call attention to and help differentiate an app from its competitors. As of late, more and more designers are incorporating animation as a functional element that enhances the user experience. Animation is no longer just for delight; it is one of the most important tools for successful interaction.

However, animation in design can only enhance user experience if it’s incorporated at the right time as well as the right place. Good UI animations have a purpose; they are meaningful, and functional. In this article, we’ll talk about the role of functional animation in UX design and see when to incorporate motion into a design. If you’d like to follow along and spice up your designs with animations, Adobe introduced Experience Design CC (also known as Adobe XD).


What Is Functional Animation?

Functional animation is a subtle animation embedded in the UI design as a part of the functionality of that design. It reinforces the design and has very clear and logical purposes including:

  • Reduce cognitive load
  • Prevent change blindness
  • Establish better recall in spatial relationships

Animation brings user interfaces to life. In a human-centered design approach, where the user is the prime focus, a user interface needs to be intuitive, responsive, and human. Functional animation helps you achieve these goals.


The Role Of Functional Animations In User Interface Design

Well thought-out and tested functional animation has the potential to fulfill multiple functions.

Visual Feedback on User Actions

Good interaction design provides feedback. Feedback makes you feel like you’re interacting with real elements on the screen and demonstrates the result of this interaction (whether it was successful or not).

User interface elements such as buttons and controls should appear tangible, even though they are behind a layer of glass. Visual and motion cues can bridge this gap by acknowledging input immediately and animating in ways that look and feel like direct manipulation.

funcanimation7
Buttons and other active controls should respond to user actions with visual feedback. (Image credit: Behance)

Visual feedback is also helpful when you need to inform users about results of an operation. Cases in which operations aren’t done successfully, functional animation provides information about the problem in a fast and easy way. For example, a shake animation can be used when a wrong password is entered. It’s easy to see why the shake is a fairly universal gesture to communicate the word “no,” since a simple head shake is how people give feedback to each other.

funcanimation3
Users see this animation and immediately understand the problem. Image credit: thekineticui

Purpose

  • Acknowledge that the system has received a user’s action.
  • Confirm (or deny) a user’s action.

Visibility of System Status

As one of the original 10 Jakob Nielsen’s heuristics for usability, visibility of system status remains among the most important principles in user-interface design. Users want to know their current context in a system at any given time and apps shouldn’t keep them guessing — they should tell the user what’s happening via appropriate visual feedback.

Data uploading and downloading processes are great opportunities for a functional animation. For example, animated loading bars shows how fast a process goes and sets an expectation for how fast the action will be processed.

Fun animation also distracts users from what's happening behind the scenes and helps makes them wait longer
Fun animation also distracts users from what’s happening behind the scenes and helps makes them wait longer. (Image credit: tympanus)

This type of functional animation can also be used to attract a user’s attention to important status changes in an app (or even in a system), such as an incoming call:

Image credit: Material Design
(Image credit: Material Design)

Or a new email in the inbox.

Image credit: Behance
(Image credit: Behance)

Purpose

Provide real-time notification of a system status, and enable the user to understand what is going on quickly.

Visual Hints

First-time users often need help to understand how to use an app interface. This is especially true for interfaces which contain unfamiliar or unique interactions (such as gesture-driven interfaces). Without help, users may be confused on how to interact with an app.

When it comes to teaching users to use your UI, you should provide a set of visual hints which convey what interactions are possible. This kind of functional animation drives a user’s attention to the possible interactions.

Visual hints can give the user insights into what is about to happen. For example, functional animation which prepares the user for the action of taking a photograph can be found in the iOS camera app (before iOS 7).

Shutter animation in Apple iOS 6 camera app
Shutter image in the iOS 6 camera app

Or, visual hints can engage users to take further steps (which aren’t as obvious at first glance) by demonstrating how certain functionality in the design operates. Visual hints can increase the level of usability and therefore the desirability of the product.

Purposes 

  • Create necessary expectations by giving the user a clue of what is about to happen
  • Help users orient themselves to the interface
  • Tell users how they can and should interact with elements on the screen

Navigational transitions are movements between states in an app, for instance, from a high-level view to a detailed view. State changes often involve hard cuts by default which can make them difficult to follow. Functional animation ease users through these moments of change; it smoothly transports users between navigational contexts and explains changes on a screen by creating visual connections between transition states.

Navigational transitions can be hierarchical (parent to child) or sibling transitions. Hierarchical transitions are used when users explore deeper levels or screens of an app, which are children to the current (parent screen). Motion highlights movement away from the parent towards a destination (a child element).

Sibling transitions occur between elements at the same level of the hierarchy. For example, this animation is used when a user navigates through tabs.


The content and surface of each tab stays at the same level and the animation simply guides focus between views. (Image credit: Behance)

In both cases, functional animation helps the eye see where a new object comes from upon its reveal and where a hidden object goes (and can be found again). It provides visual cues, making the interaction easier to follow and reinforcing what has occurred.

Purposes

  • Define the spatial relationship between screens and elements
  • Avoid a surprising transition by helping users comprehend the change that has just happened in the page’s layout

Branding

Whereas the previous roles of animations are quite logical, this one is full of emotions. Often, there are dozens of apps that have same exact features and accomplish the same tasks. They might all have a good user experience, but the ones that people love offer something more than just a good user experience. They establish emotional engagement with users.

Branding animation is responsible for this engagement. It can be used as marketing tool — support a company’s brand values or highlight a product’s strengths — at the same time make user experience truly delightful and memorable. The approach might not be clearly user-centered, but it has a functional purpose. In order to be successful, branding animation should support continuity of the experience. For example, fine animation from Lo-Flo Records website has a power to encourage users to interact more — people look forward to what they are will see next.

People do notice the details. Attention to animations can convey an emotion and can make the experience feel crafted. A fine animated waiting indicator, which demonstrates a unique style, can create a truly enjoyable experience.

Attention to fine movements can delightfully surprise the user. (Image credit: Creativedash)


Purposes

  • Entertain users, bring empathy and fun to design
  • Create a signature of the product; help users relate to the product, increase a brand perception


How To Find A Balance

Where is the balance between useful and pure eye candy? It’s really important to take time and consider when an animation is and isn’t appropriate.

Animate With Purpose

Animations should always serve a purpose. They should never be done for animation’s sake. When an animation doesn’t fit a functional purpose, it can feel awkward or annoying, especially when it is slowing down a process that could be faster without any animation. For example, below you can see an animated concept for a PayPal email receipt. This animation looks great, but at the same time it’s excessive and obstructs the app flow because it takes almost 4 seconds to see transaction details. A simple fade-in animation of the receipt would be more suitable for this purpose, (simply because it takes up less time).

An example of superfluous animation. (Image credits: Vladyslav Tyzun)

Keep in mind that users come to sites or launch the apps for a purpose — we need to show them what they are after in a short space and time-frame. Thus, when deciding to use animation in your app, incorporate animation only when it has a meaning and won’t distract the user from successfully completing what they intended to do.

Keep Longevity in Mind

Even good animation can be annoying when it’s overused. When designing an animation, ask yourself a question: “Will the animation get annoying on the 100th use, or is it universally clear and unobtrusive?”


Animation shouldn’t be annoying. (Image credit: Rachel Nabors)

Prototype and Test Your Animation

When adding UI animations to your own work, iterative prototyping and testing with actual users are the right things to do. Prototyping is the absolute best way to convey how you intend to use animation in your design. If you use interactive prototypes, you will get a clear picture as to what works and where the flaws in your app are hiding. Very often, this leads to a complete rework because the look of your animation differs from how it feels. Thus, iterate often and iterate fast! Iterating numerous times on even the tiniest detail will make your animation great.

Create interactive prototypes using Adobe XD. (Image credits: fastcodesign)


Conclusion

Identifying the places where animation has utility is only half the story. If you’re going to use animations in your designs, they should be built well, and that is only possible when an animation is a natural part of the design process. When done correctly, animation can turn a digital product from a sequence of screens into carefully choreographed memorable experiences.

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Call to action (CTA)

A call to action is a marketing term that refers to a prompt that invokes a response leading to a sale. When referring to a call to action (CTA) in the digital design world we usually mean the interactive element that leads to the next step in the experience - something that needs to be clicked or tapped.

User testing

User testing refers to a technique used in the design process to evaluate a product, feature or prototype with real users. There are several reasons why you might want to undergo usability testing, the most common is that it allows the design team to identify friction in a user experience they are designing, so that it can be addressed before being built or deployed.

WYSIWYG

WYSIWYG (pronounced WIZ-ee-wig) is an acronym for "What You See Is What You Get". It helps identify an an interface that allows user input resulting in an output that is rendered in a similar way. For example; a word processor application interface might resemble a piece of paper,so when printed the user can see how the output will appear.

Content Management System

A content management system (CMS) is an tool that allows a website editor/administrator to manage the content that is displayed. Websites are made of HTML and CSS to create pages. Pages can be hard-coded but would require technical development skills to make changes. A CMS usually allows a person without coding knowledge to amend existing and add new content to a website using a WYSIWYG interface.

Responsive Web Design

Responsive web design refers to a web page that dynamically adapts its layout to fit the size and orientation of the device on which it is viewed. A responsive design allows for a more optimised user experience across desktop and laptop computers as well as smartphones and tablets of varying sizes.

User Stories

User stories allow the functionality of a product or service to be expressed as written descriptions of an experience as seen from the users perspective. The writing of user stories creates a list of design and development tasks to complete in order to create any required functionality.

User Interface

A user interface (UI) is a conduit between human and computer interaction - the space where a user will interact with a computer or machine to complete tasks. The purpose of a UI is to enable a user to effectively control a computer or machine they are interacting with, and for feedback to be received in order to communicate effective completion of tasks.

Personas

A persona in UX Design is the characterisation of a user who represents a segment of your target audience. On a project you might create any number of personas to be representative of a range of user needs and desires. The solutions you design must answer these needs in order to deliver value to your target audience.

Card sorting

A great, reliable, inexpensive method for discovering patterns in how users would expect to find content or functionality. Card sorting is used to test the taxonomy of data with a group of subjects, usually to help inform the creation of the information architecture, user flow, or menu structure on a project.

Brainstorming

A technique used to generate ideas around a specific topic. Often done in groups, but can be done individuals. The process usually involves writing down all ideas around a topic onto paper, a whiteboard or stickies often implying some kind of association.

Minimum Viable Product

An MVP is a product that has the minimum set of features to prove the most essential hypothesis for a product. Businesses building a new product can create a Minimum Viable Product to prove that an idea is viable and warrants further investment. A further benefit being that the next stage of development can be informed by feedback obtained from testing that MVP.

Sitemap

A sitemap is a diagrammatic representation of a hierarchical system. It usually depicts the parent-sibling relationship between pages in a website, showing how sub pages might be arranged underneath their parent groupings. This arrangement forms a map of the site.

User journey

A user journey represents a sequence of events or experiences a user might encounter while using a product or service. A user journey can be mapped or designed to show the steps and choices presented as interactions, and the resulting actions.

Prototype

A prototype is draft representation built to test ideas for layout, behaviour and flow in a system. Prototypes are an indispensable tool for resolving a large number of potential issues in a concept or business before too many resources are deployed to put a design into production.

Wireframes

A Wireframe is a visual schematic that conveys a basic level of communication, structure and behaviour during the design of a system. Wireframes are low-fidelity designs that bypass including a detailed user interface or visual design, conveying just enough to get across the core idea.

Usability

To say something is usable is a qualitative statement about how easy that thing is to use. Usability is an assessment of how learnable a system is and how easy a user finds it to use. The usability of a system or product is a key factor in determining whether the user experience is a good one.

Information Architecture

Information architecture is the design and organisation of content, pages and data into a structure that aids users understanding of a system. A more organised system enables users to more easily find the information they require and complete the intended tasks.

UI Design

User Interface Design is the discipline of designing software interfaces for devices, ideally with a focus on maximising efficiency, responsiveness and aesthetics to foster a good user experience.

UX Design

The practice of User Experience (UX) Design is the coming together of many specific design related disciplines to improve the usability, responsiveness, uptake and aesthetics of a product or service.

User Experience

A general term that covers all aspects of a user's participation while engaging with something that has been designed. Usually when talking about User Experience in the digital design field it refers to the interactions, reactions, emotions and perceptions while using an app, service, website or product.