From desktop to touchscreen and back again

Back when RAM came in megabytes, animation wasn’t common outside of games (and even then, it was often crude and primitive). Users were subtly conditioned to take mental “before” and “after” pictures while taking an action like opening a menu. Then their brains would work overtime to follow what happened between pressing the mouse button and the menu appearing. This slight disruption can disorient a user as they shift from imagination to task completion. As interfaces became more complex, that disruption increased. Animation helped to connect the dots between those states, as computer interaction researchers Scott E. Hudson and John T. Stasko noted as far back as 1993:

By offloading interpretation of changes to the perceptual system, animation allows the user to continue thinking about the task domain, with no need to shift contexts to the interface domain. By eliminating sudden visual changes, animation lessens the chance that the user is surprised.

Today, small, powerful touchscreen devices are forcing us to stuff interfaces into tiny spaces—smoothly. This is why we’re relying more and more on the Z-axis: layers, sliding panels, sides, zoom. But spatial relationships like these are hard for the mind to compute using the old-fashioned “snapshot comparison,” so “in-betweening”—animating between the before and after states—keeps users from becoming confused or frustrated.

Given the proliferation of small devices, such design patterns are unlikely to go out of fashion anytime soon. In fact, large-screen experiences are now adopting them, overlaying and manipulating information in three dimensions—as you can see in the new framework’s demo.

Web Animation at Work

Only one area of development truly thrilled me: interaction. Canvas, SVG, the web audio API, webGL—CSS3 animations were just the beginning of my fascination. I started to see the browser as something more than a document reader, the internet as more than a series of linked documents.

We use HTML to tell stories and communicate vast amounts of information—and animation helps us do both better. Just as hierarchy guides users through content, animation guides them through interactions by helping them understand relationships, structure, cause, and effect. Animation shouldn’t be a nice-to-have. It is critical to communication.

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