While the standard flavors of salty, sweet, sour, and bitter are obvious to us and easy to experience, the fifth flavor—umami—is ineffable. It’s the salience of parmesan cheese, anchovies, dried tomatoes, fish sauce, and dashi. Though it can be oversaturated and overused, umami is an essential taste modifier that makes the sum of its parts stronger when it’s properly used.

Animation plays a role similar to umami to elevate good design to a more satisfying experience. Over the years, we’ve built small affordances into our interfaces with animation and motion. Whether the familiar blinking I-beam cursor of our text editors, or the simple disapproving shake of a bad password, motion is an essential—yet largely unexamined—bridge between our physical and virtual worlds. Although motion is an obvious component of telling stories on film, in games, and in our software, we’ve only recently begun to elevate animation to a first-class design ingredient in consumer software.

The greatest value animation adds to software is context. Animation takes something with no moving parts and adds the appearance of visible change. These noticeable changes provide us with tangible and familiar context, which makes our software more intuitive, discoverable, emotive, and recognizable.

The rediscovery of motion

A number of forces propelled interface animation to where it is today. Commercial animation tools like Flash introduced expressive and limitless animation experimentation, but eventually lost favor as new technologies like CSS animation delivered similar functionality without the dependence on a plugin. And no force influenced modern interface motion and animation more than the iPhone.

The iPhone took the concept of making a virtual world feel physical to a new level. No longer were we indirectly prodding elements from afar with tools like a mouse; we were touching them. Unlocking the phone was not unlike sliding a chain lock; the glimmer on the text of the lock invited our attention and directed our swiping.

As an app closed, it shrunk to its resting place and taught us where to find it next time. The momentum of iOS scrolling mimicked the friction and physics of physical objects making it feel both familiar and efficient. Pinching and stretching an album was all that was needed to fan out hundreds of photos onto a tiny virtual surface.

This was a significant step in creating a natural user interface, which makes complex software interactions so intuitive that they almost become invisible. The fluid movement of objects in the real world began to make their way into software as a core design component.

Motion communicates change and context

We’re wired to see and learn from motion. A simple flipbook of frames fools us into seeing a cohesive and continuous story of motion, an innate human ability that opened the door to animated film, television, and all forms of cross-reality. While video games and movies embraced motion to share vivid and incredible stories, digital products have taken a more timid approach. However, adopting more considered and consistent animation experiences will make software a more comfortable extension of the human mind.

To make software feel familiar, it should behave like the real world. Most natural forces demonstrate observable motion. Those few natural forces that happen instantaneously—like lightning—are harder to process, to the point that we describe them as supernatural. Like lightning, computers operate at speeds so fast that elements appear and disappear on screen instantly, with no inherent need to slow down to human-perceptible speed. If we were to show a person from the early twentieth century a computer in action they would, no doubt, be mystified by the sudden appearance of shapes and text on screen because it defies perceptions of how the physical world works. Consciously or not, our modern minds have adapted to these unnatural gaps in context.

By closing these gaps, we make software less esoteric and more natural to use, with fewer of the subversive mental gymnastics that tend to exclude and frustrate users. Simple acts—like darkening a button when it’s pressed or tapping an image to expand and fill the screen while everything else fades and shrinks away—tell us changes are afoot. Though there’s no functional need to animate an application window shrinking into its resting place, such visible motion gives us time to observe the change while also providing a sense of space and where things reside.

Animation gives the brain clues and context to build a necessary bridge between the real and virtual worlds. By filling contextual gaps in an interface’s storytelling, we can make our virtual world more human, graspable, delightful, and empowering to all.

Motion catches the eye

We’re often presented with terms and conditions, newsletter signup forms, and other such text and dialog as we interact with digital content, which we reflexively close or dismiss. We must assume that anyone using our software is ignoring large swaths of it.

Motion has an evolutionary command of our attention that shows what we’re telling to greater effect than static text boxes. For instance, through immersive animation, rather than a lengthy list of rules, video games require little explanation to get someone on the road to mastery. Animation is more than look and feel; it’s a way to seamlessly integrate nuance and context better than most words could.

A typical podcast app has you tap a button to download an episode, perhaps indicating via a bounce or a notification banner when the episode is ready to play. This use of motion tells us when the episode is downloaded, but doesn’t make clear where to find it when it’s downloaded. A better download alternative might illustrate exactly what’s happening, perhaps by animating an icon of the episode itself moving from the download button to an inbox. Motion eliminates the burden of filling in the gaps between action and result. It teaches the relationship between parts of the interface and building familiarity with the layout.

Of course, every rule has exceptions. We shouldn’t replace all text with motion or iconography—some warnings or explicit statements are clearer as text. More critically, nothing should diminish the accessibility of the user experience. Ensure that for any change you communicate visually you also provide appropriate accessibility descriptions and announcements for those who rely on assistive technology.

Good animation serves an underlying purpose that makes it obvious, felt, and nearly invisible all at once. Look for opportunities to visually explain cause and effect. By replacing telling with showing as much as possible, we ensure that every animation serves a meaningful purpose.

Motion captures emotion

Animation does more than build context and support wayfinding. Animation provides a universal language to imbue emotion, augment feeling, and explain hard concepts. Like in all design, we can instill emotional qualities in our animations that make them feel a certain way—exuberant, tranquil, sharp, or playful.

A dating app like Tinder chooses springier, playful animations, while an exacting synthesizer like AudioKit Synth One keeps its animations fast and tight. A buttoned-up social media app suddenly releases an explosion of animation around an event, like favoriting a photo, as a way to signify the emotion of a compliment in a way words cannot. Both overt and subtle animations play an important and assistive role in building the memorability and trust of a brand experience.

Animation need not only be an accent, though. Animation can stand on its own to help convey hard emotions and concepts where words falter. Headspace leverages animation to bypass stigmas and stereotypes when explaining concepts like meditation and managing anxiety. Animation is just relatable enough—but not too real—that it makes a perfect bridge to unfamiliar concepts.

Tyler Hoene, Christine Cha and William Fowler discuss how animation influences the way that Headspace educates its users.

Even utilities like MailChimp use animation to help assuage the nerve-wracking act of hitting the send button. No matter how many times you check for typos, hitting send on a newsletter to five or 50,000 people is going to come with a moment of hesitation. An animation of a sympathetically sweating and shaking hand about to press the send button alongside you conveys, “It’s ok to feel stressed right now!” The animated high-five that appears after sending is a nice bit of reassurance.

Figure 4. Mailchimp uses animation to assuage the nerve-wracking act of hitting the send button. The animated high-five that appears after sending provides a bit of reassurance while celebrating the completion of a big task.

Motion invites discovery

The use of expressive animation in an interface invites play, which leads to experimentation and a deeper understanding of what’s possible. Think about the “pull to refresh” action we see in interfaces everywhere. As we swipe down, we glimpse something just out of view—a hint that ensures we’ll continue our pulling motion to discover what we’re not seeing.

Motion and animation do more than just reveal hidden interactions; they provide guidance on how less obvious interactions work. For instance, on the Apple iOS lock screen, we can turn on the flashlight or launch the camera—but only if we apply just enough intentional pressure on the buttons. We learn this by not pressing the buttons hard enough at first and seeing them spring back with resistance. The buttons grow and dim in proportion to the duration of our touch, which invites us to adjust the pressure we use to “see what happens.”

The core components of your interface should always be near the surface and ready to use. However, the secondary—but useful—bits can be safely tucked away and hinted at with animation.

Motion enlivens software

Motion is powerful. It’s a vital and overlooked part of our physical world and a difficult-to-place ingredient of great interface design. It makes the sum of our design parts stronger by dissolving the barriers between thought and interface.

While animation and motion may be relatively new disciplines of software design, they’re critical to creating experiences that transform technical tools into extensions of our minds. Read on to learn the principles that turn the complex into the approachable, whether on your own or as part of a team.