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Why Transitions Are Important

Life and nature are one big transition. The sun slowly rises to mark a new day and then slowly sets to mark the end of the day and the beginning of night. We are created in the womb and from small cells we grow, are born and gradually age until we die. [Links checked March/16/2017]

Perhaps these natural transitions in life are what make artificial transitions feel… well, right. Sometimes, though, when something jumps from one state to another, it feels OK but doesn’t quite feel right.

Mission Transition

A transition that has been designed to be slow can feel awful. When designing an application, an interface or any type of structured content, we must ensure that users understand where they have come from as they arrive at the new page or state. The transition from one screen or group of content to another should feel natural and should be tested on devices of varying power and speed to get a wider view of how the transition feels. Too fast, and it may appear broken or jumpy; too slow, and it will be frustrating to use.

Further Reading on SmashingMag: Link

When discussing design, the word “transition” usually conjures up thoughts of overblown PowerPoint presentations or home-made movies made with cheap video-editing software. But there is more to transitions than meets the eye.

Transitions take us from one state to another all the time, many times a day in fact. Most of the time, these transitions feel completely invisible (as they should), and until they are taken away we don’t really know they are there. This article discusses transitions and how well-designed transitions can enhance the user’s experience by imparting a sense of control and easy navigation. We will also discuss how poor transitions can impair the user interface.

What Is A Transition? Link

By definition5, a transition is “a change from one form or type to another, or the process by which this happens.” As mentioned, we make transitions all the time without really knowing it, and they certainly extend beyond our computer interfaces. A well-designed transition takes the user from point A to point B very quickly while conveying the path they have taken.

Transitions are common in interface design, as we know, but are also used in movies and product design. In product design, transitions are triggered by touch, movement or physical handling of the product; in interface design, however, transitions are triggered by navigating through the interface of the application or Web content. A transition should be designed to give the user a sense of their virtual position or location within the interface.

Examples Of Transitions Link

Cinematic Link

In a scene near the beginning of the 1971 movie Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory6, winners of the golden ticket gather outside the gates of the mysterious factory to see the elusive Willy Wonka emerge.

Frames from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory7
Frames from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory8 (1971).

As the scene unfolds, the viewer watches from behind the crowd, through the gates, towards the factory; the next camera angle takes us from behind the crowd to just inside the factory gates; and then we’re beside Wonka as he limps along the red carpet; and then we jump to watching him from behind. Although there is no visible “tweening” throughout these transitions in camera angle, we the audience still perfectly understand where we are.

We are watching the movie from our comfy chairs and yet we are made to feel as though we are physically present near the factory. This is an emotional transition.

Interface Link

If you have an iPad or iPhone, pick it up and go into the settings. Tap around between the menu options to see how the screen slides from right to left and left to right. Scroll to the bottom of any screen to see the soft bounce that indicates you have reached the end of the content. These simple quick transitions were carefully designed to give the user a sense of location within the operating system. Only when you slow these transitions down do you notice the detail that has gone into these in-between bits.

The iOS transition effect in slow motion, by Lim Chee Aun9. (Watch this on Vimeo.10)

Although we are not viewing a physical location, as in a movie, the OS still gives the user a sense of location by letting them know through the transition where they are navigating to and where they have come from. When you tap on a menu button, the screen shifts to the right to show the next step, and to the left to show the previous step.

Google Chrome on Windows shows us another simple transition, as seen in the video below. When opening a new tab, you see it open with a brief animation from the left. Closing the tab animates it back to the left before disappearing.

The Path11 app, which is available on both Android and iPhone, is packed full of interesting transitions between states. It’s worth downloading to see how it handles jumping between features.

When the app opens, you go from the splash screen to the actual content with a quick page turn. Clicking on the main menu will spring open the menu options, which spring back once you close the menu. This detail shows the user where those menu items come from, and while we may not consciously think about it, it’s an important detail in the overall user interface.

The Scorekeeper12 app has what appears to be a very simple interface. Solid colors and a lot of straight edges give the impression that the app is easy to use — and perhaps even that little thought has gone into the visual design. But look again. The transitions in this app are beautiful. When a player is awarded points in a game, the app updates their ranking in the list, using excellent transitions to move the player from their original position to their new one.

Product Design Link

I’m afraid I have to use Apple again for this example. If you’ve ever bought an iPhone, you would have noticed the design of the packaging. The compact box with matte laminate finish has been thought through to the last detail. The vacuum effect that you get when lifting the lid means that you’re not just breaking a seal and cracking open a box; rather, the lid slowly slides open (similar to the experience of the OS), taking a good second or two to reveal the shiny new device. This unboxing could be described as a physical transition.

Though not an obvious transition, the MacBook’s power light gently pulses when the device is sleeping. The transition is interesting because its fading in and out mimics the natural breathing rhythm of a sleeping person. This can be considered a transition because it’s a visual indication of the state of a device that is neither on nor off, but in between the two states.

Automotive Link

Modern cars are packed full of excellent transitions that guide the driver through various states. For example, the cabin light comes on when you unlock the door, and then it gradually fades as you buckle the seat belt and start the engine. The subtle lighting takes the user from pedestrian to driver in one smooth transition.

Car interior13
(Image credit: eduard_orbitron14)

Nature Link

As I sit in my chair typing this article, I can turn my head from left to right. By doing so, my field of vision shifts. If I want to look at something to my left, I turn my head — in the process catching everything that crosses my line of sight — until my eyes arrive at the object of attention. My eyes and body have made a transition, and it’s important that we be conscious of our actions as human beings to discover more about natural transitions. Watch the video below to see how the human body transitions from one state to another.

Why Are Transitions Important? Link

As designers, we do our best to make content easy to find, easy to read and aesthetically beautiful. But as processors become more powerful and technology advances, the devices and systems people use to access this content will hurtle forward, and we’ll discover new ways to deliver this content. We’ve quickly adopted touch methods, and now gestures are becoming important, too. With this in mind, we need to give users a sense of location in our applications, and transitions will play an important part in this.

Most Web content now is organized as “pages”: clicking or tapping a link simply show the page behind that link (provided the connection is fast enough). There is rarely any form of transition from one page to the next, and we have become used to this method of displaying Web content. But we can introduce useful and beautiful transitions into Web content — such as by using jQuery ScrollTo15 — but these transitions can be clunky for a number of reasons, including slow connections, excessive processor requirements and the transition speeds defined in JavaScript.

Best Practices For Transitions Link

There are plenty of ways to incorporate transitions into a design. Here are some general suggestions:

  • Avoid any pause at the point of clicking, touching or swiping.
    Hardware speed will always be a factor, but it’s safe to say that chips, processors and memory are getting faster by the second, so test your code and loading times to make sure there is no lag.
  • Test in the real world.
    There is no better way to test transitions that by running them in the real world — especially if you are designing for mobile, because people on the go devote less time and attention to navigation. Load a prototype of your design in a supermarket or on the train, and test it to see how it performs under pressure.
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel.
    In general, follow the conventions of the operating system you are designing for, because transition styles that diverge greatly from what people are used to will likely cause confusion and frustration. Of course, don’t hold back on designing new transitions; just keep the standards in mind.
  • Mind the future.
    These days, we interact with apps by clicking, touching, swiping and speaking. However, gestures will likely become a new way of controlling content, so start considering them now. If people will be able to use their bodies (rather than their fingers or mice) in various ways to manipulate the screen, we will have to give thought to timing, pace and physics — that is, the speed at which a body performs a gesture to move content will have to be matched to the speed at which the content moves. Imagine the frustration of throwing a tennis ball as hard as you can, only for it to travel a few feet on release. Our users will feel this same frustration if the timings of our transitions are poorly designed.

Conclusion Link

A good transition should be almost invisible to the user. It should help the user understand where they are navigating to and where they have come from, but it should also be smooth and quick. A stall or stutter impairs the overall user experience and tells the user that something is wrong. There is such a thing as UI motion sickness, where the user gets so used to the fluidity of moving between screens that when a screen freezes for a second or two, the user feels like they’ve come to a sudden stop. It is these sensations we should avoid.

For help and inspiration on using transitions in your designs right now, check out the following resources:


Footnotes Link

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My name is Mark Cossey and I'm a Visual Designer in Brighton, UK. Read more from my blog here or follow me on twitter @burning_

  1. 1

    So many posts concentrate only on the digital aspect of a concept. Your thoughts eloquently bridge the chasm between the digital and analog spaces.

    Great contribution to Smashing!!!!!!!!!!


  2. 2


    A well crafted article, with great examples. Transitions are often overlooked in UX development, leave them out and a good looking static product can look clunky, do them well and a clunky static product suddenly springs too life and is visually and interactivly pleasing, much like the scorekeeper app.

    Thanks for the contribution.


  3. 3

    Clumsy Hamster

    February 28, 2012 9:12 am

    Nice article. I wonder how much time goes into all this (not the article but the concept) and the consumer either doesn’t notice, doesn’t care, or only those in the field take notice and have the appreciation. Maybe, it’s the subtleties that really give the “bang” to any user appreciation.

    • 4

      “When you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all”
      God Entity
      Futurama – Godfellas (2002)

  4. 5

    Việt Designer

    February 28, 2012 10:16 am

    Agree! Transition is so important :)

  5. 6

    Benjamin Cahill

    February 28, 2012 1:55 pm

    I agree with jonathan that it’s nice to see something a bit more ‘analog’. After reading this post, I went “Wow!”

    Thank you for attention to detail and wonderful examples (with videos!). I enjoyed it. :-)

  6. 7

    A practical guide to help parents and children transition from head start into elementary school. Parents Reaching Out.Very helpful post man, thanks for the info.

  7. 8

    Thanks a lot for sharing such a thoughtful article.
    I am working on some GUIs for a game and was stuck in between because of transition issues. This article really inspired me :) And I really liked this line “ensure that users understand where they have come from as they arrive at the new page/state”.
    Keep up the good work :)

  8. 9

    Nice idea of transitions.Great interesting article.Thank you for sharing.

  9. 10

    Thank you Mark. Your article is as elegant as your examples.

    I have been looking for good examples of (jQuery) page transitions, but I only found the example you are referencing. My fellow developers and myself have been doing this for a while, but I would like to see more creative examples.

    The principle is quite simple when using jQuery. The smoothness of the animation can be a challenge though. Here are two examples from my colleagues’ and my own work.

    If you implement jQuery Animate Enhanced that used CSS3 hardware accelerated animations when available, the animations will be much better on many browsers.

    So what examples can you share? Sharing is caring :-)

    • 11

      Thanks Simon. I really like the design in the links you’ve shared.

      With the principals I’ve discussed above in mind, transitions ‘within’ the desktop browser are still quite thin on the ground. If we think it’s important in web design, the user needs to know (and feel) where they have come from and where they are going to by way of directional transitions.

  10. 12

    Really inspiring article! Thanks a lot!
    Recently I found a nice collection of transitions made by Johannes Tonollo.

  11. 13

    No matter how keen we think our eyes are, we as designers can still miss details around us, and this is one example that has slipped my attention. I’ll be experimenting with page transitions in my next app. Thanks for the great article!

  12. 14

    Beautiful and very interesting article, good. Simple and clear

  13. 15

    Nice article! I would be interested what do you think of Nokia’s new Lumia phone family’s translitions. They are completely different, but somehow still clear. I’m just confufed how it works.


  14. 16

    Top article, Mark!

    Great to see this too often overlooked (I’m guilty here too) element of design covered in detail, and with varied real-world examples.

  15. 17

    When the iOS transitions were put into slow motion… they made me cringe and were very painful to witness. The craft in transitions is key. Great post!

  16. 18

    Excellent thoughts and examples Mark! The one transition that seems crucial to mention is the opening of our eyes every morning. It seems that is one of the most natural daily events, and probably subconsciously defines how we consider and conceive transitions in apps and websites. Kudos again!

  17. 19

    And by the way Love the article!

  18. 20

    Love the work that was done here too: Meaningful Transitions

  19. 21

    Transitions aren’t always obvious when you’re the one creating but they sure are (or aren’t) when you are the one using or reading. They’re not always natural to create for some people either. This is a great roundup of examples, those sometimes help more than just reading a ‘how to’ on design flow. Great post, Mark!


  20. 22

    The reason why I hate Windows so much is their lack of transitions. But now, I’ve fall in love with Windows when I try the new Windows 8. It feel soft and comfort although the graphic is not as crisp as any OS X.

  21. 23

    Really interesting facts revealed on this article.

  22. 24

    Felipe Campos Clarke

    March 7, 2012 7:02 am

    I loved the app path transitions. You know about that was developed? It’s native language (cocoa, Android SDK) or is some Framework?

    By the way first time I see your page and it’s really interesting.

  23. 25

    Design went flat. Motion is new skeuomorphism.

  24. 26

    Sarah Harrison

    February 6, 2014 4:21 am

    Smashing article! Thank you very much.. for further reading, I also find great examples of transitional UI patterns on useyourinterface, makes it so much easier to explain concepts and ideas to workmates.


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