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Smart Transitions In User Experience Design

Some websites outperform others, whether in their content, usability, design, features, etc. Details of interaction design and animation make a fundamental difference on modern websites. We’ll share some lessons drawn from various models and analyze why these simple patterns work so well.

When we design digital products, we often use design applications such as Photoshop and Sketch. Most people who have been in the business for a few years obviously know that design is more than just about visual presentation. Still, many continue to create static designs. Steve Jobs said this1 about design:

“It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.

Our experience and impression of a product are shaped by a combination of factors, with interaction playing a fundamental role. No longer can we think of user interfaces as static designs and add the magic of interaction later on. Instead, we need to embrace the interactive nature of the Web from the very beginning and think of it as natural constituent.

Let’s look at some examples in which smart interaction, defined by subtle animation, gently improves the user experience.

Animated Scrolling Link

The blessing and the curse of the Web are hyperlinks. When you click on a link, it could take you anywhere, from a product page to the website of the creepy old puppet store down the street. The result is a loss of context.

One of the great things about the user experience of books is the linearity. Every chapter in a book builds on the last. You must read chapter one in a primer on economics to understand chapter two. When you skip a chapter, you are aware that you might miss something and, thus, lack some knowledge about the subsequent content. On the Web, and especially on long websites, this often happens subconsciously. By adding a scrolling animation, we can fix that:

Scrolling animation

Compare that to this:

Scrolling without animation

Compare the default behavior of “name” anchor links with the animated behavior. Skipping content is not an unconscious action anymore; it’s a decision. In fact, Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second2 has a menu button for its mobile view that sends you to the top of the page, without any animation. It took me more than a minute to figure out what actually happened.

Takeaway: Abrupt changes in an interface are hard for users to process. Don’t leave them in the dark; always show what’s happening.

Stateful Toggle Link

As we saw in the last example, transitions help users understand the pace and flow of an interface. Nothing feels more unnatural than a sudden change, because sudden changes just don’t exist in the real world. Let’s look at another example: toggle menus. Users associate the “plus” symbol with the action of adding content or expanding an element. By rotating it by 45°, the plus becomes a cross, an interface element widely understood to mean “close”:

Toggle menu

This simple transition completely changes the meaning of the icon. Such a small detail means the difference between having to guess what will happen next and knowing what the icon means in either state. That toggle is pretty user-friendly, if you ask me. Also, note that the plus sign always rotates in the same direction as the content, reinforcing the flow of information.

Takeaway: Make your website element understandable in each state.

Collapsed Forms And Comments Link

The comment forms on many blogs and news websites are not the happiest-looking elements. Why? Well, most of them are not exactly friendly, right? When you are ready to post a comment, you just want to start typing the comment itself and nothing else. Instead, a typical form asks you all kinds of other stuff first. It’s annoying.

To motivate people to comment more, we can collapse the form and show only the most crucial element: the comment field. When the user clicks on the field, you can expand the form accordingly. A real-world example of this progressive disclosure can be found on the New York Times’ beta website:

Progressive disclosure on the New York Times’ beta website

You could take this even further by setting the cursor’s focus to the comment field when the form expands. This approach has a problem, though: A key principle of interaction design is that an action should always happen close to where the interaction occurs (near the locus of attention). We could go one step further, then, and animate the comment field to orient the user:

Animated comment field

You could even pin the comment field to the top, expand it accordingly and display additional fields below it.

As you can see, this reduces clutter and makes the comment form more inviting. But what about collapsing all of the previous comments, too?

By collapsing the comments, we get the scroll bar to represent the length of the article itself, instead of the entire page. A common practice is to automatically load comments when the user reaches the bottom of a page. We should avoid forcing the user to click unless there is a really good reason to.

Takeaway: Progressively disclose in order to reduce UI components to their essence. Reveal features as the user needs them.

Pull To Refresh Link

One of the most exciting interactions to emerge shortly after the introduction of the iPhone was “pull to refresh,” pioneered by Loren Brichter. It allows the user to update scrollable reverse-chronological content. You can see this concept in action in Twitter’s app. Once you’ve scrolled to the top of the stream of tweets, scroll a little further to refresh the stream.

Pull to refresh on Twitter

Why does this work so well? Before pull to refresh existed, users had to hit the refresh button in their browser to load more content. By connecting the user’s desire of finding more content with the action of refreshing, the need for an explicit action became obsolete.

Takeaway: By connecting intent with action, the experience becomes more seamless.

Sticky Labels Link

Sticky labels are another subtle yet useful combination of a user-interface component and a meaningful transition. Check out Edenspiekermann’s use of this technique3 in its portfolio.

Edenspiekerman’s use of sticky labels

The project label scrolls along with the content, thus providing context for the images on the right, until the next project appears. This behavior is similar to that of the address book in iOS and is especially helpful for providing context in long sections. The transition offers both improved orientation and smooth context-based descriptions.

Takeaway: Use sticky labels for long sections in which descriptions or titles add valuable information to content that doesn’t fit in the viewport.

Affordance Transition Link

The concept of affordance derives from cognitive psychology and refers to particular characteristics of an object that guide the viewer.

In the context of user-interface design, the usability glossary4 (PDF) of the EU’s website defines it as follows:

“An affordance is a desirable property of a user interface — software which naturally leads people to take the correct steps to accomplish their goals.”

Ridges are often used to enhance affordance. Ridges around a button suggest that the button can be manipulated. This UX technique was widely popularized by the camera app in iOS.


iOS 6’s lock screen featured ripples around the camera icon, suggesting draggability. Apple removed it in iOS 7, apparently because users got accustomed to it, making the icon look more like a standalone button now. What happens is still the same, though: When you drag the button, the lock screen bounces up, revealing the camera underneath. This is a great technique to point users to features in an interface.

Takeaway: Give elements a high affordance to point users to features in an interface.

Context-Based Hiding Link

Google Chrome on iOS has had context-based hiding since it launched. This is what it looks like:

Context-based hiding

The basic idea is that the browser chrome and navigation controls hide automatically once the user scrolls down. As soon as the user scrolls up again, the controls reappear. This approach both enhances the contextual experience (focusing on the content itself) and increases screen space. The latter is, of course, particularly important on mobile devices.

The underlying assumption is that users will flow with the content that they’re consuming. As soon as they stop the flow, a change of context is likely required; thus, the navigation controls reappear. While this technique saves screen space, check whether the assumption holds up in your use case.

iOS takes this a step further. When you reach the bottom of a page, the controls expand again. It’s a good example of dynamically incorporating the needs of the user in an interface.

Takeaway: Use context-based hiding to enhance the user’s focus and save screen space.

Focus Transition Link

About a week ago, Nikita Vasilyev, a Toronto-based UI designer, came up with a pretty neat idea. He developed a script that animates focused elements. While still experimental, the concept is pretty interesting. Have a look at his video below. (And please put your earphones on — the music is epic.)

When navigating by keyboard, the user is often not clear on where the focus has moved to upon pressing the Tab key. Animation points them to the right spot on the page. The transition is subtle but has a big impact on orienting the user.

Takeaway: Orient the user, regardless of how they navigate.

Conclusion Link

These are only a few examples, among many others out there. The point is not to show the latest and fanciest interaction techniques, but rather to highlight how small interaction details can significantly improve the user experience.

If we are to design better digital products, then we need to challenge our current beliefs and see how interaction patterns can potentially ease the user’s life. I’m not saying we should reinvent the wheel, but it would be pretty naive to stop exploring. So, get out of your comfort zone. Keep exploring and testing.

If you like this article, you can follow me on Twitter, or join me for a bar of Swiss chocolate in Switzerland.

Which transition patterns have you found especially useful in your projects?

Further Reading Link

(al, il, ea)

Footnotes Link

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Adrian Zumbrunnen is a user experience & interaction designer working at Information Architects in Zurich. He loves the Web, well formed type & freshly brewed coffee. In his free time he goes kite surfing and writes about UX design on his blog.

  1. 1

    Really insightful article. It’s interesting that really small details can help users enjoy and accomplish tasks in a uncomplicated way without them having to think too much about what they need to do next.

    I’m finding myself doing UX/UI stuff more often now and it’s great to have names behind some of the processes.

    Thank you.

    • 2

      Denise Loughlin

      October 27, 2013 8:40 am

      Brilliant explanation of technical “magic” to enhance content in any media presentation. What fun this promises! for websites everywhere, especially for non-geek tribe members like me. Way to go, Adrian. Very well written article, loved the music – excellent! I would write more but I’m off to wax my skis so I can meet you in Switzerland to share that chocolate….Thank you for the info.

    • 3

      Rahul Bhadauria

      October 28, 2013 10:50 pm

      Current trendy transactions are really smooth and cool.

      This is something new i got from your post the most i like is the 1st one with navigation on top and scrolling according to the nav bar.

      Putting gif animations is really a good idea because we get the clear idea of all the UX effects.


  2. 4

    Great article, with some excellent examples. Thank you for sharing.

  3. 5

    Uzo Olisemeka

    October 23, 2013 3:10 am

    Beautifully written and documented piece!

    I know comment-land can be a very negative place so I decided to write this to tell the author they’ve done an excellent job. Hope to see more quality documentation about concepts and ideologies shared by the good team at Smashing Magazine and people in our industry at large.

    Keep up the good work, Adrian Zumbrunnen.

    Ps. On second glance at your profile, can’t say I expected any less from a member of the infamous iA. Thanks for sharing :)

  4. 6

    Hitesh Chavda

    October 23, 2013 3:31 am

    Really Interesting. Thanks.

  5. 7

    A good read. Here are a great deal of UX animations:

  6. 8

    This is an extremely well-written article. I look forward to sharing this with the designers at my agency. Your animated examples really bring the concept to life and at the same time reinforce how smart transitions affect a user’s experience (even when reading the article).

  7. 10

    Very good article!

  8. 11

    very nicely done – i really like how well you have presented each transition with a visual animation. I will be sharing and referencing. Thank you, John

  9. 12


    October 23, 2013 5:11 am

    De läääääääbe!

  10. 13

    This is why I enjoyed the early days of Flash (don’t scorn me). Yes, there were garish overuses of animation, but when used with a soft touch, they enhanced the experience. For another example of a great transition, changing articles on has a lovely animation.

  11. 14

    Great article. Altho, I hate the Chrome address bar on iOS. It reports 2 different viewport dimension on page load and then after scroll (triggers window.onresize). It’s quite difficult to code mobile web apps when the browser address bar keeps toggling during scroll.

  12. 16

    “By rotating it by 45°, the plus becomes a cross, an interface element widely understood to mean “close”:”

    Yes, let’s imagine every scenario possible and try to cater for it. Such fun!

    Fortunately for us, the brain is a wonderful machine capable of analyzing things in context (although some people seem to lack the ability). The eyes do NOT send only the “this is an X button” information to the brain but also various information like “the device is rotated”, “there’s a reflection of a red light from the ceiling” etc etc.

    I cannot but remember the time Steve Jobs decided to invert the direction of the mouse pad scrolling. A usability expert was crying about the damage done to the user. To prove his point he paid close attention to his 50 years old mom when face with the change. That woman, without ANY complain “learned” the new behavior in a matter of seconds leaving the usability expert perplexed about her inability to spot “bad design decisions”.

    • 17

      Adrian Zumbrunnen

      October 23, 2013 6:53 am

      Very good point you make there. Will keep this in mind!

    • 18

      Well if you know the history of windows you would remember that everything started in what we see as the inverted scroll. It was an argument on whether the interface should work like a sash window and which slat you open. It’s something which works either way based on your personal feel on how things pivot on the Y axis. That’s why some people naturally play games with inverted Y axis and others don’t it is just how you see the world, there’s no right or wrong.

  13. 19

    Very refreshing to read about transitions! Thank you so much for your insight!

  14. 20

    Louise Tiernan

    October 23, 2013 6:25 am

    Great Article, Am curious as to what was used to create the sample gifs used throughout the article…anyone got any ideas ? They work really nicely.

    • 21

      Adrian Zumbrunnen

      October 23, 2013 11:48 am

      I used framer as an interface for photoshop to generate the slices and then animated them using photoshop animate. Those are actually retina gif’s. You can display them at half size.

      • 22

        @Adrian Zumbrunnen – Can you expand on that? Was this done in FramerJS or in Photoshop gif animation palette?

        “I used framer as an interface for photoshop to generate the slices and then animated them using photoshop animate. Those are actually retina gif’s. You can display them at half size.”

        • 23

          I second the request. A tutorial would be awesome – they have been tricky to hunt down on the web. Thanks for a great article!

  15. 24

    Here’s a link to Nikita Vasilyev’s focus transition article, with downloadable JavaScript file:

  16. 25

    Great article. One of the most enlightening article I read in a long time with clear and factual examples. Well done!

  17. 26

    Wonderful read. And yes the music in focus transition is awesome. Headphones a must.

  18. 27

    Thank you! This an excellent and thoroughly inciteful article.

  19. 28

    On the collapsed comment field: I’d prefer when typing a comment, that the cursor positions stays fixed, so the name and email fields have to expand into the area above, and the single line comment field to extend to the lower area. This also almost implies, that the text box is centered vertically (with traceable motion of course) as soon as it is clicked. It just feels wrong that what said “Leave comment” changes to “Name” when clicked.

    However it shouldn’t overlap any content, so the content should also be moved somewhere up or down. It forces the user to click, however, but this is because he wants to take action and comment, and therefore not a bad thing (and the user is left in control of the actions).

    • 29

      Oh and, while at it, give the expanded version a cancel option somewhere.

    • 30

      Agreed. I think this animation could be improved. If you are going to vertically reposition the “Comment” input field, you shouldn’t completely hide it before animating. It would be much smoother if you simply kept it visible and expanded its height while simultaneously tweening its y position. From a z-depth perspective this input field would be on top and as it animates would reveal the additional fields below it.

      • 31

        Found a quite good example already at this website (following the whatwg-link in another article here):

        However there is no animation when clicking on name… yet I like the more-steps approach where it offers you more options the more you click.

  20. 32

    Really great article Adrian!
    When well used and thoughts, transitions can be great.
    We also have to be conscious about not using too many custom transition scripts which might slow down the page and create a bad experience.


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