Dark Side of UI: When Dark Is Good for Users

The aspect of using dark colours and shades in backgrounds of user interfaces still belongs to highly debatable issues. No wonder it's so actual: choosing appropriate background plays vital role on all the product efficiency as it can become a key factor enhancing or, vise versa, killing other design solutions around the layout and functionality.

Today our article will be devoted to benefits and pitfalls of using dark background in UI design, so let's move on the dark side. We will concentrate in more detail on strong and weak sides of coloured design for websites and mobile applications. Dark background can be powerful and appealing solution providing positive user experience. Let's just take it for granted and discuss when and where we can make it work at maximum. 

Visual perception of dark

 One of the polls whose results were published rather long time time ago, in 2009, in ProBlogger already features some interesting points. The readers were asked what sort of background they prefer on blogs. Almost half of the readers answered that light background is preferable – and that is reasonable as blogs are traditionally text-driven, so the aspect of readability outweighs the others.

However, 10% of respondents answered that they prefer dark backgrounds and more than one third mentioned that the choice should depend on the blog nature and content. Such a big proportion of users should not be neglected by designers in the process of looking for design solutions. Moreover, in case of less text-driven content concentration in digital product such as website or application the proportion can become even bigger.

This is a good example showing that user research and surveys should be the important part of design process. Knowing what users want or at least what they are ready for can push the limits of traditional vision. The scientific research provided around the issue by Richard H. Hall and Patrick Hanna highlights the important point about visual perception of the background colour and its performance. Having analysed practical experiments by different scientists done earlier in the sphere of web pages performance and readability, the authors sum up: "They found that combinations with positive polarity resulted in better performance (that is dark text on light background), and, as with studies mentioned previously, the greater the contrast between colour combinations the better the performance." Therefore, dark-coloured background can be as efficient as light-coloured in case when other aspects, in particular contrast and legibility of the layout elements, are designed and tested appropriately. The research contains a lot of interesting and useful information based on user testing in perspective of different colour combinations and their effectiveness, so it is highly recommended to designers.  

The aspect of readability

 One of famous gurus of user experience design Jacob Nielsen mentioned: "Use colours with high contrast between the text and the background. Optimal legibility requires black text on white background (so-called positive text). White text on a black background (negative text) is almost as good. Although the contrast ratio is the same as for positive text, the inverted colour scheme throws people off a little and slows their reading slightly.

Legibility suffers much more for colour schemes that make the text any lighter than pure black, especially if the background is made any darker than pure white." Indeed, readability is the vital aspect influencing performance of the product and it deals not only with text. It goes beyond the limits of copy and means that all the meaningful symbols including letters, numbers, pictograms and icons should be noticed and recognised easily in the interface. Thus, the designer choosing in favour of dark background should be prepared to especially thorough selection and testing fonts, icons and images on different devices. 

The aspect of contrast

 One more interesting thing to consider in the aspect of visual perception is the table presented by webdesign.about.com. The table demonstrating levels of contrast and performance of different colour combinations features the interesting fact: black part of the table is the only one that provides good contrast with practically all the colours. 

Tested carefully in every particular case of design interface, this factor can be the reason to try dark background as a variant of design solution. 

In the aspect of readability, contrast is also one of the factors able to make the content more recognisable and legible. One of earlier investigations of the aspects of contrast and readability states such a tip: "With a dark background, ensure you do not have overly-bright lettering: tone down white lettering to a pale grey, or dull the colour used to minimise extreme contrast and glare; this principle is used when doing slides, as well: at least 5% grey is used to cut the glare of bright white. Interestingly, this still "reads" as white.

Also, make the text bold, so it has enough body not to be "eaten alive" by the darkness." This test as well as others can provide new variants of toning in providing efficient and natural contest on a webpage or app screen. One more thing to mention is that dark background being somehow heavier and deeper usually provides great opportunities for presenting graphic content such as pictures, photos, illustrations, posters and ads. Good composition and following the principles of visual hierarchy can significantly enhance visual perception of this sort of layout elements.

This factor makes dark background highly efficient and attractive in cases when interface is based more on graphic material than on copy. 

The aspect of emotional perception

Colour psychology is another thing to consider choosing a background which will be not only the effective field of presentation but also the carrier of its own message. Dark colors are usually associated with elegance and mystery.

Moreover, black is often associated with elegance, formality, prestige and power. That is, perhaps, one of the reasons why many powerful brands build their visual presentation around black-and-white scheme with dark dominating and light presenting and informing the recipient.

Playing out this aspect in interface design can provide additional support to other design solutions and general presentation of the product.  

Benefits of dark background

According to all the points mentioned above, we can sum up that dark background applied in user interfaces can provide essential benefits, among which:

  • style and elegance
  • feel of mystery
  • luxury and prestigious look
  • broad field of using contrast
  • support of visual hierarchy
  • depth in reflection of presented content
  • visual appeal

Points to consider

On the other hand, dark background requires thorough attention and analysis of the smallest details which can get lost in layout if they are not presented properly. Among them we should consider:

User research. Practical surveys, theoretic investigations and experiments are important sources of data about the target audience, its wishes and expectations that is the basis for choosing effective and attractive design schemes.

Competition research. Market research of close competitors gives understanding which design solutions have already been applied by other players on the market and this factor influences choosing original design solutions to make product noticeable.

  • User testing. Dark background being more vulnerable in the aspects of readability and legibility should be rigorously tested on all the sorts of devices and in diverse resolutions.
  • Environment factor. Analysis of typical conditions in which the product will be used by target audience can provide additional reasons for or against the option of dark background.
  • Amount of content. The number of elements and blocks which have to be featured on the screen or web page can influence the decision around the background: darker backgrounds leaving too little space between elements are extremely hard for perception.
  • Nature of content. Dark background can feature better performance for interfaces based on graphic elements rather than big bulk of copy to read.