The Allure of Dark Mode

A dark mode flat UI.

Halfway through last year, tech empire Apple announced at its Worldwide Developers Conference that it would be unleashing the Dark Mode visual format on iOS. Deemed as more favorable on the eyes in low-light environments, this feature would enable iPhone users the option for an alternate color scheme on their mobile devices that creates an inverted viewing experience. Up until that point in June 2019, Dark Mode was only available with MacOS on Mac computers (which began in September 2018).

When it comes to UX, options reign supreme. Apple’s announcement was a milestone sparking new possibilities for users and third-party developers alike. Long defined by a sleek white visual format that users have become so comfortably familiar with, Apple’s reinforcement of Dark Mode on smartphones has symbolized growth and progress in the evolution of user experience. Android, along with Instagram and Gmail, followed in those footsteps shortly thereafter. This display option has become a catalyst for empowering users to absorb information in a format that’s maybe more suitable, but different nonetheless.

Research suggests that the average person spends about 3 hours and 15 minutes per day on a smartphone, with the top 20% of smartphone users spending more than 4.5 hours a day on their devices. These approximations are only scratching the surface, not even accounting for screen time spent on televisions, computers, tablets, etc. Science shows that the human eye is more used to positive polarity characterized by light-on-dark readability. Thus, the emergence of the Dark Mode theme becomes an interesting concept that’s relevant for 3.5 billion smartphone users globally.

More than anything, the Dark Mode theme has had a profound, immense impact on the user’s ability to mitigate risks of excessive screen staring.

“Looking at tablets and phones, there’s pretty good evidence that doing near work can cause lengthening of the eye and increase risk for myopia. We’re all worried that virtual reality might make things worse,” says Martin Banks, an optometry professor at the University of California-Berkeley.

With classic bright white tech screens feeding into these concerns and causing other short-term complications like blurry vision or headaches, Dark Mode is meant to protect eyes by decreasing eye strain and causing less fatigue. Additionally, artificial bright white light dampens sleep-inducing neurons and suppresses elicitation of the sleep hormone melatonin. Thus, healthier sleep habits can become an organic result of transitioning to Dark Mode as there will be less disrupting circadian rhythms. With Dark Mode, late-night screen sessions aren’t as damaging, physically, or mentally.

Dark Mode also has the potential to save mobile device battery life. If a mobile phone incorporates an AMOLED display that powers off and un-illuminates black pixels, as well as true, hex black –– #000000 –– for the majority of the dark theme, battery life could be optimized. These display settings however must also be complemented by high contrast colors for text, buttons and accents.

While readability and technical functionality can be boosted with Dark Mode, critics may be skeptical about the theme’s accessibility for all users. Although there aren’t any particular health consequences associated with Dark Mode (yet), people with certain kinds of color blindness may find the inverted theme of Dark Mode more difficult to view. The reduction of harsh blue light may not be as easy on the eyes for this audience, and Dark Mode is not recommended for any audience in a dimly lit environment.

Image Credit: O_a on Adobe Stock

Regardless of which perspective the user favors, it’s always important to be aware of best practices and “alternate journeys” so to speak. Dark Mode serves as a strong example of how subliminal details can really matter in UX. Many will claim Dark Mode is more of a personal preference than a visual necessity, but the advantages are apparent and mostly outweigh the disadvantages.

Ultimately the user will end up influencing Dark Mode’s popularity and propensity for success as modern technology and mobile devices continue to advance mightily. The future of user experience has undoubtedly arrived, and it’s time to consider Dark Mode as the standard rather than the alternative.