- 4 min read
The accordion pattern was created as a means to deal with vertical (sub) navigation patterns. Slowly, it began to appear as a form of progressive disclosure to politically manage vast amounts of content that were straight copies from printed brochures and documents.
The main assumption driving the pattern was that people don’t scroll, and even though we had data to the contrary available to us - that assumption pushed the accordion pattern (and many other patterns like Carousels) forward.
It had difficulties with breaking the back button, in that people couldn’t link directly to content within the accordions. Accordions have a tendency to increase interaction cost - and increase cognitive load. Thus making them a very expensive interface component, and should be used in specific cases with very clear accompanying titles.
The accordion pattern has served to aid us where we've needed to progressively disclose information - to shorten pages where people only might want to know very specific information, dashboard interfaces and expanding on examples or pieces of reference information, such as documentation, are just some examples of where the pattern is actually useful.
I wanted to explore adding some motion to interface components, the aim of adding motion to this component is to make the component action visually make more sense, rather than jolt from it’s default state to it’s open state with no visual hinting.
CSS animating height
It wasn’t until I’d seen John Allsopp’s talk at WDS13 where he was using Max-height instead of height. The major problem with this is you can’t have an ‘auto’ - the animation can’t be smart and automatically size a different sized component. You need to know a ‘maximum’ boundary of height.
Beyond Max-height: Collapsing the box
I experimented with other ways to achieve this. Using a transform is difficult because it still leaves the bounding box behind. By switching between display:none and display:block animation will appear to jolt.
I tried animating the font-size, but ultimately animating line-height to collapse the box appeared to be the best solution beyond max-height - this has some problems in that it looks ugly when it is animated down to 0. So you need to add opacity, to fade it before you see all of the type mushed together.
If you have padding within the animated component then it won’t collapse beyond the padding, so you need to either have no padding or animate the padding as well. By animating another property it will become a more costly animation to frame rate. So this is worth keeping in mind if you want to depart from max-height animation.
Inspiration for the animation
To animate the opening and closing of the accordion, the first step was to actually look at how a real accordion works - It collapses and expands with a slight rotation as it collapses and folds inwards, this is where the concept of skeumorphism makes sense to the animation design and allows the animation to aid the action. To do this with CSS we use 3d transforms, scale, and opacity together.
Dealing with the navigation problem
Showing state changes
We know icons alone can be problematic for usability, they can be interpreted a number of different ways - their meanings can differ by culture or region, or by mental model. Icons are, however, a helpful device for dealing with showing state changes to colourblind users, and by allowing people to mentally group actions together. Anytime you need to demonstrate a state change, it’s worth thinking about how this would be interpreted if you couldn’t use colour to demonstrate them, and how quickly can they associate the icon itself with the action.
For the demo I chose the ‘+’ to illustrate the possible expansion of the element because we can provide feedback to the user - and say 'hey, the accordion is animating,' by rotating the icon. There are a number of approaches to what icons you can use in this situation - but generally it seems to either be something which hints at being able to be expanded, or an arrow which changes to face down or toward the title depending on the state.
Adding motion to interfaces helps frame the steps between state changes and has the potential to reduce cognitive load, but a word of caution - our aim is to hint and create a scent rather than to distract and get in the way. For the moment, we should always provide fallbacks and always keep accessibility in mind. It’s important to remember that components like these have very specific use - and aren’t always an appropriate solution just because they might animate nicely.