When it comes to user experience, dark mode is the "cool kid" on the block. Sure, it's been around for years, but it's now a feature on most apps — and whether you follow the latest design trends or you're simply an app user, you've likely tried dark mode or use it regularly.
There are good reasons why dark mode has a cult following, and it might even offer some health benefits. But is dark mode as glamorous as its cult following suggests? Or are dark mode devotees just pining for a spot at the popular kid's lunch table?
If you're a die-hard white background enthusiast wondering why dark mode is so popular, you're not alone. Dark mode isn't for everyone. Plus, experts suggest that it can increase eye strain if misused.
We're going to explore what dark mode is, why it has become so popular, the pros and cons (according to varying opinions), and some of the science behind it. We'll also show you some fantastic visuals from our beloved Superhuman dark mode interface!
What is dark mode and where did it come from?
Think about most websites and applications. These sites typically use darker text displayed against a lighter or white background. Most of us are familiar with this dark on white combination when browsing the web or our mobile devices. Before computers, we also wrote with our black pens on white paper and read books with dark text on a light background — it's what we're used to.
But then, dark mode shattered the norm… and we're kind of happy it did.
Dark mode swaps the standard color schemes on computers and device screens from lighter backgrounds to darker backgrounds. So instead of dark font on a white or light background, dark mode displays a lighter font on a darker background.
Aside from the 1970 CRT monitors, Google was a pioneer leading the dark mode movement. Microsoft also led its charge with the dark-colored themes introduced in Windows Phone 7 in 2010.
Tech giants such as Apple, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Reddit jumped on the trend and started offering users the option to toggle back and forth between dark mode and the original interface.
At Superhuman, we love dark mode — and our users do as well! We created Carbon mode, a sleek, darker interface that reduces eye strain in low light conditions.
Superhuman can also match your system settings and adapt as lighting changes. It will take you from bright and clean (Superhuman's Snow mode) to dark and minimal (Carbon mode), depending on your preferences.
Why is dark mode so popular?
Dark mode is sleek, cool, and elegant. Like your favorite black cocktail dress or jet-black sports car, dark mode exudes mystery, which could be why nearly 85% of people prefer to use it.
App designers are going above and beyond to meet this user demand, creating a dark mode boom. Now more than ever before, app designers focus on user experience and preferences.
Lead designer at Superhuman Teresa Man weighed in on app design and dark mode:
"Dark mode has become table stakes in software design because most OS devices have dark and light modes, so it's important that apps can conform to users' settings of the OS theme."
How else has dark mode enhanced our lives? Let's take a look...
The American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) recommends you "set devices to night or dark mode in the evening. This setting lowers screen brightness, and its warm colors are less likely to confuse your body into thinking it's daytime." Too much exposure to blue light at night can disrupt your circadian rhythm and slow melatonin production (our body's sleep hormone). The AAO also recommends not using screens 1-2 hours before sleep.
Reduces eye strain at night and cuts glare
Reading on a bright screen can increase eye strain in low light and cause us to squint. Dark mode users find reading easier in low light with less eye strain. They also claim it helps them fall asleep quickly and stay asleep longer.
This could be because screens expose you to more blue light at night, which could disrupt your circadian rhythm. However, the science isn't 100% clear on whether eye strain comes from blue light. The American Academy of Ophthalmology says that digital eye strain relates to how we use our devices (we blink less) rather than the light emanating from them. Excess screen time can also affect our eyes and produce strain, dry eyes, and fatigue.
Regardless of the science (or lack thereof), users claim that dark mode increases the contrast between the text and the background and improves readability, making it easier to read in low light, thereby reducing eye strain.
Users claim it reduces screen headaches
TheraSpecs analyzed hundreds of Twitter's "Top Tweets" dating back to 2017, where tweeters referenced dark mode or a dark theme. Approximately 63% of users either:
- Mentioned they preferred dark mode because it reduced the effects of screen headaches; or
- Preferred to use it on their favorite apps and websites since it could benefit their health.
Increases battery life
Google touted the benefits of dark mode to developers at the 2018 Android Dev Summit, citing the boost in battery life. The individual pixels on your screens require less juice when displaying black than lighter colors.
However, this doesn't apply if you have an older LCD screen. Battery life only improves for devices with OLED screens. Plus, the benefits are much more significant when users adjust their auto-brightness settings. Researchers at Purdue University found that an average user might not notice the increase in battery life if they retain their default phone brightness settings which are around 30-40%. Purdue says, "At 30%-50% brightness, switching from light mode to dark mode saves only 3%-9% power on average for several different OLED smartphones." But if you set your screen to a higher brightness, you will save more energy when switching to dark mode.
Regardless of the savings, we like that dark mode saves power, even if it is not always a substantial amount.
The dark side of dark mode: is using it a good thing?
Is dark mode as beneficial as we think? Let's look at some of the potential downsides, at least as reported by users.
Some people perceive darkness as negative
Imagine a stranger wearing dark clothing: do they look elegant and mysterious, or brooding and melancholy? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and so is dark mode.
For some people, dark colors can connote negative emotions and sadness. They also might be sensitive to colors and prefer a brighter user interface. While we love dark mode, it depends on personal preference.
Dark mode might not improve focus and concentration as some people claim
Susanne Mayr, a researcher at the University of Passau, has published six studies on the effects of web text design on cognitive tasks. In all of the studies, participants read faster and performed better with dark text on a lighter background than light text on a black background. But it's important to note that we couldn't find any information on what light conditions the subjects were under for the study.
It could strain eyesight in brighter conditions
While some inconclusive studies claim dark mode can help reduce eye strain, they're mainly focused on low-light conditions. There's no evidence that dark mode reduces eye strain in brightly-lit conditions. In fact, it could strain eyesight because it causes your pupils to dilate. According to rxoptical.com, dark mode makes the eyes work harder since they need to absorb more light. This can cause the text to blur, known as the "halation" effect. This is why users prefer to use dark mode in only low-light conditions.
Not all dark themes are created equal
The way designers create dark mode plays a role in how users interact with it. Each website or app might display dark mode differently, which can affect users.
Superhuman's lead designer Teresa Man says:
"When creating a dark theme, it can be tempting to invert an existing light theme. However, distant surfaces would become light, and near surfaces would become dark. This would break physicality and feel unnatural."
In an earlier Superhuman article, Man explains how to design a dark theme correctly.
"When designing a dark theme by referring to a light theme, it is important to revisit perceptual contrast… we adjust each item individually — considering text size, font weight, and line width — to ensure that the dark theme is as clear and as easy to read as the light theme."
- NOT using pure black text: "True black does not exist in our daily environment. (The darkest object in the world, a yet-to-be-named material developed at MIT, is still 0.005% shy of true black!) Our vision has therefore adapted to perceive relative darkness as true black."
- NOT using pure white text: "Pure white text against a pure black background produces the highest contrast possible: 21:1. In quantitative WCAG accessibility terms, this is the dream output. However, when designing dark themes, it is important to be mindful of exceedingly high contrast ratios. Contrast that is too high can cause eye fatigue and halation."
While there are some questionable downsides, we haven't found any significant disadvantages to dark mode, and our users love it! When an app designs dark mode the right way, it can greatly enhance your user experience. Why not give it a try?
Like dark mode? We do too.
You can find conflicting and even controversial information on dark mode. But at the end of the day, it all comes down to personal preference.
If you love it, you're in good company. It's become popular because most apps have added a dark mode option with the ability to toggle back and forth between dark and light backgrounds. And users prefer it at night to reduce eyestrain.
If you like dark mode (and enjoy a blazingly fast email experience), you'll love Superhuman.
Superhuman makes email management a breeze, and it has a seamless design that doesn't distract but enhances your interaction with the app and improves your focus.
Get started with Superhuman and benefit from the fastest email management with an elegant and enjoyable user experience. And don't forget to try our Carbon mode!