In the context of visual and user interface design, chrome is a moniker that refers to the elements in design that gives users the ability to control, operate and manipulate the screen’s content. Chrome elements are part of the underlying system of a program, regardless of whether it’s a website, application or operating system. Chrome likely takes its name from how old automobile bodies had chrome on the exterior; this is a similarity to chrome elements placed around the screen’s edges. Think of the taskbar for computer operating systems such as Windows, toolbars and ribbons for word processors, and URL fields and browser toolbars for web browsers.
By far the biggest problem associated with chrome is that it eats up space on your screen—space which should ideally be allocated for content. Chrome is particularly a cause of design issues on mobile devices, where space is more important than ever.
However, even larger desktop screens can run into issues caused by chrome obesity. Take for instance the ribbon or toolbars of Microsoft Excel, which use up space that would have otherwise allowed users to view more rows and more data.
In web design, chrome obesity is also evident. Facebook, undoubtedly one of the top 5 most-visited sites in the world, features chrome elements that eat up over 50% of the screen space. The social media site’s news feed gets half, or 48%. If you factor in the browser and operating system’s chrome elements, Facebook’s news feed only makes up for 40% of screen space. It’s a figure that’s consistent with most sites on the web today.
Addressing Chrome Obesity
As a rule of thumb, it’s always best to be aware of chrome obesity, particularly its accumulative effects on the user’s experience of reading or viewing content. Many designers have found a workaround to chrome obesity by building features that temporarily hide some chrome elements, however care must be take when choosing this option. Controls for hiding chrome features must be very consistent and simple but not obtuse to operate. Controls such as hovering the mouse pointer are poor, since they are prone to accidental use.
The bottom line is that chrome elements play an important role in delivering a seamless user interface experience. However, it’s important not to overdo it. Don’t you think?