Interaction Designers and UX professionals have been ganging up on Apple for its skeuomorphic user interfaces. I mean, they’ve really been hammering hard. They make claims such as that decorating UIs with Corinthian leather is lying to the user. The UI designers baby us. They are holding back the progression of sophistication in UI literacy by chaining us to our analog past. James Higgs states on Made By Many:
Simply put: [I detest these new apps] because they are lies. They attempt to comfort us (to patronise us) by trying to show how they relate to physical objects in the real world when there is no need. How are we helped to understand what Find My Friends does by the addition of “leather” trim? And how difficult can it be for someone, even a relative digital newcomer, to understand a list of books? Difficult enough that the only possible way they could understand it is to present them in a “wooden” bookshelf format?
I heard several designers deriding skeuomorphism in their Interaction 12 talks to much applause and supercilious laughter. And yet, two of the keynote speakers, Anthony Dunne and Fabian Hemmert, were treated with great respect for showing us examples of physical objects that had been granted animalistic behaviors, such as mobile phones that breathe and disk drives that avoid coffee spills by standing up. This dichotomy struck me as being rather hypocritical. I’ve been puzzling over it, and I have a hypothesis.
Once upon a time, just prior to the release of Mac OS X, the graphics capabilities of computer operating systems were relatively poor. Sure, games included photorealistic imagery, but your typical application was limited to rather cartoonish representations. Our icons, buttons, and textures were decidedly low-res. OS X changed that. Suddenly, it was possible to include shadows, translucency, and sophisticated gradients. That freedom presented UI designers with a completely new vocabulary to explore, and as history has shown us, we will explore it for better and worse. One of the results of this exploration was a wave of applications, mostly from independent developers and startups that jumped on Apple’s newfound popularity, that were informally referred to as “delicious” applications. This name was derived from the application Delicious Library by Delicious Monster, one of the first new OS X applications to employ a visually stunning UI. They displayed photorealistic books, with the actual book covers, on wooden shelves. This was, in fact, so successful that Apple hired Mike Matas, the co-founder and graphic designer of Delicious Monster. It was not surprising, then, to see similar skeumorphic touches start appearing within Apple’s own software, even to the point of duplicating (stealing?) Delicious Library’s aesthetic in iBooks.
Of course, we designers can only applaud something so popular and successful for so long. We are driven to disdain anything that becomes commonplace in the challenge to find the next, great, original idea. We are so over the once lick-able candy coating of early Mac OS X, ready to embrace the Modernist-inspired Metro UI of Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7.
Our physical devices, however, are in a different stage of development. As artists and scientists alike explore the uncanny valley of robotics, we are fascinated with the potential of animation, automation, and even self-awareness in the everyday objects that have thus far been static—unmoving and unresponsive. We are quick to forgive the tackiness of sneezing phones in the name of experimentation.
But I would suggest that skeuomorphism isn’t as bad as many make it out to be. Compare the Notes app on the iPhone with its Metro cousin. There is no mistaking what the app is for on the iPhone. The color of the background, the rules, and the leather bar across the top all scream “notepad!” The only thing to visually distinguish the notes application from any other in Metro is the name. There is a lot to be said for visual identity, familiarity, and personality. No, faux leather trim isn’t going to help me find my friends, and I don’t need wooden shelves to understand that I am looking at a library of books, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to spend the rest of my life looking at identical, sterile user interfaces, regardless of task and context. Leather is an aesthetic choice, and certainly it will appeal to some and not to others. It’s an awfully popular choice for high-end car interiors, so why not virtual dashboards? Fashion is going to influence interaction design just as it does anything else. Apple has been one of the drivers of fashion in the computer and consumer electronics industries since the introduction of Bondi Blue. We went through brushed metal; now it’s linen and leather. Next year it will be something else.
In conclusion, I encourage you to think about the potential benefits of skeuomorphism just as you consider any other tool in your UI design bag. Use it effectively when it makes sense to. Don’t give in to hate. That leads to the Dark Side.