Skeuomorphism and the eye of the beholder

While I was gathering my thoughts on the subject, yesterday I blurted a tweet: Skeuomorphism is a designer’s problem, more than a user’s. All this debate about skeuomorphism has been going on for a while. I think it started heating up while Lion was still in developer beta, and an iCal screenshot was leaked, showing Apple’s redesign of the application UI. I remember thinking I hope it’s a joke or something. It was not a joke. iCal really looks like this:

ICal 5 0 closeup

Wait: you’re still wondering what Skeuomorphism means, right? The Wikipedia has a nice description: 

A skeuomorph, or skeuomorphism (Greek: skeuos — vessel or tool, morphe — shape), is a derivative object that retains ornamental design cues to a structure that was necessary in the original. Skeuomorphs may be deliberately employed to make the new look comfortably old and familiar, such as copper cladding on zinc pennies or computer printed postage with circular town name and cancellation lines. An alternative definition is “an element of design or structure that serves little or no purpose in the artifact fashioned from the new material but was essential to the object made from the original material”. This definition is narrower in scope and ties skeuomorphs to changes in materials.

To give you some other quick examples of skeuomorphs: iOS (alarm) clock apps that look like old, analogue clocks (and sometimes sound like one, too); the Voice Memos app, with its prominent old-fashioned microphone; photo apps with an interface that emulates a real film camera, and with ‘filters’ that emulate film grain and other artifacts.

Skeuomorphism seems to have made designers and assorted geeks/developers quite upset. Just to stay some more with the iCal example above, I’ve read articles of people complaining about the remaining bits of paper that simulate a hastily ripped calendar page. I have read rants about interface metaphors and how skeuomorphism is bad for the general progress of interface design.

Again, the Wikipedia entry sums up the terms of the question rather nicely:

The arguments in favor of skeuomorphic design are that it makes it easier for those familiar with the original device to use the digital emulation, and that it is graphically appealing.

The arguments against skeuomorphic design are that skeuomorphic interface elements use metaphors that are more difficult to operate and take up more screen space than standard interface elements; that this breaks operating system interface design standards; that skeuomorphic interface elements rarely incorporate numeric input or feedback for accurately setting a value; and that many users may have no experience with the original device being emulated.

Metaphors, expectations, usability

Apart from personal pet peeves, many insist on the metaphor problem related to skeuomorphic design. They say that certain designs may represent objects which younger generations have never experienced in real life, and that it may confuse them. I’m not saying this isn’t a valid argument, but I haven’t seen any strong examples that make this argument really compelling. Clocks? Calculators? Calendars? Address books? Paper notebooks? Newspapers? Magazines? I don’t know in your part of the world, but in mine we’re still surrounded by these very objects. What’s more, I’m actually noticing a resurgence of classic, ‘analogue’ designs for these objects. I see them in stationery shops, commercial centres, electronics stores, newsstands. I really have a hard time believing that a teenager has never ever seen a calculator. Perhaps they haven’t had a direct experience with the object, but it’s hardly believable they cannot guess how to interact with one. Simulated buttons and switches are the easiest metaphor to grasp. 

In my opinion, the real problem, the problem that really concerns the final user, is one of expectations and usability. People don’t mind skeuomorphic designs. They often prefer them over designs which might be more efficient but look bland. What irks a user is a design that sets some expectations and then doesn’t fulfil them. A calendar app that emulates a paper calendar, but with pages that don’t turn or can’t be ripped away. What’s the point of presenting a beautifully rendered replica of a paper calendar, if you have to touch a Delete button to remove a page? True paper calendars don’t have Delete buttons. This is a dangerous mix of analogue and digital, a misleading mismatch of expectations and ultimately a small usability nightmare.

But is it really all about skeuomorphism? No, it’s just bad design. Pointing the finger at skeuomorphism is, in my opinion, focusing on a very specific aspect of a broader, more serious issue: badly designed interfaces, tasteless visual design, poor and sloppy executions. Often developers favour skeuomorphic designs for their visual appeal, but they don’t go skeuomorphic all the way. The emulation stops at a very superficial level. It’s a semi-functional façade that fails many of the expectations it sets, and users find themselves with applications that under-deliver, are not that intuitive to use as they seem, and users end up feeling a bit cheated.

Sometimes it’s just for show, and it’s okay

Back to iCal again. What’s annoying to me (and ultimately constitutes a usability issue) isn’t the faux leather or the stitches or the bits of paper left by previously ‘ripped’ ‘pages’. It’s the fact that it looks like a real paper calendar but doesn’t even try to behave like one. You can create a perfectly functional application with a skeuomorphic design: it’s just a more complex, less forgiving task. If you create visual elements that invite interaction, you must allow for interaction. If you don’t want a user to think that a panel or a lever can be operated, just draw them in a less conspicuous way, make them look flat, make them look like they’re just for show. Learn from game interface designs, especially graphic point-and-click adventures. The best of their breed are great at differentiating objects you can interact with from objects that are just background or have just an ornamental function.

When the user perceives that certain visual elements are just for show, it usually isn’t a big deal. Some consider skeuomorphic designs which do not reference real life counterparts as particularly flawed. I think the final user doesn’t really care, especially when it’s clear that some skeuomorphic details are just embellishments. Case in point, a piece by designer Jon Gold has been quoted often, recently. Especially this part (emphasis is his):

Calendar, Notes and Contacts are all explainable — they reference real world things (even if they shouldn’t). My Mum likes that her calendar looks more like a Filofax than Outlook 2003. Fair enough. A Filofax is a thing. I get it. And the Compass app is based on a compass. Another thing.

But I’m pretty sure there’s not a thing in my physical living room called a ‘Find My Friends’. The metaphor is empty. It’s not referring to anything. It’s just a leather texture.

Paper doesn’t scroll; much less so a digital map debossed into a bevelled Corinthian leather surround. It can’t be a thing.

It’s when we’ve transcended reference to lazily base new interfaces on inconsistent real-world materials that things become dangerous.

We risk rooting ourselves in the past. 

The fact is, everyone understands that the Find my Friends app doesn’t represent a physical object. It’s not that the metaphor is empty, it’s that sometimes there’s no actual metaphor to look for in the first place. It’s really just a leather texture. There is no real deception. There is no failure at meeting expectations. It’s just an embellishment. Perhaps someone at Apple thought it might look ‘elegant’, or ‘young’ or pleasantly quirky, or that the faux leather gave the app more depth or character, but that’s it. Users get it. I don’t see anything really ‘dangerous’ about it. If we must compare faux leathers, iCal’s is more ‘dangerous’ because in that case it contributes to the deception of a faux paper calendar that doesn’t behave as expected. Users don’t have expectations about Find my Friends exactly because they know it doesn’t have a physical counterpart. 

Skeuomorphism is not bad per se. Sometimes it’s just a bad choice.

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About Riccardo Mori

Writer. Translator. Mac consultant. Enthusiast photographer. • If you like what I write, please consider supporting my writing by purchasing my short stories, Minigrooves or by making a donation. Thank you!