A few days ago, a stunning new application for the iPad has been introduced: Paper, by FiftyThree, Inc. While reading a few reactions on the Web and Twitter, I noticed how some people were praising the beautiful, well-designed UI of this drawing app especially for one important reason: it gets out of your way. It basically disappears so that you actually use the iPad as a sketchbook (more comfortably if you also use a stylus, but you can also use your fingers of course).
I really like this design approach, as I generally like interfaces that stay out of your way. I wouldn’t still be a Newton user after all these years otherwise. However, it seems that the recent debate on interface design is getting a little bit too polarised for my tastes. Those defending abstract, minimal interfaces appear rather vocal about their distaste for more skeuomorphic choices. As I said on Twitter, the argument that a design is bad because it’s skeuomorphic follows the same logic as xenophobia or racism (that person is bad because he/she has coloured skin, or is of Arabic descent, etc.). Folks, the only reasonable polarisation in a debate on UI design is about good design and bad design. Minimalism, generous use of white space, and Helvetica, aren’t necessarily the recipe for an inherently good design. Likewise, simulation of real-life objects, textures and imperfections isn’t necessarily the recipe for an inherently bad design.
A solid criticism of the use of skeuomorphic designs is the objection that some elements of an interface may trick the user into believing they behave exactly like the real-life elements they’re mimicking, while in reality they behave otherwise or are simply decorative finishes with no function whatsoever. In my previous article, Skeuomorphism and the eye of the beholder, I wrote:
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 minimal, abstract UI that stay out of your way may very well suffer from similar problems, for they can equally puzzle and bewilder the user. Let’s get back to the opening example, Paper for iPad. This is the main interface when you’re drawing (image taken from the app website):
Lovely, isn’t it? No buttons, no mysterious icons, no redundant chrome. It’s pretty straightforward: you pick a drawing tool and a colour and off you go. Now, suppose you haven’t watched the introductory video and you haven’t read the additional information provided on the developer’s website: how do you know there’s a specific gesture for Undo? How do you know that to ‘close’ the virtual notebook you’re drawing on, you have to perform a ‘closing pinch’ on the page? Some things can be discovered intuitively, you drag the palette down with your finger, and it goes away, leaving you free to draw on the whole visible surface. But how do you make it reappear? At first I instinctively tapped-and-held, but nothing happened. Then of course I tentatively swiped my finger upwards from the bottom edge where the palette disappears, and here it was again — but you really have to initiate the swipe gesture from the very edge, otherwise you end up leaving unwanted strokes on the canvas.
Or take the acclaimed Clear for iPhone. Its interface design is a tribute to minimalism itself, and employs innovative gestures and techniques to function as a really ‘interfaceless’ application. But are those gestures all obvious and readily discoverable if you don’t see some kind of introductory video or read a review of the app? Most of them, but I admit I had to make a few attempts before being able to properly navigate upwards in the menu hierarchy without accidentally creating a new item, for example.
So, once again: not all skeuomorphic interfaces are bad per se; and not all clean, minimal, abstract and non-skeuomorphic interfaces are good per se. What a skeuomorphic UI design shouldn’t do is deceive the user. What a minimal UI design shouldn’t do is provide non-obvious methods of interaction.