In the ongoing ‘flat versus skeuomorphic user interface’ debate, a recent contribution that’s absolutely worthy of attention is Matt Gemmell’s article Tail Wagging. You should take your time and read it, if you’re interested in the subject, because Matt makes a lot of great points and I pretty much agree with most of what he says.
But there’s an observation I’d like to make regarding this passage:
We forget that physical objects are also just specific embodiments – or presentations – of their content and function. A paperback book and an ebook file are two embodiments of the text they each contain; the ebook isn’t descended from the paperback. They’re siblings, from different media spheres, one of which happens to have been invented more recently.
The biggest intellectual stumbling-block we’re facing is the fallacy that just because physical embodiments came first, they’re also somehow canonical. The publishing industry is choking itself to death with that assumption, despite readily available examples of innovative, digitally-native approaches.
[…] An iPad demonstrably is not a book, and doesn’t behave like one. Digital embodiments have their own unique strengths and weaknesses in comparison to physical ones, and metaphors from one world can only be stretched so far before breaking in the other. Usually, the seams appear quickly.
While I agree with the general concept, I think that the ebook/paper book example isn’t a particularly strong one. The structure of a book is rather simple: a cover and a bunch of pages bound together. Yes, it’s probably unnecessary to do a thorough digital emulation of a paper book, with page-turn animations, red ribbons as bookmarks and other elements such as gutters, visible corners, textblocks, etc. (That would indeed be a case of gratuitous skeuomorphism). But there’s nothing wrong, in my opinion, in maintaining pagination as a fundamental structural element in an ebook as it is in a paper book. When the book as collection of sheets (codex) replaced the scroll, the advantages were obvious: books were easier to handle and easier to read; information was easier to locate and it was easier to make references inside a text.
Today, given the computational power of smartphones and tablets, an ebook could theoretically be structured as an ancient scroll, a continuous flow of text, without numbered pages or other rigid paper book metaphors; an ebook reader (whether a physical device or a software application) could handle the search for information inside a text very easily: a search field, a pop-up index where you just tap on a chapter or section to jump there, and so on. But I contend that reading an ebook with an ‘infinite scroll’ interface is not as practical as reading a paginated ebook. It may be fine for reading articles, essays, short stories, but it certainly becomes tiring and awkward for novels, especially novels where a chapter may go on for a hundred pages’ worth of text.
Lukas Mathis explained this more eloquently in two articles published last November. In Scrolling vs. Pagination he writes:
[…] the kind of control scrolling gives to users seems completely meaningless in the context of the task the user is engaged in. She’s reading a book. It’s a mostly linear affair. Her main goal is to go through the text from beginning to end. The additional control isn’t helping with that goal, it’s just creating more work. […]
If I’m reading a novel, the experience I’m having should be the book’s story unfolding in my head, not my fingers scrolling the page every few seconds. In this case, good UX design means not interfering with the actual experience the user is having: the book’s story.
Pagination gets out of the way. Read a page. Push a button. Read the next page. Repeat. No needless interference with the actual text being read, no unnecessary interactions that could pull the reader out of the book’s world. (Of course, switching pages still interrupts the reading experience, but to a lesser degree than constant scrolling does.)
In More on Pagination, Mathis writes:
Look at iOS’s home screen. There are pages of apps. You jump between pages, you don’t scroll. Is the home screen’s pagination an artifact of paper book technology, or is it simply a better idea than having a home screen that can be scrolled? I’d argue that it’s a better idea.
This example also shows that a simple interaction model isn’t pagination’s only advantage. How do you find apps on your home screen? For many of the apps you use often, you probably find them by their position. Pagination allows you to organize things spatially.
This (typically) doesn’t apply to automatic pagination, where page breaks are chosen in a way that can’t be predicted by the author, but it does apply in many other situations. If you use iBooks author, you design individual pages that perfectly fit the iPad’s screen. This means that you can ensure that paragraphs that belong together are on the same page. You can make sure that illustrations and pictures are next to the text they belong to. And your users can identify things by their position: «look at the image at the bottom left of page 35!»
To summarise, Gemmell is right when he says that “The biggest intellectual stumbling-block we’re facing is the fallacy that just because physical embodiments came first, they’re also somehow canonical”, but at the same time I think that we shouldn’t dismiss all the elements of a physical medium when it comes to designing and building its digital counterpart. Structural elements of physical embodiments — such as pagination in a paper book — can still work quite well in a digital context.
Back to flat vs. skeuomorphic design
Back to the general debate, that an interface is drawn to suggest a two- or three-dimensional representation doesn’t really matter, in my opinion. As I’ve said previously, an interface design isn’t necessarily good and efficient because it’s minimal, and isn’t necessarily bad and gratuitous because it’s skeuomorphic. 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.
As a corollary, I’ll add that what really matters in creating a good, usable application is coherence. Choose a model and/or æsthetics and stick with it all the way. There’s nothing inherently wrong in designing a calendar app that looks like a paper calendar or desk appointment diary, provided that the illusion is gracefully maintained everywhere and all visual expectations fulfilled. If minimalism and abstraction are the design principles of a similar app, make sure that all interactive elements are consistently apparent, and that the minimalism for minimalism’s sake doesn’t lead to an interface that’s too mystifying due to its lack of visual cues.