Archive for May, 2011

Skeuomorphism

Wednesday, May 11th, 2011

An edited version of the following text appeared in MacUser magazine, Vol 27 No 10, 13 May 2011.


Sir,

Re: Alex Watson’s article in MacUser Vol 27 No 8 Pg 82 (15.04.2011)

Wrong wrong wrong.

I do not believe the jury is out on digital skeuomorphism. In fact I’d say the verdict has been in for some time and skeuomorphs are being used successfully now more than ever. And in many, many cases rightly so.

I suggest your author was scraping the barrel with references to easy targets such as the floppy disk “Save” icon. I’m half surprised he didn’t bring up the old “Keyboard not found – press F1 to continue” chestnut just for good measure. My 13 year old son just about remembers seeing a 3.5” disk in my office but is very aware that the “shape” means save. There are some far more bonkers “shapes” in use that we could never have intuited any meaning from. I suspect that some pretty clever brains have applied themselves to the “save” icon  problem. And yet no one has come up with a better icon. Certainly your author didn’t even try in his article. I have tried several times over the years and have always been dissatisfied for one reason or another. A heart superimposed over a document in a cheesy “I love my document” sort of way. Two cupped hands holding a document safely – foundered because I suspected that in some culture somewhere cupped hands might be some mortal maternal insult. Safes, keys, padlocks – all useless as they have been purloined by the security department. Until of course, everything is held digitally then there will be no need for safes, keys and padlocks at which point those images will start a skeuomorphological demise. Interestingly, Apple seem to have dropped the use of any button requiring an icon for the “Save” command, only ever offering Cmd+S.

Another point: the functionality of the “Save” button remains wholly intact, it is only the image that is losing it’s meaning. This change does not match with, for instance, the retention of riveting on jeans that is there purely for decoration, it serves no structural purpose whatsoever any more and I am not sure that both of these can be skeuomorphism at the same time. Treating our language to that kind of elasticity would not be one of its great pleasures.

Look out Logic Studio users – in 20 years all music will be created  digitally (in someone’s bedroom, now there’s an ugly opportunity for a UI background for a DAW), SSL will not be making mixing desks any more and the sliders on the mixer view will become desktop space chomping eyecandy. Five years after that someone will be writing in a magazine about the pointlessness of all those sliders. I mean, just what on earth do they represent? But wait, actually, it’s quite a good way of representing relative values across number of units…

Of course the rate of change is so great in computing these days that it is hard to carry a metaphor over for long before it becomes skeuomorphic. Every three to five years brings radical new experiences – and a new generation comes along every now and again so the churn rate is actually so fast that it will be impossible soon to create, for every requirement, an icon that has meaning through experience for everyone. Perhaps your author suggests we should just give up at that point – or even now to save us the frustration later? I don’t think so. The cost savings permitted by the removal of text are too great. Look at most Adobe software – the sooner they get rid of all the text in their applications the better. And what of the nuclear position – once everything is done on computers there will be no real-world interfaces to mimic.

Your author has a pop at the iBooks “centre of the book” look wherever you are within the volume. I too saw that and, yes, it jarred a little. Not because it looked bad (it doesn’t, despite what any pedant might say) but because, although it suggested information, it did not deliver any so the metaphor is broken. Breaking a metaphor is a UX crime, but using an old one is not – actually, using an old one is the whole point of UX metaphors. And I wonder how many systems he has actually been responsible for that he hasn’t improved the look of later? I have to admit here that I look at things and I see opportunities for improvement – not dismal failures. And I don’t think that the iBooks UX is a dismal failure. As an aside, I showed my 75 year old mother-in-law iBooks running on an iPad the other day. She, uniquely among those I know, has no computer, mobile phone (nor even a car). She hates computers yet this moment was a revelation for her, she completely got the point of the metaphor and even suggested that her other daughter would probably like such a device. She wasn’t phased by the equal number of pages either side. She appreciated the joy that had gone into the thinking behind the representation. She appreciated the fun of it.

Ah, here’s the nub. The fun of it. This is a theme I return to endlessly – why cannot a UX be fun? We endlessly choose fun over boring in our private lives – why shouldn’t we at work? Usually because our bosses won’t allow it – which is a large part of why I work for myself. I love the moment when using something – anything, not just software – and think “oh, s/he must have had a quiet chuckle to him/herself when s/he designed that bit”. It brightens my day.

Let us look at possibly the oldest skeuomorph that still persists. In 1940 a group of boys found what turned out to be 17,000 year old drawings of animals on a cave roof in Lascaux, created, many believe, to aid in hunting and safely capturing. Maps and instruction manuals. To this day people still create drawings and paintings of animals (these new artworks are the skeuomorphs, not the cave drawings), but for fun and even for profit, not always for instruction. So for those new artists (rather than the cartographers and manual writers) the point of their creation is now lost and, apparently, the jury is out on whether or not they should continue. What utter tosh. They do it for fun. And fun is good. Fun is great.

Fun is the reason we should do everything – even work. Fun, satisfaction (personal or philanthropic); these are reasons to enjoy life, not to endure a daily grind. One that relentlessly consigns the past to the trash. As humans we seem to innately believe that the old days were “the good old days”. We are constantly looking backwards to recreate things as lovely as they were in “the good old days”. Granted this is sometimes, or often, a lie. But why shouldn’t we do the same in software? I don’t mean creating mock tudor beamed user interfaces, but I passionately believe in the usefulness of mimicry, humour and unnecessary familiarity in raising a smile and increasing the comfort of a user of any system. Even if it wastes a little screen real-estate (which I suspect is why Apple use more visual metaphors on the iPad than the iPhone – because there is more room to do so). Our customers have given us their money and I do not believe it is simply for the functionality – some of it will be because they made a choice based on how that functionality has been presented.

If everyone made their systems a bit more fun then software would be a much better place to be.