How Apple's skeuomorphism could make sense.

The evolution of devices and operating systems is accelerating further and further, ever embracing and trialing the new stages of interaction which are forming the core of the ‘Post PC’ world. User interphase design is not being left behind; we’re seeing many intriguing OS design approaches suggested to accompany these ‘Post PC’ devices into our lives.

Windows 8 is about to crash many of us into what Microsoft believes an operating system of this ‘Post PC’ world should look like: resided to the digital, simple and clean.

Running parallel to Microsoft’s intriguing ‘metro’ design choice is the much-scrutinized skeuomorphism that Apple continues to favour in its user interphases. As we know, the OS X Calendar features ripped paper and a leather binding, the Notes app is designed to look like an old legal pad and the iOS Podcasts app comes with a fully fledged Braun-style revolving tape deck.

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Personally, I’m quite fond of all of it, but that’s just down to taste.

Apple’s reasoning for the skeuomorphism can be seen in its suggestion to developers to, "Take advantage of people’s knowledge of the world by using metaphors to convey concepts and features of your app."(1) It’s simple, they’re suggesting that using design references to real-world interactions makes an app easier to navigate and therefore use.

However, many are arguing that Apple’s design choices actually prohibit the simplicity of an app’s use. It’s easily argued that skeuomorphism can be confusing, unnecessary and quite frankly, glitzy. Fast Company Design recently reported a former Apple senior UI designer describing the design choices as "…lipstick on a pig"(2), arguing that "…There’s no need to add glitter if the product can stand on its own." Another argument is that the time has passed when skeuomorphism was needed to introduce people to computer interaction; both computer literacy and the way we interact with our devices have changed.

So how does this arguably chunkier, metaphorical user interphase still make sense as we’re gesturing, folding and swiping our devices into the ‘Post PC’ world? I think there is a way, and that comes from haptic technology.

The Verge, in the past, has reported about haptic technology, the most notable company investing into it being Senseg. The Verge described the companies’ developments, stating "The tactile panel tech uses electrostatic fields to simulate different levels of friction, allowing it to generate the sensation of texture on a totally flat screen"(3). The electrostatic field can generate a wide range of what feels to be 3D textures, examples given were sand paper, gravel and packing material. Presumably, the technology will allow for much more realistic simulated keyboards, what feels to be pressable buttons and all sorts of textures used for many different purposes. The possible uses of this technology are incredibly exciting and surely massively so for Apple, who by using it in iOS devices would have a bridge connecting functionality and glitz.

With a haptic iPad, the books of your iBooks collection and months of your Calendar would now have feelable paper, the sections and headings of your apps would now not only be distinguishable by design, but by material, and the possibilities for the games that you play would be great. The uses of this technology would be incredible on any device running any OS, but for the devices that stuck through with skeuomorphism to the end there would be something much more potent.

Designs would become less metaphorical and more object-like. Apps would feel less like digital functions or solutions and more like tools, with care taken even upon how they feel. The interactions we’d have with haptic devices, to use an Appleism, would be revolutionary and the stupid leather stitching, would at least, make more sense.

References:

(1)http://developer.apple.com/library/mac/#documentation/userexperience/conceptual/applehiguidelines/HIPrinciples/HIPrinciples.html

(2) http://www.fastcodesign.com/1670760/will-apples-tacky-software-design-philosophy-cause-a-revolt

(3) http://www.theverge.com/2011/12/2/2605173/senseg-tactile-display-technology-tablet-demo-video