Skeuomorphism: Where do we draw the line?
Skeuomorph : "a physical ornament or design on an object made to resemble another material or technique" (WIKIPEDIA)
Historically skeuomorphism has been used to bridge the gap between a technology and the consumer using it.
This had become popularised (not initiated) by Apple in 2007 with the release of the iPhone. Its User Interface(UI) design featured yellow legal pads, envelopes and leather bound address books.
Skeuomorphism has been used for decades, and today people are becoming fed up with it. Companies like Microsoft, Apple and Google are all attempting to distance themselves from Skeuomorphic design.
"We completely ran out of green felt"
(Craig Federighi Apple.inc keynote 2013).
This is understandable as following (or creating) the trend is the only way to succeed in the world of technology. Companies only follow these trends (Specifically distancing themselves from skeuomorphism) because they want to seem like a more mature company.
Let me explain…
This transition to a less skeuomorphic design has been happening under our noses for a while now, and it has only recently become a talking point in consumer technology. These companies have decided that we don't need skeuomorphism to aid us in understanding and operating of our phones, Laptops and even thermostats. This is because they see the consumer today as somebody who is much more comfortable and confident with the use of operating systems. Therefore companies who do not adopt this change will be left behind, and essentially sending the message out
We don't think the costumer is smart enough to use a modern OS without the help of familiar objects and design.
An extreme statement. Yes, but this is essentially the image a company that doesn’t conform to the trend adopts. So many companies follow, and they all pride themselves on having the most beautiful and simple design.
Will we have a simplifying race, much like the spec race we have seen in recent years?
With this in mind, at what point do we stop?
Is this distancing just a phase? Or is the change here to stay. Unlike fashion we don’t see old technology become popular once more. I cant remember the last time I saw someone walking around with a portable CD player. If this is the case this distancing must carry on until it is either ‘out of fashion’ and replaced by a new design trend or until it becomes a burden on the technology we use.
It is likely that there will be a point at which we will stop, just because the software becomes unusable.
Have we already reached the point in UI design where technology is unusable? Jan Dawson, analyst at Ovum commented on iOS 7 calling it
This familiarity is what make software easy to use for a lot of people, and its not an insult to say so. iOS7 in particular has been very hit and miss. From those I have spoken with, many believe it’s a step in the right direction, and some think otherwise.
iOS 7’s popularity is evident when you actually see visual representation of it. At the Bristol o2 In a crowd of roughly two hundred people about thirty people had their iPhones up to take pictures. Two of them were still running iOS 6 and the rest iOS7. This could show those in the age realm of 18-30 are indeed familiar with the way the system operates, and the update does not seem to hinder this. In fact most think that the new look of the software is pretty up to date and ‘cool’. Yes there are also many that think otherwise, but the point is most people that don’t like the update don’t find it harder to use, they just prefer the look of the previous software.
So if the change in visual aesthetic is not the line, where is it?
The switch to non-skeuomorphic design could eventually move from changes to the visual aesthetic, to the the functional. After all it’s not just the visual elements that are skeuomorphic. We see menus that slide down like drawers, we see pages folding like paper and we see animations that are supposed to mimic physics.
This must be where we draw the line. If we start to remove these skeuomorphic functional designs, the User Experience becomes diminished. We operate User Interfaces with our hands, and even if the software does not look familiar, it must feel familiar. The most successful functional designs draw from reality. There is something very intuitive about swiping the touchpad on a mac to switch full screen applications. That is because it feels as if you are actually swiping that screen to the next. If we were to eliminate this animation and gesture, the simple ease of switching app becomes a much more difficult task.
That was an example of how functional skeuomorphism has been applied to world of touch interface. This is still an emerging market. Desktops and laptops are now becoming homes for touch displays, its no longer an exclusive for mobile phones and tablets. And with the rise of touch controlled devices, we have also seen a rise in functional skeuomorphic design. It is necessary to have a devices that you operate with your hands, not to be focused on mice and keyboards, but focused on gestures. As I mentioned, gesture control, is something relatively new to laptops, desktops and to some extent mobile devices.
Why would we start to exclude skeuomorphism from something that has it as an absolute necessity for human/Interface interaction. We cannot start to phase out skeuomorphism from functional UX design just as we have begun implementing it.
The line must be drawn at functionality, before our phones, laptops and thermostats become unusable and undesirable to operate.