Ambrose Little: Skeuomorphic Design Is Bad

I had the pleasure of speaking on the same panel with Ambrose Little years ago. He’s Director of UX over at Infragistics, and he wrote this great article discussing skewmorphism (trying saying that five times fast) on the company blog. He illustrates that it may not be bad in certain instances. More importantly, it’s about context and user expectations.

Great post anyway you look at it. Read on.

You’ve probably heard someone say “skeuomorphic design is bad” by now, or maybe they wrote “skewomorphic” or even “skuomorphic” (who knows, maybe even “skeumorphism”)–it’s a tough word to spell. However you spell it, you can read the article on skeuomorphism on good ol’ Wikipedia to get the more or less official meaning. Also, here’s an article that lavishes you with skeuomorph screenshots from the iPad–sometimes it’s better to use examples to learn a concept. Of course, with the iPad, it’s more than just pretty pictures.  Some of their skeuomorphism uses interactions as well, because it can thanks a lot to its primary touch interface.

My colleague @brentschooley pointed out to me the other day that Apple’s new Podcasts app in iOS 6 not only looks like a reel to reel, it has realistic motion, and as the time progresses, the thickness of the tape on each roll inversely changes (as it would if really playing), in addition to a host of minute details that really make it seem pretty magical (bouncing tape guide, for instance). And I guess I’d say that more than anything, that’s what skeuomorphism does for digital interfaces–it adds a certain kind of magic.

The point is not metaphor. The point is not even strictly usability, although something could be said for that, depending on how well the original source of inspiration was designed. It’s magic — it’s taking something you’re familiar with, maybe even seen as old and dated, and making it new, and more than it was before.

The point is not metaphor. The point is not even strictly usability, although something could be said for that, depending on how well the original source of inspiration was designed.  It’s magic — it’s taking something you’re familiar with, maybe even seen as old and dated, and making it new, and more than it was before.

Some designers are lambasting skeuomorphic designs because they theoretically interfere with usability. But let’s think about that for a minute, and not just in terms of initial learnability (which is commonly seen as the only benefit of this kind of design). Many of the physical objects we use were designed. Not only that, they have had years, even centuries, to tinker with and improve their designs for human use.

Consider the book.  The earliest writings (that we know of) were on the walls of caves. Later came clay and stone tablets. These pose many practical challenges, so designs were improved. Papyrus. Scrolls. Parchment. Individual leaves. Still more improvements could be made–bound books.  Not all bindings are created equal–small books that fit in pockets, large books for public use in ritual. The simple, physical act of turning a page. The point is not to argue for books as the ultimate in recording and reading technology, but there are few designs as well tested and well used and well known.

If you read, for instance, The Design of Everyday Things, you begin to appreciate better the design that did (or didn’t) go into all these physical artifacts that surround us. So much of what we take for granted was designed.  Much of it was improved upon after years of use and pressure to improve. Give someone a modern hammer (with the teeth to pull nails on the back) who has never seen one, and they will wonder at what the two prongs are for. They sure look decorative, but no, they were added, designed, honed over many years.

Consider the reel to reel Podcasts example. The reels moving is feedback that it is playing. The increasing/decreasing tape thickness is feedback on progress. (You don’t see a knob for volume but rather a slider, which works better on this device than a knob.) Or take the classic page turner example–the page moving with your finger as you drag it is direct feedback. The design of the calendar, especially month and week layouts were done well before technology, tried and true ways of mapping out time. People don’t get anxious that most calendars and pickers in software try to emulate that layout.

“But but!” you’ll say, “those aren’t technically skeuomorphism, which singles out elements of design that are no longer necessary due to new material/technology.” I’d say this is both true and not true. Surely we could come up with novel ways (and have in some cases) to tackle the similar design challenges, provide such feedback in other ways that are more “digitally authentic.”

People argue that using skeuomorphs or even just metaphors doesn’t bring much more to the table than this initial learnability, but learnability can make or break software’s success.

Sometimes we can find new ways that are less cumbersome (e.g., tapping the edge of a page or a flip button). Yet that doesn’t mean that the old ways have to be discarded, or even that they can’t work together (the iPad apps fuse both skeuomorphic and authentically digital designs often quite successfully). That doesn’t mean that they don’t work at all. That doesn’t mean that they are less aesthetically pleasing.

And this is in addition to the learnability win that such design brings with it.

People argue that using skeuomorphs or even just metaphors doesn’t bring much more to the table than this initial learnability, but learnability can make or break software’s success. Especially in a market flooded with so many little apps–the initial experience people have can mean everything. If you can hook someone in with a familiar design, even a metaphor that only partly works, then let them discover the more efficient “authentic” design elements in time, that can be a win-win. Consider the post above that leans towards non-skeuomorph preference:

It uses a “book” icon next to the blog label. Surely the label is enough, and what place does such an outmoded thing as a book have in digital graphic design–for a blog? Icons are notorious for this kind of “baggage.” Even just considering metaphors, it is rarely a simple binary yes or no, as to whether they are employed.

We’re not babies. We don’t need to rediscover the world completely, slowly, building little by little on new experiences. We have a wealth of learned knowledge to draw on. Even what seems “intuitive” (like touching and dragging something on a surface) is not innate knowledge.

I have five kids, and while I’m no child clinical psychologist, I have watched them learn and explore their world, first just learning that they have arms and hands, then learning to control them, then picking up more understanding of what they can do and are good for bit by bit year over year–things that we take for granted as adults.

The point is, categorically eschewing a design approach because it relies on metaphor or design elements that are no longer necessary to the material is, to put it simply, naïve.  

It is always a question of how much we draw on past experiences in the design and how much we introduce new ones.  I guarantee any new design that tries to be completely innovative first of all will be a non-starter and secondly would be completely unintelligible to those not involved in the design process.

Good design is not just about functional efficiency (and it’s certainly not just about novelty or supposed “authenticity”).  This brings me back to magic. Apple has been mocked for using “magical” as a buzzword, but there really is something to it, and the sense of magic is, at least in part, created by their fusing of skeuomorphic design with digital design (and capabilities). I don’t need to drag out the cliché Asimov quote on this, do I?  Taking something that seems ordinary and familiar and granting it new, unexpected, and to the uninformed, inexplicable powers is magical.

Sure, familiarity will eventually rub off the initial tingling sensation of awe, but the lingering sense of wonder or at least appreciation will stick with you. And if it is, for instance, a gesture that you used (or visual you have seen) all your life and have many happy memories associated with it, those happy memories will transfer quickly, creating an emotional attachment (a GOOD THING for both usability and general product success), and you’ll find yourself lingering on these design elements occasionally, long after the initial amazement wears off.

I don’t think any designer would argue that you should always use skeuomorphism, but this meme that “skeuomorphic design” is bad or “weak” is something that designers need to stop and rethink. Maybe your app could use a little magic.

$99 Tough Love Resume and Portfolio Review

Tough love. Great Advice. Receive an one hour portfolio review and career coaching session online, or in person if you're in Seattle.

$99 with PayPal