Ghost in the Pixel

Uday Gajendar's musings on interaction design

Some thoughts on skeuomorphism…

This recently came up at work as part of an email discussion thread…Below are some excerpts of my own responses, formatted for public consumption. Enjoy!

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Skeuomorphism is certainly a hot topic in the UX community… but not amongst users, per se. I have never heard a user say the word, or complain about the alleged problems of skeuomorphism (which I myself only learned about just recently, after practicing design for 10+ years). Only designers do! Go ahead, ask a random person at the bus stop and they’ll look at you like you’re from Mars.

The two driving affronts IMHO to “elite designer sensibilities” of the anti-skeuomorph argument are (a) tackiness of visual form like a gaudy faux stitched leather and (b) intense desire to cleanly break from historical, literal metaphors much like the Futurists did in 1900s with painting (recall Marinetti’s famous declaration: “What can you find in an old picture except the painful contortions of the artist trying to break uncrossable barriers which obstruct the full expression of his dream?”) . So, taste and history. Hmm…

I don’t know of any actual studies on task efficiency/effectiveness or other usability metrics impacted by skeuomorphs, or serving as basis of anti-skeuomorph arguments, but love to hear of any if folks know about that! :-)

Key value-add aspects of UI chrome & skeuomorphic designs: visual affordances for cuing, framing and anchoring elements to give sense of orientation and focus, sense of place amidst richly interactive space. Really a matter of finding that “sweet spot” of balance between affordance, content, functionality, discoverability…and delight!

This essay in MIT Tech Review has good points too:

“Windows Phone may look like the future, but iPhone looks like home.” I think that nails it! Metro is very slick and cool and innovative, but will customers warm up to it? Time will tell. It’s always a struggle, futurism vs familiarity. There’s no easy answer.

And, as for Citrix Product Design philosophy…We don’t really have a specific point on this. We’re advocating clean, simplified, beautifully engaging designs for useful, coherent admin and end-user experiences across devices/platforms, via our Citrix visual brand strategy, appropriate for markets (Receiver vs Netscaler, for instance). We follow our design principles and common UI patterns for web & mobile, with innovation of course. Would be interesting if design situations arise where more “skeuomorphic” styles are valued and useful.

Of course, it is much harder than it seems, if largely because it seems to be such a struggle to define exactly what it means to be “authentically (or purely) digital”. Does everything get reduced to Atari 2600 graphics and “bare-metal” code? Metro is one approach with many good points but is also starkly utilitarian for many. I respect the “honesty to materials and medium” argument of Modernism which has a certain timeless integrity, but how to support that when “the digital” is infinitely malleable via code and pixel—which are virtual, abstract, and ephemeral? Inherently chameleon-like in nature for mimicry or novel expression. In my mind, “to be digital” is to be “chameleon”, not just Modernistic Swiss, rife with potential.

At the end of the day I still believe that we are messy emotional human beings who value warmth, richness, charm, texture, and delight, regardless of creed or material. Supporting and enhancing our humanity is still the supreme challenge of “designing in/for the digital”, subject to a plurality of interpretations and stylistic manners. It’s finding that sweet spot…Still no easy answers!

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