Ever since Scott Forestall has been fired and Sir Jony Ive has been given the responsibility over iOS’ user interface design, millions of people have been yapping on about this flat design hype and looking forward to get rid of the skeuomorphic approach that has been seen in iOS since it’s inception back in 2007. The one thing that struck me most while reading the countless tweets and articles that started to appear on the web is that close to all of them didn’t understand what skeuomorphism is and why it is so popular.
I’m not going to make my case about me hating flat design. Well, maybe I’ll get into it a little bit (later on). I made my case before iOS7 was announced and I’ve found that many people have started to agree with my opinion as the ‘new toy‘-feel is gone and the ‘everyday life‘-feel has started to creep up on them: Yes, the flat implementation of Apple in iOS7 is beyond crap and should be used in UI/UX classes in schools as an example of what not to do when creating interfaces for millions of users.
First off; back to the point: People want to get rid of skeuomorphism because it looks cheap. I love it when some design-major tells the world why it is time to get rid of skeuomorphism because it looks tacky. That’s always my cue to stop reading the article since it proves the author doesn’t actually understand the concept of skeuomorphism and clearly has trouble seperating skeuomorphism from realism. Because what many of you think is skeuomorphism, is in fact realism: A design-style you could in fact compare against flat design.
Realism is easily recognisable by the leather textures, the paper tears, a card-board background, a brushed alumium button, etc. In fact many of Apple’s own apps. The keyword here is textures. Many of the design clues in realism are based on beautifully crafted textures. And many people think that these textures imply skeuomorphic design.
So what is skeuomorphism? Well, I’m glad you asked and didn’t just follow the bunch of sheep without knowing why. Skeuomorphism isn’t so much a type of design as it is a way of building a user interface. Skeuomorphism is the easiest trick in the book to accomplish the most difficult task in the world: Get a computer to be understood by human beings.
Why is it the easiest way? Because it relies on the work that has been researched, refined, implemented and re-invented by other interface designers in the past: It relies on the user’s knowledge of understanding how a physical device, a machine, an interface works.
Let’s take a step back and think about the word interface. An interface -in technology world- is a way of providing a set of tools to users which enable these users to use the device that features the interface; to tell this machine what it is what you want it to do. Clean my cloths, show me the way to the opera, call my fiancee, find me the nearest restaurant, give me 50€ from my bank account. Interfaces are a machine’s way of allowing you to tell it what you want. Also known as communication.
I love video-chatting because it enables me to talk to people anywhere in the world while actually seeing them. Research showed that most of the human communication is body language. The human brain is so powerful, it enables us to process tone, speed, reaction time, use of words, rhythm, accent, eye contact, hand movement, cultural context and countless other signals during communication. It does this complex job in such a flawless way that we as humans have become dependant on this level of sophistication in our communication. Any lack of any of these signals in human communication could become a severe handicap.
The great thing about all that is that we can actually use the phrase: “I didn’t understand that. Could you explain that?”
Whenever somebody says something to you, that isn’t quite clear to you, you can just ask them to rephrase their question or explain themselves; giving them a second chance at getting their message across.
Back to machines and interfaces
Now think of your washing machine, your microwave or your alarm clock: These devices have no second chances at explaining themselves. You can’t just ask your washing machine what a specific button means. You have to go back to a manual or look it up on the internet. And that’s where the art of interface design comes in. Interface designers are superhumans that posses the very unique skill to enable machines to talk to humans; to enable machines of communicating –ever so slightly– with humans. It takes us -humans- years and lots of exercise to get great at talking to other people. Just imagine the herculean task of teaching a machine to understand what a person wants and how to provide understandable feedback.
Back to skeumorphism
Interface design on mobile devices used to be a lot of physical buttons and some basic-looking interface where function dictated design. However since iOS and iPhone saw the light, most mobile devices got rid of most physical buttons and used touch-interfaces to enable us to use them for more versatile tasks. This approach was rather new and not everyone was going to get the hang of using touch-interfaces immediately.
How do you explain somebody that he actually needs to touch the screen to make something happen if he has never used a touchscreen before? Let alone in an OS that the user has never laid eyes on? How do you clarify a user that he needs to slide a finger from left to right on the bottom of the screen to unlock the device?
These problems required a visual solution with subtle clues that would explain themselves. As stated before: the easiest solution for this is relying on already existing knowledge. People have used countless devices, machines and tools before. Things that required similar actions like the one Apple needed for some of their interfaces.
Using clues from those different devices and tools would immediately enable users to understand the new interface on this new device. The design of the interface of the app would start to come to live as users understand the interface because they know it; even before they had actually seen it.
So that’s skeuomorphism?
Yes: Taking real-life physical interfaces and bringing them to digital screens in order to imitate the usage of their physical counterparts -sometimes with their real-life physical limitations- in order to help users understand how to use an app or website.
The arrow-shaped back-button in the toolbar in iOS6, a dial, a date-picker, the on/off-switches and countless other interface elements were part of skeuomorphism. It helped users understand what the buttons do and how users could use them and what they allowed people to do. And while their functional implementation is often skeuomorphism, the look used to be driven by textures and real-life looks which made the skeuomorphic approach even more powerful. That popular combo was probably why so many people mistakenly referenced skeuomorphism when they meant realism.
The way how skeuomorphism influenced design decisions in iOS was something that reminded me very much of what Steve Jobs once said about design: “Design is not just what it looks and feels like. Design is how it works.”
The calculator example
The greatest example of skeuomorpism in iOS is the Calculator app. It looks and behaves just like the real-life calculators back in the 1980’s. And even though the look of the app has changed drastically in iOS7, the behavior of the app hasn’t changed at all. So while you wanted to get rid of skeuomorphism and cheered for flat design, you got to keep skeuomorphism and see it applied in a flat designed app. Yes, the realistic textures -that made it look retro- are gone but the skeuomorphism is still there.
Back to the point
And that is exactly my point: Realism or texture-heavy design is often mistaken for skeuomorphism while these are actually not even comparable. Flat design is a design philosophy that aims at minimizing and simplifying interface designs and getting rid of as much eye-candy as possible.
Skeuomorphism is a way of building user interfaces and the user experience around this interface based on physical counterparts to simplify a user’s understanding of the interface based on his prior experiences with these physical counterparts.
I hate the flat design style. Why? I miss the delight. That’s it. The greatest example of a great loss due to flat design is Apple’s updated Podcast app. The previous version was beautifully crafted and gave me a special feeling whenever I listened to a podcast.
Replacing that experience with a flat interface took away the delight. It became just an app with a few buttons and some album art that played podcasts. I can’t help but think of the word ‘boring‘.
I’m not going to force my realism-love on you. If you’d like to express your opinion on the subject and tell the world how flat design will make this a better world for my future kids, then go right ahead and do so. All I’m asking is for you is to be educated about the subject before making statements like ‘flat design is a great change as skeuomorphism looks cheap due to its overusage of textures‘. That’s like saying that electric cars are better for the environment because they look better.