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Skeuomorphism: The Opiate of the People (andymangold.com)
126 points by pchristensen 2236 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 51 comments

There's a difference between "looking like something I'm familiar with" and "working like something I'm familiar with". The problem with bad skeuomorphic design is when it looks familiar but doesn't act like the thing it's mimicking.

A good example of this was brought up by Josh Clark in his talk at Swipe Conference a few months back: the Address Book app on the iPad. The main interface is an open book, but you can't swipe through pages like you're actually reading an address book. In fact, if you swipe in the middle of the right page, you're going to swipe on a contact's field and then a delete button will pop up! Trying to swipe from page to page (like you would if this design mimicked the real object's affordances) could actually be a destructive action.

The design of Classics for iPhone and, later on, iBooks is skeuomorphic and resembles an open book, but you can (mostly) treat the app as if you would a book using similar actions. This is an example of skeuomorphic design that actually works. It looks and works like the real world thing it's emulating.

Bad skeuomorphic design simply looks familiar, but the user experience takes a wrong turn as soon as you start to use it like you would use the real thing. Bad skeuomorphic design can actually deeply harm the user experience because it builds up a false trust with users.

However, using real-world textures, patterns and materials like leather, tartan, glass and aluminum in your app interfaces just to spice it up a bit does not necessarily mean you're designing in a skeuomorphic manner if these items are used purely in an ornamental sense. An app like Find My Friends that looks like a baseball glove obviously isn't made to replicate a baseball glove's functionality, it simply uses some stitched leather textures from the real world. This doesn't mean it's a skeuomorphic interface but it does, in this case, mean it's ugly. The secret is to use realistic patterns and textures sparingly, not drop them from the sky all over the screen.

I always found iBooks' attempt at skeuomorphism really off-putting, at least on the iPad: the size of each page will change depending on whether you hold it portrait or landscape, and so the number of pages, and on which pages text can be found, will all change. I actually stopped using it shortly after downloading it for exactly this reason. It promises to behave like a book, but falls far short. No pages at all would have been preferable.

I want something between Kindle and iBooks. Kindle is too flat and lacks any personality. iBooks gives the personality, but the skeuomorphic behavior is off just enough to be disconcerting (like a robot that is almost, but not quite, human).

But what hadn’t occurred to me is that it doesn’t matter if it actually does make it easier to use, all that matters is that it makes the average person think it’s easier to use. In reality, a user must take time to learn any interface, whether clad in faux leather or not. The skeuomorphism in iOS plainly tricks people that might otherwise walk away, convinced that they can’t learn something new, into putting in the time required to get acclimated to a new interface.

For every one designer pointing out flawed and unnecessary ornamentation in iOS, one hundred non-designers, normal people, are tricked into thinking they understand something new.

But this is violated as soon as that person walks up and tries it and the thing doesn't work the way they thought they knew it would.

Skeuomorphism can help when used properly. If something looks like a button, I know by metaphor that pushing it will do something. What's really tragic about Apple's recent use of skeuomorphism is that it often doesn't make any metaphorical sense, and is also horribly ugly.

But I think we should move on. The people that need skeuomorphism as a crutch are dying out. The new generations are growing up with digital interfaces. We're artifically limiting what we can do by simulating physical things.

Here's my first attempt at thinking about what the implications of wholly embracing the digital medium are: http://blog.byjoemoon.com/post/9325300749/a-different-kind-o...

Matias Duarte, designer of WebOS and Android 4.0, talks about embracing wholly digital interfaces and how it's the underlying philosophy for Android 4.0 and up. Check out this interview if you haven't already: http://www.theverge.com/2011/10/18/exclusive-matias-duarte-i...

I have and it's a great interview. It's actually got me really excited about what I thought would be a fairly pedestrian OS upgrade.

But I still don't think it goes far enough. I think there are certain conventions that make sense for a handheld device with a touchscreen. What I talk about in the blog post is for desktops, though. I think for ergonomic reasons, a display that's separate from the input device is necessary for 'real work.' From that starting point, there are a lot of wholly digital ideas that can make computing a lot more powerful and productive if we embrace it.

But this is violated as soon as that person walks up and tries it and the thing doesn't work the way they thought they knew it would.

Point is, that happens after they've paid for it.

I wonder how these points relate to the high satisfaction rate of iPhone users. Or maybe there's no relation at all?

Probably not much. Most of the skeuomorphism is actually relatively new.

Point is, actually, that it will be no more difficult to use than a UI with plain graphics, so if the (ugly) leather makes people feel better about it, why not?

No, I still don't like it, but the thesis in the article makes sense.

That’s mostly true for iCal and Address Book on OS X, not any iOS app. Those are generally well thought out and they usually at least don’t deceive. Yeah, iBooks for the iPad shows pages left and right that never change, no matter how little or much of the book you have read (which is monumentally stupid) but that’s a little thing.

It's worse with OS X, but iOS has its share, too. iBooks is just one, and it's not just the page stacks. I'd argue that the whole skeuomorphic interface is misplaced. I find the page-turning animation to be a useless, nostalgic novelty. But not just that, I've seen someone get confused by the fact that in landscape mode, each page is printed on both sides, while in portrait mode, only one side of each page is available/printed on. How do you get to the other half? Of course, there are more glaring problems with iBooks. Like scrolling in parts of a page of a book? Pieces of pages that are buttons? A bookmark that's a button?

More examples: Calendar for iPad. (Leatherette buttons? Really?) Notes app. (Marker Felt makes me want to throw up.) Contacts.

“More examples: Calendar for iPad. (Leatherette buttons? Really?) Notes app. (Marker Felt makes me want to throw up.) Contacts.”

That’s aesthetics, not UI design.

I'll give you the second, but I'd argue that the leatherette buttons confuse the metaphors.

It’s still clearly recognizable as a button. That’s all that matters.

How does the leather skin on "Find My Friends" trick people into assuming familiarity? It's an application without a physical analog, other than shouting your friends' names really loudly or wearing a weird hat or bright shirt.

I think someone with a high position in Apple's iOS app software department just really likes that leather look, and people are reading way too much into this. There are cases where the skeuomorphism is appropriate, such as the striped yellow notepad or the wooden bookshelf in iBooks, but Apple has clearly extended the use of these themes beyond where they make any kind of logical sense, making them simple arbitrary aesthetic choices.

I think it's as simple as "it doesn't look computery".

Could it be a function of 'comfort in familiarity' in what's otherwise a jarringly personal app?

To me, it just looks weird, with interface elements such as buttons and text fields sculpted in leather. I cannot see how it would make me feel familiarity.

Maybe comfort is a better word for it.

It would be interesting to see an A/B test of the leather UI and a standard iOS UI — something that looks exactly like Google Maps with Latitude on top of it, for instance.

I'd be willing to bet that the leather UI is better received by users. The app is divulging a core aspect of privacy but it certainly manages to look friendly doing it.

The physical counterpart is a "Rolodex" or leather address book

What you're referring to is the Contacts app (which happens to have a clean, standard-themed interface on the iPhone, though I believe it does have a leather-themed interface on the iPad). The "Find My Friends" app is a new buddy geolocation app from Apple released (in the App Store) alongside iOS 5; it's similar to Google Latitude.

Isn't the purpose of a Rolodex to "find my friends" ? I believe that's what they were going for. It's weak, sure...

Find My Friends displays their current location on a map using GPS. The analogy to a Rolodex is pretty weak.

The biggest problem is the use of metaphors that won't make sense in a couple of years. When we don't have printed magazines and newspapers we'll be stuck with the legacy of dated apps and metaphors.

Indulging in objectively bad design in the short term to appease technically inexperienced users isn't a solution, it's putting a band aid on the infected wound of inconsiderate UI designer.

For more on that line, I wrote about it a few days ago http://designedbygold.com/2011/10/the-metaphors-breaking-the...

Are you talking about "Save to disk" icons that include pictures of floppy disks? =:)

Absolutely - great example.

You have to then mix in demographics. Apple has always targeted the 50+ market, most companies do infact target that bracket as its where the money is.

Off the top of my head the reasoning is because that demographic have paid the majority of there debts, kids have left home etc... The other main demographic is 20-30 people before they have locked in mortgages and are busy spending money on looking good trying to find a partner.

With that on board your statement is incorrect because you probably have another 10+ years before the metaphor starts to break down.

The next issue is the rebirth of kitsch. The hipster movement. People who are openly rejecting technology for a sense of realism. They are reinjecting the metaphor to a generation where it should be dying.

What you might find is your design is targeting the central demographic where there is no money to spend, and Apple is targeting the older and younger where the money is, and as I noted above where the metaphors do make sense.

I personally think you have your demographics all wrong there, but if you have any evidence to back it up I'd (honestly) love to read about it, do you have any links?

Sorry I don't really have any good links, my knowledge on demographics comes from working in the news/TV industry and attending a lot of marketing meetings.

Heres one I found in a quick google: https://www.aarpglobalnetwork.org/netzine/TrendWatch/northam... but TBH you might as well search the topic yourself if you have a real interest.

Anyway it makes logical sense though when you think about it, and there is plenty of evidence if you watch TV or open magazine. But here is an overview:

The school age people, although highly influenceable don't have spare cash mainly because they don't have a job (or just a part time job). So thats roughly your 15-25 group, you can sell them cheaper more fashionable items. Music has always been a real winner here because its cheap and fashionable.

The next major bracket is 25-35, people who have there first jobs, no real debts, and are trying to settle down or impress others. You can't really sell big ticket items here because they are often saving for a house or something, but medium range stuff you can.

between 35-50 its a wasteland, people have priorities that trump marketing, kids, mortgages etc... You won't see a lot of advertising targeted to this group unless its to do with kids or household items. Car manufacturers target this bracket a bit I think, but really its to much of a hard sell when there is easy money else where.

The next group is the 50-65, these people who suddenly have there lives back. Not a hugely impressionable group but will really splash out on the big ticket items. New cars, expensive holidays, this is where the real money is. Need a computer? buy something top of the line.

I remember hearing 45-55 chucked around a lot in meetings, this would be the mid life crisis bracket. More or less the same bracket as the 50-65 but I guess more impressionable due to the fear of getting old.

65+ it changes again because health starts to become an issue. Priorities start to trump.

So theres only two demographics with money 25-35, and 50-65. With the 50-65 being the real spenders.

Apple historical has had a majority 50+ user base, but recently has started selling very well in the 25-35 bracket. Co-incidence? I think not.

Thanks! Illuminating, I'd not thought of it like that.

I think it has it's place but I mainly use it as a way to inform the user's concept of an app or a portion of an app.

Example: At WePay we don't use skeuomorphism in the UI except for receipts and tickets, these are parts of the app that have a real world analog and we want to stress that these are the valuable results of a transaction that should be held on to.

In the end you have varying degrees of metaphor in UI design, this is just one of them...

Related: http://madebymany.com/blog/apples-aesthetic-dichotomy. This writer brings up an excellent question: for whatever reason Apple seems to think having skeuomorphic interfaces is a good idea.... so why isn't this reflected in the hardware itself? Why is the macbook/ipad not designed to look like a notepad or briefcase?

This exactly. On the outside Apple's devices are sleek and futuristic and often boldly unconventional. For some reason they seem to lose their nerve when it comes to software.

This is blowing one element of design way out of proportion. I'm not a huge fan of brown leather, but to me, iCal is much easier to look at and functionally clear than Google Calendar, and part of this has to do with the use of texture.

When I open iCal (in the cloud or desktop), my focus rests naturally on the actual calendar because the texturing puts all the settings in the background. I like that the calendar itself is elegantly centered on the screen. I like that it has only settings I'm likely to use and that menus I use less the calendar selection column) are completely out of the way.

I don't have any problem using Google Calendar, but it's flatness annoys me. The calendar is lumped into the bottom of the screen, which is kind of an odd de-emphasis of the most used element of the app. The banner and many controls I don't use all the time have the same dark hue as the current week. Search is disproportionately (for my calendar usage, anyway) prioritized in terms of screen space. The whole left column (with the garish "create" button and a mini calendar) is basically useless.

Yeah, Apple needs to go easy on the leather (surely something could be more consonant with that silk texture), but ultimately Google has a lot more to learn from iCal than vice versa. And I think iCal actually shows, albeit imperfectly, that texture does have its place.

interesting read, but I would have appreciated a few more examples of skeuomorphism other than the leathery ical. frankly I ask myself whether it's possible to design a GUI without any skeuomorphisms at all. Wouldnt we be unable to use it? aren't we only able to interact with computers and with the world in general because we remember certain visual clues on what the expected behaviour is (eg. red & green traffic lights, light switches, door knobs...)?

It would be pretty much impossible. People are symbol processors, if they don't understand any of the symbols then they can't learn it. This is probably why car analogies are prevalent in the tech field, and higher dimensional spaces are difficult to understand.

It's extremely difficult to understand what Mayan tablets mean because we don't understand the symbols. This is why things like a rosetta stone are so important, because they give us clues as to what symbols mean.

Every symbol is evaluated in the context of the individual.

Designing an interface with no 'skeuomorphisms' would be extremely difficult, it's arguable that roman letters themselves are 'skeuomorphisms' of the requirements originally for stone tablets. An interface with no skeuomorphisms is like a person who no one can relate to. It's the difference between learning a new language and learning a new word in a language you already know.

"Good" designers have their own symbology so designers who are trained find other "haute" design easy to use. Since most people aren't "haute" designers it becomes difficult to relate to and use their designs.

There's a great article out there about a hotel that installed really well designed light switches that no one could use but everyone loved once they figured out how to use them. "Haute" design is like C4, it has huge activation potential to overcome but once you overcome it, it's explosively powerful. However, the activation potential is a hinderance to adoption.

"People are symbol processors"


"Since most people aren't "haute" designers it becomes difficult to relate to and use their designs."


It's easy to judge how realistic or beautiful a face is, but much harder to draw it. Similar concept with design.

I think you're making a fundamental assumption that design/drawing/visual disciplines are symbol-based, when they are not symbol-based.

I highly suggest reading "Drawing on the right side of the brain". I've studied art, and in every drawing class something along the lines of "No, symbols are bad, boo egyptian eyes, switch to the right side of the brain" was said at some point.

For people who learned computers at an early age (which is hypothesized to be everyone in the future developed world), UI elements are not metaphors but pure abstractions. And yet they have no trouble learning them.

If Safari had prominent wood grain I'd care, but the fact that this kind of design is isolated to a few of Apple's more obscure, lesser used apps makes this whole thing a non-issue.

I will say that I prefer iBook to the reading app I actually use (Kindle, since I'm in Amazon's ecosystem) - I find the subtle border and gradients on the edges (and a handsome color scheme) more pleasing to the eye than the flat "text on a plain background" that I see in the Kindle and Google Books apps. Done right, texture and shadow can subtly draw the eye to the most relevant section of a screen. To me, the flat interfaces that the anti-skeutomorph people seem to admire are unnatural and decidedly uneasy on the eyes.

Apple's skeuomorphic design for iCal is bad. iCal has been made to look like a real calendar, but in reality it isn't used like a real one at all.

If iCal worked like a real calendar, skeuomorphism would have value, but in its current form, it's just an ugly skin. It doesn't actually show users how to use it.

Read about it here: http://arstechnica.com/apple/reviews/2011/07/mac-os-x-10-7.a...

You're confusing affordance with skeumorphism.

Skeuomorphs are non-functional, by definition.

By who's definition? Some common skeuomorphs are shutter sounds on cameras without physical shutters and page turn animations in e-books. These are both skeuomorphs because they reference functionality in an earlier object, and they are largely ornamental. However, these are also functional. The shutter sound tells the user that the picture has been taken, and the page turn animation provides a visual transition between two pages. Both of these could be accomplished other ways (such as a chime and cut-through-white respectively), but that doesn't make them entirely non-functional.

This is what happens when high design meets the real world. As much as it pains designers to realise, most people have shitty taste and as such, there are times when compromises must be made to get them on board. As Reichenstein notes, for most consumer-targeted UIs, users won't even give your serious design a chance if it lacks a bit of eye candy. You'll just have to find some kind of balance.

You make it sound like your particular taste is superior. But minimalism is not the end-it-all. It's one of many possible styles.

What does it even mean that "most people have shitty taste"? I guess it's easy to agree with that on an emotional level because taste is so varied. There is always bound to be a large number of people that you don't agree with in taste. That is completely subjective though, those people will probably find your taste shitty.

This is very entertaining and revealing. It helps me realize why I have been unable to get myself to use any of those apps with wood grain, leather, etc.

I'd argue that designers should stop overreacting to this though b/c few are innocent of using typefaces in a nostalgic way from time to time.

I ended up clicking over to the (very interesting) wikipedia definition.

Does anyone know what the purpose of the Maple syrup handle is?

It doesn't have a purpose; that's the point. It's modelled after the handle on larger jugs, which permit the user to hold the jug-- but that makes sense on a gallon jug, and not on a half-pint jug.

Shaquille O'Neal: the Michael Jordan of Basketball.

I think it just gives people the confidence to play around with it. And that's what really matters. As longs as people are willing to play with it and aren't scared away, the design is pretty darn good.

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