Speaking of Skeuomorphism

With all of the changes taking place over at Apple, people are wondering how it will affect the design of their future products – both the external look and the software interface. As a result, skeuomorphism is very much on the minds of systems and UX designers.

Skeuomorphism gets a pretty bad rap among many tech-savy computer folks. It’s kitschy, it’s gimmicky, it’s corny. Some feel that it dumbs down the essential nature of digital technology. By over-emphasizing analog equivalents (equivalencies that are, arguably, false in their foundation) skeuomorphism runs the risk of obscuring many of the things digital technology can do that analog can’t – the aspects of the digital tool for which there is no analog equivalent.

Mashable has a delightfully snarky gallery of some of Apple’s more infamous uses of it:

Say Farewell: Apple’s Skeumorphism Hall of Shame

Many of these criticisms are largely correct. So why am I still a fan of skeuomorphism?

I agree that there are many of examples of badly executed skeuomorphic design. But I don’t agree that this represents an intrinsic failure of skeuomorphism as a design principle – most of these examples are just badly designed in general.

The overwhelming majority of criticism of skeuomorphism that I hear comes from deeply embedded techie cognoscenti. In other words – people who don’t need familiar touches and landmarks from the analog world to help guide them through a digital realm. These are people who have already gone as pure digital as possible and already feel at home there.

One frustration I constantly run into in the culture of web and computer design is the near-universal assumption among most tech-geeks that certain ways of understanding and interacting with technology are widely held by all. They assume that all users have a basic level of comfort with technology – and they constantly, and significantly, over-estimate that level for the average person (not for the average technology user, but for the average person).

Then I think about my mother-in-law – a woman who hasn’t used a computer regularly outside of work (where she only uses dedicated accounting software) in almost a decade. My mother-in-law is extremely wary of new technology. It’s not because she sees no value in it, and it’s certainly not because she isn’t capable of learning the skills! But until very recently, computer culture required users to have knowledge of previous systems in order to be able to use the newest ones. My mother-in-law takes it for granted that she won’t be able to use the newest tech because she hasn’t kept up with the last 10 years of development – and she doesn’t have the time or energy to try and catch up.

She’s resigned herself to the idea that for the rest of her life she’ll be left behind and out of the technological loop.

Skeuomorphism overcomes that reluctance. It allows new technology to feel familiar to her; it allows her analog instincts to tell her how to use this technology – despite her lack of experience. Familiarity and successful use breeds confidence – with confidence, she feels empowered to play and explore… and that’s when she starts to discover the digital-only functionality it has to offer.

Skeuomorphism functions as a buffer zone between her analog world and helps to ease her into this new, shiny digital world.

A central guiding principle of UX design is that a user shouldn’t have to know anything at all about technology in order to use it. You shouldn’t have to be up on last 10 years of development in order to use the newest gadgets and tools. Interfaces should be so intuitive that knowledge of preceding systems is unnecessary. Skeuopmorphism is a powerful tool towards that goal! And it was, specifically, Apple and their strategic use of it that started to change this paradigm.

That being said… I do think many designers use skeuomorphism as a crutch, as a lazy short-cut to make something “user friendly” without having to put much genuine thought into it. I recognize that there are some entirely intuitive digital interface designs that don’t rely on skeuomorphic touchstones. But I think that many (not all, just many) critics of skeuomorphism don’t truly understand users like my mother-in-law and, in condemning it, they’re throwing out rather a lot of babies with the bathwater.

My perspective is, of course, strongly influenced by my role as a public librarian: Software and hardware developers and designers work on the cutting edge of technology. They’re so deeply embedded in digital culture that they tend to lose perspective on the relationship that the average person has to technology. They design for people who are already more-or-less familiar and comfortable with technology, people who have actively participated – as consumers, as users, as contributors – in its evolution and development.

But what about all the people who weren’t a part of that history? Public libraries are deeply embedded in addressing the Digital Divide. It isn’t just about the lack of access and lack of equipment – because they haven’t participated in the development of digital culture, people on the other side of the divide lack basic technological literacy. Skeuomorphism is just about the best tool we have to try and address this illiteracy and teach digital skills.

[Disclaimer: Yes, I’m aware that skeuomorphism and analog-equivalence aren’t always the same thing. But the skeuomorphic design features that everyone is talking about – specifically in regards to Apple products – are the attempts to make digital environments look analog. So they’re pretty much interchangeable for the purposes of this post.]

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