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Skeuomorphism

Leather And Laces

I learned a new word yesterday: skeuomorphic. It’s a great word. Wikipedia defines a skeuomorph as a “derivative object that retains ornamental design cues to a structure that was necessary in the original”. Wikipedia also supplies an alternative definition that makes it slightly easier to interpret: “an element of design or structure that serves little or no purpose in the artifact fashioned from the new material but was essential to the object made from the original material”.

An example is when a digital camera makes the noise of a SLR camera’s shutter whirring and clicking. Have you ever stopped to think, wait a minute, a digital camera doesn’t have that mechanism? Well you’d be right, it doesn’t; it simply plays an audio clip of an SLR camera shutter.

The use of the word that I saw yesterday was in the context of software applications, though; in particular, some of the applications that Apple ships with Mac OS Lion and Mountain Lion and which are also present in iOS on the iPhone and iPad.

Calendar/Notes

One of the applications is iCal/Calendar (it has either of those two names depending where it exists). iCal/Calendar has a leather appearance along the top with stitching and the remnants of torn pages; switching between months even triggers a page-flip animation.

Another application is Notes (which is not available on Mac OS Lion). Notes has a faux-leather appearance and has a wallet-style pocket seemingly holding the note paper in the left-hand side. See half-way down this page of an Arstechnica review of Mac OS Mountain Lion for a good critique of this app.

Korg Apps

Apple is not alone, mind you. Korg has released a few mobile apps that are facsimiles of its older hardware units. There is the iElectribe – clicking that link takes you to the iTunes web-page that profiles the app – which sports dials and buttons on an interface reproduced from the hardware original and the iMS-20 which, as well as dials, even reproduces the snaking audio leads connecting different parts of the synthesiser.

I think the Korg ones are examples of skeuomorphism that work well. There are interface sacrifices: dials by their very nature are three-dimensional and in the real-world you grip and turn them, so getting this to work in the digital realm requires a slight disconnect, or a leap of faith in the user. But the apps themselves are marketed as digital reproductions of analogue instruments, so the interfaces work.

Contacts

In contrast, the Apple applications gain little from the skeuomorphic elements of the interface, which appear to be there solely for effect; there is little if any actual performance or functionality benefit. If anything, in fact, the interface works to the detriment of utility in some cases. The Address Book/Contacts application (again, the name is different depending on the OS) is clumsy.

It is mimicking the little address books you might have carried around in your pocket or purse a few years ago. (In fact, in an attempt to turn your nose up at progress, you may still do!)

Look more closely at that interface, though. What is that bizarre red ribbon-like motif? Is it a bookmark? No, it’s actually the button that takes you to a previous, er, ‘page’ that lists your various contact groups. The great Arstechnica review mentioned above has a lengthy discussion on this.

Lessons

At Lambert/rubicon we pride ourselves in developing software interfaces that represent the best user experience. I can think of one or two examples, however, where we have used a skeuomorphic element that in hindsight has not added anything to the utility and functionality of the software.

We know the word; now we need to be careful that it can only be applied to our software when it is beneficial to the user.

(Photo of the shoe and shoelace is by Jakub Krechowicz. Other images are screenshots taken by Anthony Lambert.)