Why Skeuomorphic Designs Fail

Apple executive Scott Forstall, in charge of iOS interfaces, has been forced out of the company by CEO Tim Cook. The last straw seems to have been Mr. Forstall’s refusal to sign an apology Apple issued over the quality of their Maps application, but Mr. Forstall’s unpleasantness had been reported for years. Though investors sold Apple on the news, many around the web celebrated the change because Mr. Forstall was a stauch supporter of skeuomorphic design, or designing software to look like its real-world counterparts. This style of design can be seen all over Apple’s recent applications. Their Notes app looks like a legal pad and portfolio. Calendar looks like a desktop calendar. Contacts looks like an address book. The most egregious example is Game Center; the app appears to be coated in the same green felt found on casino gaming tables.

Most of the criticism of Mr. Forstall (and, to be fair, of the late Steve Jobs, who also favored this type of design) centers around the aesthetics of the design. Recreating the stitched leather look of a portfolio for the Notes app seems garish and kitschy. This goes exactly opposite Apple’s excessive focus on the looks of their hardware, with a constant drive toward lighter and thinner devices. Thus Mr. Forstall’s departure and the promotion of Apple hardware designer (and noted minimalist proponent) Jonathan Ive has been heralded as good news for Apple by pundits.

While aesthetics are a good reason to oppose skeuomorphic design, I don’t think it’s the best reason. After all, some real-world interfaces look excellent when recreated on the screen. For example, we appreciate the frequency tuner sliders when adjusting the volume of different note frequencies. There are other ways to present this information, but mimicking an actual stereo system seems elegant. Skeuomorphic design fails not in terms of aesthetics but in terms of presenting universal design and failing to add to functionality.

Let’s consider a classic example of skeuomorphics: the floppy disk icon to represent “Save” in a program like Microsoft Word. The problem here is that this icon does not intrinsically represent saving something. First, floppy disks are outdated and not used any more. Second, a disk can be used for both retrieval (so, an “open” function) and storage; it doesn’t ONLY indicate saving something. Third, the use of this image isn’t universal. For example, Apple uses the image of a hard drive to represent hard drives of a computer. Thus a user clicking a disk icon is justified in believing that it will open a window showing the files on that disk.

This failure of universal design is present elsewhere. The Calendar application, both in OS X and on the iPad, has a header that is meant to look like leather, including design that makes it look like a page has been ripped off the top. But this style of calendar is not familiar to everyone. Indeed, even for those who recognize it, few have probably ever used such a calendar. So the design is visually confusing for some users. Rather than the design communicating how to use the software, it demonstrates clutter and confusion. For example, why are there clickable elements in the header of the calendar? The app’s presentation is designed to suggest that the header is NOT an interactive element, just like the traditional paper calendar it is mirrored after.

In short, not striving for universal design ends with systematic disadvantage to some users. Those users who do not share the worldview of the designer will be less able to use the program (at least initially) than users for whom the visual symbols are familiar. In some cases, skeuomorphic design may guide users (for example, a red octagon to indicate stop) but when there is no accompanying text and the symbol is not familiar (for example, a stop sign in Japan is a red inverted equilateral triangle), the design fails.

In many cases, too, skeuomorphic design does not provide useful functionality. There are certainly cases where it does. A confusing function can be represented by its real-world counterpart, like switches for turning options on and off or lined paper in Apple’s Notes app, which makes reading easier for the user. But in most cases, the choice is purely one of taste (or, as some argue, lack thereof). The hideous green felt of Game Center makes the app darker than it needs to be and its text more difficult to read.

Skeuomorphic design also pushes designers to think about functionality in terms of real-life functions. For example, we have separate planners and address books. Why? Because planners need to be replaced each calendar year, while address books are timeless. Focusing on this has lead Apple to produce separate apps for calendars and contacts. Then, because so often we want to refer to one when looking at the other, Apple has built in ways to move data back and forth, allowing you to bring up a list of contacts when in calendar. Digital design can do better than mimicking real-life, but not if matching the looks of everyday objects is the primary goal.

I will join the growing chorus of people saying I hate the design of many Apple apps. I doubt the firing of Scott Forstall will solve all the design issues right away. But asking designers to focus on functionality first and then on design may produce results that make apps better and reduce visual distraction. For inspiration, Apple can start with the design of their Calendar and Contacts apps for the iPhone. These are minimal in their construction with no unnecessary frills, partly because they must be seen on a small screen. Taking that same drive toward the iPad and desktop versions would be a step in the right direction. A blanket ban on ANYTHING resembling stitched leather would be another good place to start.

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