Saturday, 18 May 2013

Why Jonathan Ive won't be removing skeuomorphism from iOS 7

In the echo chamber of the blogosphere, it has become accepted wisdom that Jonathan Ive will be stripping all the skeuomorphisms from iOS 7, in favor of a flat new design aesthetic reminiscent of Windows 8.

I don't believe a word of it, and I'll explain why. But first, let's take a look at how these rumors have arisen.

It all stared with a wince and the response "I'm not really connected with that" when Ive was asked about faux leather and stitching in an interview with The Telegraph. Subsequently, as the result of a management re-shuffled, Ive became responsible for user interface design as well as hardware design. That same reshuffle saw the departure of Scott Forstall - the brilliant but mercurial head of iOS development. Further rumors suggested that he was the driving force behind skeuomorphism, and didn't get on well with Ive.

And that's where this whole "Ive hates skeuomorphism" meme has arisen from. Forstall in the skeuo corner versus arch-rival Ive in the non-skeuo corner. And now Ive has delivered his knock-out blow, Forstall's cherished iOS will be stripped of all its skeuo goodness. It's a great story - ideal for a comic book, perhaps. But in reality, it's overly simplistic.

Upon closer inspection, this "evidence" looks shaky. The Telegraph interviewer's question was specifically about stitched leather, presumably a reference to Apple's Find my Friends app, which is in my opinion, one of the ugliest apps Apple has ever designed. It's enough to make anyone wince, and it's a leap to assume that someone who considers Find my Friends wince-worthy is likely to loath everything about the current iOS user interface.

The problem with Find my Friends is not that it employs skeuomorphism. As I'll go on to argue, skeuomorphism is not only an indispensable element of iOS - it's also a technique that can be found in plenty of Ive's own hardware designs. Rather, the problem with Find my Friends is that the skeuomorphism is not employed in a relevant way and as a result it distracts rather than aids the user. We don't use use cowboy-style leather saddles to locate our friends, and so the yee-haw western style stitched leather adds nothing to our understanding of this app.

There are, however, plenty of examples where iOS employs skeuomorphism very effectively. Like the buttons that look like real clickable buttons. The keyboard that looks like a physical keyboard. The shadows around a viewport that imply more scrollable area beneath. The clocks that look like the Swiss Railway Clock. Or the calculator that, well, looks like a calculator... The list is endless. Does anyone seriously imagine that Ive hates all these things and wants to get rid of them all?

One need only look at Ive's own work to see that he's not averse to using skeuomorphism himself from time to time. Take the iPod for example, where the click wheel was designed to evoke the cone of a speaker. Or the silver plastic keyboard of the old Macbook Pro, which was make it look like it was made out of the same material as the aluminium body.

Ultimately, all user interface design is based upon metaphor - that's how it works and there's no escaping it. We build metaphors that are easier for the user to grasp that what's actually happening at a hardware level. Computers do not contain files in folders. But rather, fragments of data often located in many non-contiguous physical locations on a drive. Metaphors like files and folders provide a far better user interface than an attempt to illustrate what's really going on under the hood.

And there lies the rub. Ive's entire career is based upon designing complex objects to make them look simple. The minimalist hardware designs of Apple gadgets belies the complexity of what lies beneath the enclosure, and in an sense, that is a kind of skeuomorphism.

iOS is certainly due for a user interface refresh, and Ive will doubtless want to give it one. But he's never been one to make changes for the sake of it. There is always a reason. And his thoughtful approach to design always starts with getting an understanding of how something works. As a result, I think we're far more likely to see evolutionary rather than revolutionary design ideas. And as with every Apple product announcement, this will initially result in the inevitable griping, and ill-informed journalists claim that iOS 7 doesn't look as different to iOS or as similar to Windows 8 as it supposedly needs to. And yet a few months down the line, as usual, everyone will have discovered the wisdom of Apple's design choices.