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.

19 comments:

  1. If you're going to write about Jonathan Ive, you could at least get his name right. Is that too much to ask?

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  2. Oops -thanks. Corrected that.

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  3. Missed one "Ives". Last sentence of paragraph 7. Proof reading can do wonders!

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  4. I would agree. Look at iBooks it uses a shelve but has no purpose I can organize my books by shelves or hide shelves etc. it's a familiar image with less functionality than in real life

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  5. on the iOS device i think we can see two distinct types of skeuomorphism. one is of the visual kind, leather materials, glass etc, just visual aid that, at most, lends itself to make new look comfortably old and familiar.... and then there's knobs, sliders and buttons. whilst there was less reason for music programs on the mac to make controls look like the original synthesisers – the iOS actually changed user input to use touch controls, where again knobs and sliders are appropriate because of the human hand/finger.

    the latter is obviously functional, and that will be kept. whilst leather for it's own sake can go.

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  6. I do think the oddly colored & textured header of the Calendar application, so often cited, was done for a reason that I've never seen mentioned.

    For some in business the Address Book window never closes and is used constantly. The visual look of Calendar is instantly recognizable with 2 dozen windows open whether in standard format or in splayed reduced format (3 fingers slid up on trackpad; I don't remember what they call this mode.)

    All other applications are Grey headers which are oddly similar looking, which doesn't aid instant recognition sometimes.

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    1. I think that's a really good point. Totally agree. The "branding" off the apps, giving each a distinct visual identity does provide the user with extra cues. It only goes awry where the metaphor starts to limit the UI layout, which I think is the case with the Address Book on OS X, where a three column layout really doesn't work well in a double page spread format.

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  7. I'm confident in saying that the iPod click wheel was never seen by Ive as "a speaker" but rather as an efficient (and genius) bit of work in UI functionality.

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  8. I wish people would quit pushing Windows 8 as somehow "beautiful." It's bland and hideous. It reminds of the last days of DOS when Microsoft tried give it a "windows like" interface. AKA white text on flat, mono-colored rectangular backgrounds (complete with fixed, "we know better than you do," multi-pane "windowing"). Shudder. It also throws away nearly thirty years of human interface research. "Is that a button, a caption, editable text?" No way of knowing other than randomly tapping on it to see what happens.

    Windows 8's interface is the least well received interface in computing history and Windows Phone 8 is an utter failure. Why on earth would Apple throw away one of the most popular phone interfaces in history to copy it?!? In short, if you think the Windows 8 interface is so wonderful, go buy a Windows 8 phone and leave the rest of us alone!

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  9. Respectfully, your article shows a misunderstanding of what skeuomorphism is. "[B]uttons that look like real clickable buttons" is not skeuomorphism. Skeuomorphism is defines as "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." A button that functions like a button and looks like a button is not Skeuomorphism. Nor is a "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."

    Skeuomorphism would be a leather look to a file that represents a book. No need for that. No need for useless scrollwork. It's just a pretty ornament that adds no value to the user experience. Your examples were not skeuomorphism.

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    1. This is like Alanis Morissette's use of "Ironic" all over again :)
      I respectfully disagree. A button in a UI does not need to look shiny and clickable - making it look that way is a reference to a physical button. Microsoft's live tiles in Windows 8 are flat looking - the appearance of a physical button is non-essential.

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    2. Some of this discussion reminds me of the whole discussion years ago that "if the icon is good enough, no explanation is needed". I think this goes way back to an attempt to make symbols for controls in automobiles (a light bulb vs the word "Lights" so as to attempt to comprise a form of internationalization. It was followed in computer UI with an attempt to show icons only (no caption), then later tool-tips (rollovers) that would appear after a pause of the cursor over the icon. And then there is Apple's lovely toolbar UI that allows the customer to choose icons, text or both! I prefer both and I feel most people do. The point is if the UI "makes them think" it is not as smooth and automatic as it shoulld be.

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  10. I think at one extreme iOS suffers from in-your-face skeuomorphism for the sake of it that would look at home on a Commodore Amiga (Find my Friends, Game Center) and I certainly wouldn't miss that. However, at the other end of the scale is the subtle, brilliantly executed skeuomorphism that screams attention to detail, for example in the Music app the way the simulated reflection on the volume/progress sliders changes as the device is tipped and tilted. It's those kind of touches - the ones that the majority of people probably never even notice - that I think define what iOS should be like.

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  11. Totally agree with your distinction.
    Great example with the reflections on the volume sliders - that's a beautiful touch, and shows how skeuomorphism can be awesome.

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  12. How'd this pan out for ya?

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  13. This is very funny. I wonder if this could help me in my quest for skin tightening. Please keep up the good writing.

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