Keeping it Less Real

Windows 3.0, released in 1990

Windows 3.0, released in 1990 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you’re old enough to remember the Windows 3.0 era then you’ll remember the heady excitement we felt of having real on-screen 3D buttons that moved in and out when clicked, giving a real sense of interaction.

This inevitably grew as hardware and software improved and soon we were greeted with music players that looked like real life stacking audio centres, photo tweakers designed for home use that sprouted all kinds of curves and colours, buttons and switches designed to make them look like the kind of futuristic handheld device we’d all be using to edit our digital photos in the 21st century.

Today this kind of effect is a doddle for modern computers but is it really necessary any more?  This is the current argument in interface design, or rather user experience (UX) design as it’s known now.

Back then computer interfaces were grey, cold, businesslike and the “realistic” apps were generally for more leisure based activities like editing photos at home, listening to music, watching movies and so developers made them more familiar and more friendly looking for the home users by emulating the physical interfaces people were generally used to, even if some of the designs could be, erm, bright, colour-scheme wise, looking like the result of a focus-group based on a primary school art class.  Even Windows XP went all technicolour in an attempt to escape the greyness.

However as computers have become more a part of our lives and more people are becoming accustomed to using web pages and modern shiny system like Windows 7 and OSX these imitations of the physical world on the 2D screen have, in places, started to look gimmicky.  Do users interact more easily with an iPad notebook app if it has a fake leather cover and bindings down the side?  Some people think so while others feel that the future is a “digitally pure” interface which presents information in a clear, at a glance manner without the need to emulate something real, after all you can see that you’re holding a little computer in your hand why does screen space need to be used up with decoration?

Fans of skeuomorphic apps (as these imitations of physical objects are called) say that the visual cues like Apple’s leather binding on the edge of its contact book app or the faux paintbrushes at the edges of many photo editors help to differentiate different apps for novice users and make the phone or computer easier to navigate.  Opponents point out that it’s the content that people will look at and recognise, knowing that a list that contains Aunt Mable is likely to be either Contacts or Facebook but they’re unlikely to think “I don’t know anyone called Amy Winehouse.”  Therefore clear, accessible and usable content is the thing.

As mainstream interface design moves away from the skeuomorphic we’re starting to see more emphasis on usability – toolbars containing elements other than buttons and sliders now that they’re not pretending to be the control panel of a 747 – on-screen dialogs in programs that adapt and flow, presenting a page of dynamic information and choices rather than a panel of switches.  3D effects are toned down to simply hint at the boundaries of the bit you’re meant to click on.

Pure digital has it’s advantages that skeuomorphism can’t compete with, after all if you pretend to be a notepad you have to live with a notepad’s physical limitations.  Perhaps there’s an element of the current trend for minimal, clean lines in design rather than bling but as long as it’s not taken too far this can help to improve usability.

Imitating the real still occasionally has a place, like the satisfying animated page turn when using an ebook reader but the tide is turning and designers are realising that modern purely digital interfaces don’t have to be boring and grey, that by utilising typography, colours, shapes and icons they can be vibrant, interesting, and have a life, and identity, of their own.

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