Skeuomorphism: bringing Microsoft Bob back from the dead

Tobias Bjerrome Ahlin, an interface designer at Spotify, is a big believer in skeuomorphism. Whereas Apple is a strong advocate of this design concept, Microsoft is clearly moving in the exact opposite direction, while Android is in the process of moving away from skeuomorphism entirely, to a more digital experience. As a passionate hater of skeuomorphism in UIs, I found Ahlin’s examples to be a bit weak.

My big problem with skeuomorphism in UIs is that it feels degrading, like I’m being infantilised, treated like someone who should be taken by the hand and guided through to the big bad scary world of computing. You know, what Clippy was for. Heck, some of Apple’s interfaces these days – and the Photobooth and Find My Friends examples in Ahlin’s article illustrate this perfectly – remind me of Microsoft Bob, just with better graphics.

Ahlin’s central argument is that skeuomorphism makes UIs more fun. “An interface that is not only easy to use, but fun to use, engages the user and creates an experience where obstacles are easier to overcome, and thus an experience where the product is easier and more fun to use,” he argues, “Done right, skeumorphism can retain the simplicity and ease of use of an interface while empowering users to act.”

I feel like the exact opposite. When you look at an iPad, you’re looking at a screen. If the screen pretends to be paper but it doesn’t actually act like it’s paper, it’s just confusing. iCal on the iPad looks like an actual calendar with pages, and as such, I lost count of how many times I instinctively tried to flip the pages to move forward in time (I believe Apple fixed that now). This is a flaw many skeuomorphic user interfaces carry: they look like something from the real world, but they don’t actually act like said object from the real world. All skeuomorphism does in these cases is add another layer of complexity.

He also compares Garageband’s keyboard interface – made to resemble a real world keyboard – to a mockup he made of how such an interface would look in a mixture between Metro and Holo. While he’s actually cheating in that comparison (the Apple version has text on some buttons, while the mockup does not), it actually illustrates what happens when you take skeuomorphism too far.

Apple’s keyboard uses a sort of fancy cursive font that’s virtually unreadable – sure, it may be what the real world object Apple copied was using, but on this display it’s very hard to read. This is typographical skeuomorphism: instead of opting for a font optimised for on-screen reading, Apple dumped a print font on a screen, therefore making it harder to read. On top of that, the fake shadows, perspective, and reflection/gloss are off; they’re supposed to mimic the real world, but it’s just off enough that it becomes distracting. The gloss on the black keys is too bright to boot. Lastly, there’s a whole bunch of wasted screen real estate dedicated to imitating real-world buttons that just distracts from what the tool is supposed to do.

Comparing it to his – as said, not entirely fair – mockup, I know which one I’d choose. His mockup is cleaner, clearer, and therefore, more inviting. The buttons convey their meaning quicker because they’re simpler and more to the point. I’m using a digital device, so it makes perfect sense for the device to feel digital. When I get into my car, I don’t expect having to yell giddy-up or sit on a saddle.

Then there’s an even bigger, more overarching problem with skeuomorphism in user interfaces: the total and utter abandonment of consistency. Every application on iOS looks different and works differently. Buttons are jumbled all over the place, and even something as simple as how to move backwards in an app is inconsistent (arrows? Labels? Both? Top-left? Bottom? Swipe?). Non-skeuomorphic UIs, like Metro and to a lesser degree Holo, are far more consistent, making it infinitely easier and more intuitive to carry over knowledge of one application to the next.

On iOS, applications are visual and behavioural islands. On Windows Phone 7 (the poster child for anti-skeuomorphism), they’re all visually and behaviourally connected.

Now, his first two examples – Paper and Brushes – are far better examples of how skeuomorphism should work: like everything in life, moderation is key. And this moderation is what’s severely lacking in Apple’s recent UI designs, and this being Apple, many developers and designers just blindly up and follow them. I feel so much like a child when using iOS that I’m reconsidering purchasing the new iPad, because I’m pretty sure its new display just means a larger canvas for Apple to smear Clippy and BOB onto.

I’m sure some people will point to iOS’ sales figures as proof that skeuomorphism works, but that argument is just as flawed here as it is with desktop operating systems, music, film, and everything else. To me, skeuomorphism feels like moving backwards in time, into the wrong direction. I thought the technology world had long ago settled the matter that adding real-world metaphors to user interfaces is simply a very bad idea. I guess I was wrong.

This is actually something I alluded to in my iPad 2 review: the success of the iPad pretty much means Apple has very little – if any – incentive to improve the iOS user interface or move it in different, potentially better directions. When you really break it down, there’s been very little innovation going on in iOS’ user interface since its original inception, and this doesn’t bode well for the future.

As such, I’m fascinated by Metro (on tablets and smartphones, not on desktops or laptops) and Android 4.0’s Holo: they’re the exact opposite of what Apple is doing, and a breath of fresh air for us skeuomorphism critics.


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