Thanks to Shad for bringing this topic back into the conversation this past week. For whatever reason, with the rise of mobile phone interfaces and a backlash from the clean/modern/utilitarian school of UI design, a move to skeuomorphs has become mainstream in the public consciousness. I remember seeing a bunch of commentary on the web when Mac OS X 10.7 was in development, because many of the primary apps were overhauled to include more textured, real-world components.

iCalAddress Book

Address Book DetailI was reminded of this conversation a couple of days ago, when I read another article about skeuomorphs that argued that “retro” design was ruining innovation in the UI space (WIRED UK Article). While his argument makes sense from one perspective, I disagree with the substance of the argument as it pertains to criticism of objects in a given space and context. The main issue for this author appears to be the claim that we are “lashing designers to metaphors of the past,” but he fails to give an explanation for how users understand interfaces without the aid of a priori metaphor. While I agree that blatantly copying manifestations of physical objects into digital ones could potentially be problematic, I see less of that than might first meet the eye. It seems, in the two examples that I provided, that the skeuomorphic characteristics are primarily framing devices. That is, these artifacts are presenting an indexical and iconic quality that links them with their physical manifestations (the role of the skeuomorph), but primarily through their window “chrome.” While the bar of the calendar app may appear to be leather, once the user is looking in the primary work area, the interface is clean and spartan. I suspect that these custom UI chromes are actually easier to pick out in a mess of windows, lending an immediate, iconic quality to each application. This iconic link is only strengthened by the use of the skeuomorphic characteristics in areas that would already be “non-live.” You would never be caught starting at the binding of a paper calendar any more than you are distracted by that same element in the digital version (which also clearly includes non-physical objects like the search bar and navigation tools).

Regarding the role of innovation, I believe this is where we need to start looking at the composition of lifeworlds surrounding these artifacts. Clearly, Apple has chosen a strategy that includes quick recognizability of applications through (in part) links to iconic signs. And this strategy appears to work, by-and-large, across a wide range of user profiles and cultures. To spark innovation, it seems that techniques of montage and/or dialectic construction might prove helpful. But I believe that we can never divorce ourselves from the cultural metaphor from which we exist, otherwise, our interfaces will be patently unlearnable to those who don’t share our lifeworld. When technology is constantly changing, the role of learning (and in this case, it could be framed as an instructional design problem) is important, but tools that are immediately understood based on conventions are even more important for the average user.