Apple Doesn’t Need Tutoring on Software Design

| Analysis

Apple uses a particular kind of software design in iOS that helps users become accustomed to a new environment. It's born of the Steve Jobs philosophy that computers should be at the intersection of technology and the humanities. Already, however, there are some who would propose abandoning that valuable concept in favor of... well, nothing really great.

Recently, there was a popular article by Austin Carr entitled, "Will Apple’s Tacky Software-Design Philosophy Cause A Revolt?" The article explained that the UI design concept that has fake leather, stitches, torn paper, brushed aluminum, wooden bookshelves and so on is an anachronism and should be abandoned.

In design terms, what we're talking about here is skeuomorphism , that is, the invocation of "an object or feature which imitates the design of a similar artifact in another material." A good example of skeuomorphism, and one that's often criticized, is the leather and torn paper look in the iOS calendar app, especially when it got carried over to OS X.

The Critique

Here's the gist of Mr. Carr's argument. The last two are direct quotes from designer Gadi Amit.

  • Traditional visual metaphors no longer translate to modern users.
  • Excessive digital imitation of real-world objects creates confusion among users.
  • Metaphors that were, in the early days of the computing revolution, relevant to assisting people in bridging the gap between the physical and digital worlds, are no longer necessary.
  • Our culture has changed. We don’t need translation of the digital medium in mechanical real-life terms. It’s an old-fashioned paradigm.

Elaborating further, a former senior UI designer at Apple opined, "There's no need to add glitter if the product can stand on its own."

The first thing I noticed about these arguments by Mr. Carr was the unending praise for the alternative method used in Windows 8. In the article, there are signposts that the author is attracted to the more sterile Windows alternative: "It’s Microsoft’s stripped-down UI that many find appealing -- a welcome alternative to Apple’s approach to software design.... In our feature story on Microsoft, you’ll learn how design is changing Redmond for the better. And you’ll also learn why designers from Gadi Amit to Yves Béhar to former Apple insiders are praising the company’s newfound design DNA."

At least we know where Mr. Carr stands.

I think it's valuable to have identified an alternative, newer concept when critiquing another more traditional way of thinking. But I also think that being enamored with the Microsoft alternative kept Mr. Carr from exploring why Apple does what it does. The use of the word "tacky" in the title gives us a clue that there will be no exploration of why Apple's software looks like it does and why, perhaps, skeuomorphism has redeeming values.

Arguing for Skeuomorphism

There's no question that Apple was the leader, igniting the concept of the modern tablet. That revolutionary new user interface of gestures: swipes and pinches and taps on a live, touch-sensitive screen that doesn't need a stylus launched Apple into the Post-PC era. (Notably, Apple is spending a lot of time in court trying to defend those very patents.)

In this new iOS, new users would be confronted with a whole new way of doing things, a new experience for touching, gestures, launching and organizing apps, discovering the absence of visible file system, and so on. Faced with those new and possibly confusing visual cues, it was essential to build into the UI familiar visual elements that suggested how an app works.

A good example is iBooks. The appearance of the stacked edges of the book pages suggests where to touch and swipe the current page in order to turn to the next one. In essence, the skeuomorphic design here means that the newbie user already, instinctively knows how to turn a page.

Other uses are not so convincing, but are more ornamental, like the stitches in the leather of the calendar. But even then, those stitches send a subliminal message. This app is warm, artistic, thoughtful. A careful designer put something of him/herself into this instead of leaving it naked, not fully cooked. It goes all the way back to 1984 and the icon designs of Susan Kare.

In fact, in contrast to the criticism above, the app cannot stand on its own, and both it and the user still need help. Here's the reason why.

A critical concept is the suggestion that this app, a calendar or a contacts list, is the same as what we had before but better. Some attachment back to reality offsets that jarring transition. That same but better idea (for example, durability, searching, easy editing, sharing) is critical when it comes to convincing new users that the iPad is better than what they had before, even if it's orders of magnitude more expensive than a paper calendar or day planner. It doesn't pay to be too alien and sterile with newbies.

The Genius of Steve Jobs

Apple's co-founder is well known for his passion about design. It started at Reed College with calligraphy and endured for the rest of his life. He felt that technology should never be sterile for its own sake, but rather reflect taste, art, and the human side. As Mr. Jobs described it, computer design should be at the intersection of technology and the humanities. In this New Yorker article, it's all explained.

But what set all of Jobs’s companies apart,  from Pixar to NeXT to Apple, was, indeed, an insistence that computer scientists must work together with artists and designers—that the best ideas emerge from the intersection of technology and the humanities. 'One of the greatest achievements at Pixar was that we brought these two cultures together and got them working side by side,' Jobs said in 2003."

Scott Forstall must have that Jobs dictum on the top of his whiteboard, outlined in red.

Apple's Imperative

Apple, Inc. had the initiative and the vision to bring us the first really usable tablet that set the modern standard and launched the Post-PC era. In order to do that, Apple and Mr. Jobs, who supervised the development of the iPad, depended on fundamental design elements, including skeuomorphism, a valuable tool that would help Apple lead the world into this new era.

There may come a day when our children or grandchildren no longer need this kind of design element. Indeed, they may be working on completely different kinds of platforms with Siri's own descendent. For now, however, it's vital to understand why this design concept is so fundamental for the tens, hundreds of millions of new iPad customers.

Microsoft, years late with its own semi-tablet, is seeking to go its own way, perhaps feeling that the very design principles that made the iPad so astoundingly successful now need to be dismissed. The reason Microsoft can even try that is because they're standing on the shoulders of what Apple has done in iOS since 2007 and the iPad since 2010. As an added plus, it avoids patent litigation.

In contrast, Apple's design principles are being blatantly copied by aggressive tablet makers because copying something that's great usually makes money. Both camps are on thin ice, courtesy of Apple's genius.

In the final analysis, Apple did something brilliant with the iOS design, and the role that skeuomorphism played, in time, will run its course. But not today, and not even in the next few years.

Comments

Sebas

Hi there, sorry to be picky, but that is not really “software” design, it is “interface” design. Sofware design concerns itself with the inner architecture of the code, which is invisible to users, not with its graphical representation. Cheers.

Bryan Chaffin

Sebas, you raise an interesting (to me!) semantic point.  I personally think of “software design” as being inclusive of both engineering and UI design.

Looking just at the coding aspect would, to me, be “software engineering” or “programming.” “Interface design,” on the other hand, can be exclusive of software.

Be that as it may, great piece, John. When I read Mr. Carr’s piece, I was put off by its presentation as an exposé, rather than a strict editorial, which is what he really wrote. In many ways, his view is as myopic as he accuses the pro-skeuomorphism forces of being.

That said, I think the concept of skeuomorphism is a worthy topic of debate.

mrmwebmax

+

I always thought Apple’s use of skeuomorphism made their software fun, but I think you used the best word: warm. Some people just won’t get that, and it reminds me of when the Mac came out. I thought it was stupid, especially the interface, the push buttons, and the icons. It didn’t seem like a computer, but of course that was the whole point, and why it revolutionized computing. But I was learning programming and still coming off of a severe WarGames hangover that said the command line ruled, so therefore the Mac must be a toy. That all changed for me in 1988, when I started working in desktop publishing and found that—wow!—I’m using different programs (Claris back then) and they all work the same! And the Mac is just kinda fun at that.

Power users/detractors of the Mac back then, and iOS now, don’t understand that the majority of people are not power users, they don’t want to root their phones, and they just want it to work in an easy and intuitive way. Given the “traction” gained by Windows phone vs. iPhone, it seems maybe Apple just might know what it’s doing. It will be interesting to see what happens with Windows 8, but I’m guessing it will be worse than Vista: an OS disaster sprawled across both the desktop and mobile.

Brief aside regarding your choice of an example for iBooks: the movie was filmed largely in Pennsylvania (not Ohio, as is the fictional town in the movie), and in a small former Pennsylvania steel town not far from where I live called Vandergrift. Facebook friends who live there were constantly posting that they were seeing Spielberg walking down Main Street! Too bad the movie was so terribly awful.

Lancashire-Witch

“I think our major contribution [to computing] was in bringing a liberal arts point of view to the use of computers. If you really look at the ease of use of the Macintosh, the driving motivation behind that was to bring not only ease of use to people — so that many, many more people could use computers for nontraditional things at that time — but it was to bring beautiful fonts and typography to people, it was to bring graphics to people ... so that they could see beautiful photographs, or pictures, or artwork, et cetera ... to help them communicate. ... Our goal was to bring a liberal arts perspective and a liberal arts audience to what had traditionally been a very geeky technology and a very geeky audience.” - Steve Jobs

Says it all really. And I make no apology for quoting it in full. The year was 1996; which, IMHO, is amazing. 

Those of us who grew up with computers know that those who didn’t face being left behind. Some say If you didn’t use a personal computer by 1990 (MS Windows 3 !) it was too late; the geeks were so far in front you would never catch up!. Nearly 25 years later there’s a whole generation of users who were born too late. For them, and all those who were left behind, i think the intersection of technology and humanities has proved to be invaluable.

(Yes I know that if you are determined it’s still possible to become a geek)

aardman

I’ve been going back and forth about skeuomorphism.  I might not need the visual cues that skeuomorphism incorporates but if I put myself in the place of the tech-averse or tech-perplexed, which constitute most of humanity, then my thinking changes.

Bryan Chaffin

An excellent point, aardman, and something that whippersnapper Austin Carr seems to have not considered.

pjs_boston

I’ve used Windows Phone 7 and I find the complete lack of ornamentation off-putting.  Frankly, aside from the transition animations WP7 is seriously boring.  What good is a fabulous retina display with 100% color gamut, if there is nothing interesting to look at on it.  Secondly, WP7’s utterly spartan UI frequently provides little or no hint as to how to interact with it.

It seems quite fashionable these days to complain about Apple’s “skeuomorphism” and how iOS is “getting long in the tooth”.  Personally, I don’t see it.  iOS and its app ecosystem are still the best thing out there.  Better than WP7 and much better than Android, no matter which sugary flavor you pick.

I suppose Apple should come up with some new GUI treats for the kiddies in iOS 7 just to shut them up.  Maybe a new springboard design with a new multitasking UI, perhaps? 

More importantly, I’d like to see Apple concentrate on usability improvements.  For example, when I’m in turn-by-turn directions, I ‘d like to ask SIRI for restaurants and gas stations along the way and get a decent UI for choosing which one I’d like.  Even better, how about giving me directions to my choice and then resuming my previous route? 

SIRI commands for toggling settings would be nice too.  “SIRI, turn off WIFI” or “SIRI, increase the screen brightness” would be very cool indeed.

ipaqrat

There may be factions at odds within Apple’s software/UI design silos. The finder is too grey-on-grey, while skeuomorphism runs amok in the apps.  There has been a suggestion that the Finder is greyscale only to comply with section 508 of the disabilities act, but I don’t believe that - Windows is colorful and that hasn’t kept fed or state gov’t from running it. I’m kinda disappointed that Apple hasn’t implemented a setting to re-color the Finder.

As a Mac user since there was ONLY black and white on a 9 inch screen, I have to admit that Microsoft might be onto something good with the Metro aesthetic. However, I sense from the Win8 previews that INTEGRATION is lacking.

albatross

As long as the skeuomorphism doesn’t get in the way of efficiency - i.e., forcing users to try to “turn” a virtual knob instead of just using a slider (or better yet, direct entry) - I like it.  What’s wrong with making things look appealing?  Isn’t that why many of us turned to Macs in the first place?

Lee Dronick

Pick the device and interface that fits your personality. I like things to be nicely appointed, but that doesn’t mean that it has to be over done and I don’t think that Apple does that. I can see the Most Interesting Man in World saying “I don’t always use a computing device, but when I do I prefer Apple. Stay artistically technical my friends.”

Understanding that I may be the only user of the new iOS Map app, but have you noticed how on the iPad it looks like unfolded paper map?

iJack

Tricky thing, visual design.  Impossible to cover in a few paragraphs, but in the narrow context of this article, I’m not sure skeuomorphism is justifiable if it doesn’t advance the ubiquitous design goals of:

1. clarity of purpose, and
2. providing visual cues for what to do next, and how to do it.

Let’s take the Contacts app in OS X, for example.  It’s leather bound (which I have turned off, thanks to Mountain Tweaks), has spine stitching, and stacked pages on both left and right sides.  Since there apparently are no pages to turn, the spine stitching and stacked pages defeat both of those design goals.  Ergo, those two elements can only be considered pure kitsch.  If the pages don’t turn, why are they there?  Saying it comforts the timid, really is an excuse, rather than a reason, and it might actually confound the timid noob.

Apple do pretty well with their designs.  Their hardware is excellent, but their software is a little less so, but they have set a decently high standard, and fortunately, there are just about enough third-party application designers who do as well, or even better than Apple in the GUI arena.  There are some truly beautiful apps out there.

I won’t go on, except to say i did not read the linked article, because it’s only once in five years that you find someone who knows how to design something well, and has the time to write about it.  Most art/design/music/film/theater/etc critics are puffed-up obit writers.

JonGl

aardman said: “I’ve been going back and forth about skeuomorphism.  I might not need the visual cues that skeuomorphism incorporates but if I put myself in the place of the tech-averse or tech-perplexed, which constitute most of humanity, then my thinking changes.”

I’m sort of like you—I don’t need these things, having mastered DOS before the days of DOS 5 and the DOSshell and Windows 3. But my first _real_ exposure to _using_ computers was the Mac SEs in the Mac lab in college. I very much appreciated that “liberal arts” way of computing, and always have, and always will. My favorite days of computing were the heady days of writing Hypercard stacks, in which I attempted to recreate the physical world in my stacks, and delight my friends who used them. I was able to do some wonky things with Hypertalk—very geeky stuff—and all my friends still, to this day think I’m a geek, but at heart, I’m just an artist who used tech to ply my art. Things have moved on since then, but I still remember those days with fondness…

xmattingly

I’m not TOTALLY opposed to skeumorphic design, but it’s a fine line you have to ride. On one hand it can definitely give a user a more friendly, cozier UI to work with… but if it’s overdone, it’ll look gimmicky, too attention-grabbing (which I think is a huge no-no for usability), and downright tacky. Apple has more recently crossed that line in many cases, unfortunately.

Is it REALLY necessary for the address book to actually look like a hardcover book, with borders padded with faux pages, complete with a useless bookmark graphic (which Apple apparently reeled in, in 10.8) ?

The leather stitching in iCal is way too large. There is a schism between the actual app (which resembles a desktop pad calendar), and the app icon (which resembles a daily tear-off calendar)... additionally there is no red in the application as is in its icon, so the visual metaphor kind of gets lost from one to the other. Also, that STUPID page flip animation is a half second of nonsense that’s a complete waste of time. I could go on…

Ultimately, I think the skeumorphisms worked fairly well in iOS apps, then failed to translate into OS X - which is a prime example of Apple’s development decisions following the money trail. Why? Because the UI HAS to be minimalist in iOS, and those obnoxious bookmarks, stitches, & mostly unnecessary flairs are excluded. In OS X, there is more space for a UI designer to play, and from what I understand there isn’t any management in place to keep a tight rein on the eye candy. Or as one former Apple designer apparently put it, “visual masturbation”.

skipaq

Personally, I like the skeuomorphic design which has been a part of the Mac experience since the beginning. As far as avoiding legal trouble by going sterile in design goes; why not just choose some other design to bring over from real world items. This would take time and money. Perhaps that is why some just copy or else go sterile.

mhikl

Give me a break. The skeuomorphic becomes the new ‘is’ as in “it is what it is”. New boys will look back on the originals and say, “Hey, they copied Apple”.

Does the idiot not realise that there is something primordial in the Platonic shadows of paper and line? I’ve never used or seen a scratch pad and pokey stick made out of clay and stone in the real world but I see one in drawing and I knows what I sees. Carr bear needs to spend more time at the cave and ponder the realities that make our ways through the world imaginable.

mhikl

Drats, I wish we could edit our posts. I wanted to add that Microsoft’s renderings look like cartoons from many eras. And never original or well thought out, more like grabs from the “good enough” counter.

Now cartoons can make for a quick image in understanding but they don’t all have too look so boringly from yawn land; you know what I mean, in that definitive Microsoft style that unimaginative company has worn to threads.

iJack

Mhiki ~ You have an interesting turn of phrase, but what are “Platonic shadows of paper and line?”  Specifically, how does a shadow become ‘platonic?’

mhikl

I’m not an expert on Platonic philosophy iJack but it is something like the primordial existence of design, object, image, ideas, exists and we do our dangdest to figure out the hows (to have, to make to find), dos and full purpose(s). The image Plato gives is sitting at the mouth of the cave and seeing but the shadows cast by the fire (from the actions, objects, ideas, concepts) against the stone wall and trying to make out purpose from the shadows in one’s searches through life.

I have only the shadow of understanding to his jibber jabber. It’s all in the interpretation of the shadows and mine are a toss.

iJack
{quote]”...it is something like the primordial existence of design, object, image, ideas, exists and we do our dangdest to figure out the hows (to have, to make to find), dos and full purpose(s).”

Ah.  The Theory of Forms.
I think you might be over-thinking this, just a bit.

wab95

Excellent commentary, John.

You’ve softened my skeuomorphic-averse tendencies with this line of reasoning. As I read through your train of thought, it occurred to me that much of Apple’s design approach is not about people like myself, who work, live and breath in a bleeding-edge tech world, but for people like my wife, who describes herself as ‘technologically challenged’.

Skeuomorphism has the virtue of putting persons challenged by novel tech at ease with familiar reference frames. My wife still likes to read the dead tree version of the NY Times as well as books, even as we sit side by side and I peruse FT and other news articles on my iPad, and loves the throw away calendar books I get from drug companies and the like. While she hasn’t said as much, I suspect that she, and others like her, find the wooden book case, the page simulation and the calendar on her iPad, as examples you cite above, comforting, even when I find them anachronistic and unnecessary.

Perhaps it will not even be our children, but our grandchildren who will find some of these interface features off-putting and, to a degree, disorienting if not alien. By then, perhaps, we will have interface customisability that will at least partially accommodate different comfort levels for users.

In the meantime, I bow to Apple’s skeuomorphic tendencies into the foreseeable future, and wish MS well in their postmodern approach.

Peter Connolly

Beware the Halo-Effect. Just because Apple excels at many things, doesn’t mean it does at everything.

Perhaps Apple’s (read SJ’s) penchant for skeuomorphism, could be described as a Cyber Distortion Field (CDF). This is part and parcel of his Reality Distortion Field (RDF), or the ability to make what isn’t real, appear to be.

For Steve, it would seem that the standard of success was how close he could make the imagined seem real.

It’s that genius of projecting an almost tangible image into the minds of others, that inspired the creation of Apple’s devices and indeed, the company itself: but there’s also room for a potential conflict with good design, because of the Halo-Effect. This is the dark side of the RDF if you will, or a blindsiding by the old reality, to its transformation into something new, by the changes that you’ve made.

When the underpinning reality changes, perpetuating the original paradigm retards progress, because it confuses nostalgia with good design.

Log-in to comment