November 13, 2013

How Skeuomorphism Shaped Apple’s Interfaces

Eric Griffin

How skeuomorphism helped shape Apple
Skeuomorphism has had plenty of criticism in the past few years – and while its use (and the use of other design elements that are frequently called skeuomorphism, but are in fact not) got out of hand for a while, I believe the residual effects of bringing real-world representation in digital design run much deeper than appearance. More specifically, the process of designing skeuomorphically results in an easier to use, more engaging interface with features that may be missed if you are not focused on real-world objects, and helped shape the features we have come to take for granted in Apple products.

What is skeuomorphism?

I’d like to tell you to look up the definition in Apple’s dictionary, but hilariously enough, it does not exist there. There’s a great article written by Sacha Greif that explains what is (and isn’t) skeuomorphism. In short, something qualifies as a skeuomorphic element if it “retains ornamental design cues to a structure that was necessary in the original.”

How it shaped the functionality of Apple products

Beyond designing the look of an application, skeuomorphism plays a large subconscious role in designing the feel, functionality, and features of an operating system, application – and ultimately a device itself. There’s no question that the iPhone defined cell phones as we know them today (remember phones before the iPhone?). The reason the iPhone (and Apple’s other products, both software and hardware) are popular are because they don’t need an instruction manual. Anyone can use an Apple product, almost instinctively, without having been told how it works before. This is because real-world behavior is incorporated (via skeuomorphism, both graphically and functionally) in to the design of the device and its interface.

•Easier to use

Flipping a page in a book on the iPad by dragging the page with your finger is something everyone figures out how to do immediately. Why? Because it digitally represents the real-world action of flipping a page in a book. Remember when phones had 50 physical buttons, one for each function, and you would have to figure out which did what in an app? By mimicking the action all of us are familiar with (flipping a page), an inherent ease of use is established.perbandingan smartphone

•More engaging (and fun)

By physically interacting with the interface elements directly, instead of interacting with it via plastic buttons, you become more engaged with the device. This connection makes it more fun to use because you’re 1 step closer to the digital action. Take the extreme example of MS-DOS from 30 years ago. Users were several steps away from the action they wanted to perform: you had to know the command to use, then type it on the keyboard. There’s no question this is as un-engaging as it gets, as evidenced by it only appealing to the engineering type. It wasn’t until the GUI was commercialized, which made using a computer easier to use and more engaging, that personal computers were adopted by consumers. Apple harnessed this connection, dating back to the Apple Lisa, by first adopting the GUI, and again with the iPhone’s multitouch display.

•More powerful

This thought process then leads to more powerful design. When you are focused on making interfaces intuitive by mimicking things we are all familiar with, you begin to add features that may not seem to sensical to someone focused on tech-specs. For example, an accelerometer in a phone wouldn’t make sense – unless you wanted to achieve old-familiar controls, such as tilting your phone to steer a car in a game.

All of these features are examples of what comes about when you are working in a skeuomorphic mindset. This has nothing to do with using green felt in game center, or the marker font in the notes app. It’s about a thought process that those design elements represent. If you bring real-world elements in to digital design you have a more approachable and easier to use interface. When done right, it invokes that “just feels right” emotion you get when you figure out how to do something in a new app on your first try.

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