Editorial

Skeuomorphic design: Apple vs. good UX?

What is skeuomorphism?

It’s something that’s core to the way that Apple designs their applications, and it causes a fair amount of controversy in the world of UX (User Experience). It’s skeuomorphism. If you’re not sure what skeuomorphism is, here’s a brief definition:

Skeuomorphism is when a product imitates design elements functionally necessary in the original product design, but that becomes ornamental in the new product design.

Specifically, if an application emulates the physical world (such as a thermometer made of mercury and glass), then it is skeuomorphism. If a 3D/raised button is skeuomorphism as buttons in the real world need to be raised in order to be pressed. However, if your favourite music application uses a leather texture, or metallic buttons, it isn’t skeuomorphism.

So enough about what it is. In recent months there have been reports that even inside Apple, one of the companies known for using a lot of skeuomorphism in UX, there are now debates as to its usefulness. 

What’s good about skeuomorphism?

The first thing that anyone notices when they’re using a well-designed skeuomorphic app is that it feels natural and comfortable to use. You know what to do with the buttons, the sliders, the levers, and the knobs. Because you know what these things do, there’s a very low learning curve.

Steve Jobs was a strong advocate of the skeuomorphic approach to software design. Reading a book by turning pages on your iPad is intuitive (as we all know how to turn pages), and if you’re reading to kids it can even make the reading experience more interactive and fun.

The key here is familiarity. We know what it does, and how it works, and it makes us comfortable and perhaps even happy when software emulates these experiences.

What’s bad about skeuomorphism?

The short answer is that everything that’s great about skeuomorphism is also everything that’s bad about skeuomorphism.

Objects in the real world are limited by the equipment and materials that can be used to create them. Dropdown boxes weren’t available when the first radio sets hit the shelves, which meant they had to rely on knobs/sliders to tune into the correct radio station and adjust the volume.

When these ‘features’ are emulated in software, the familiarity they provide could be at the expense of the end user experience, and they’re not always pretty.

Turning a page with your finger is actually a slower process than pressing a ‘next page’ button or arrow, and an analogue dial is definitely not as accurate as entering in a number or using another digital method of entry. Imagine if we were still using dials on our touchscreen phones?

Further, there’s a fundamental problem with designing using a skeuomorphic approach. What if the user doesn’t know what the original object was or how it worked? Most children would never have seen a record player, and a person raised in a third world country may never have seen many of the things that those of us in more developed countries take for granted.

So is skeuomorphism the friend or foe of good UX?

There’s nothing wrong with a bit of skeuomorphic design. It can be fun, easy to learn, and it often looks really pretty. It’s not going away anytime soon. Yet, there are many advantages to rethinking the way something works and taking a more ‘Modern’ approach to design.

Microsoft has certainly shown that taking a new approach to software design can lead to much simpler yet still productive user experiences. Windows 8 is built on that very principle, as Microsoft works hard to show that modernising user experiences is the best way to move forward in usability and productivity. Microsoft isn't the only company that's looking at simplified interfaces over skeuomorphism, with Google and other companies also showing signs of moving towards more modern UX approaches.

This trend shows us that many UX professionals are realising that skeuormorphism is a tool that’s great for entertainment and visual impact, but not usability. Applications designed using this approach will quickly look out-dated and suffer from a lack of UX innovation, due to their reliance on real-world objects. It's great to have a little familiarity and fun in an application, but what we need are applications that are functional and easy to use. Computers are here to make our lives easier and more productive, they aren't simply tools to shrink down and emulate real-world products.

Sources: SachaGreif.com and Fast Company Design

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34 Comments

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i don't think it hurts, since it adds a sense of familiarity to the UI. however BAD design will ruin the whole idea

It's too cutesy and I don't like that. If I want to read a book, I'll read a book and not read something that "looks" like a book.

There is a misunderstanding about the meaning of skeuomorphism.

A Skeuomorph's feature is, by basis, useless, it does not try to immitate the behaviour of the former product (for example a book) but it put some useless gimmick.

So, if the gimmick is not useless then it is not a skeuomorph, but may be it could be more an emulator, for example a digital termomether.

Note that fastcodesign.com is another name for Microsoft Presspass. By the way, speaking of skeuomorphism, remember BOB? BOB 2 aka Windows 8 is anti-skeuomorphism.

Microsoft has certainly shown that taking a new approach to software design can lead to much simpler yet still productive user experiences. Windows 8 is built on that very principle, as Microsoft works hard to show that modernising user experiences is the best way to move forward in usability and productivity

HAHAHAHA... Made my day.

Windows 8 and Android ICS both have very anti-skeuomorphic GUIs, and IMHO they look better than Apple's skeuomorphic GUIs (and I'm an Apple Mac user). Personally I like clean, sharp, minimalist designs. I find it odd that Apple can design minimalist hardware running skeuomorphic software.

Mateus said,
Windows 8 and Android ICS both have very anti-skeuomorphic GUIs, and IMHO they look better than Apple's skeuomorphic GUIs (and I'm an Apple Mac user). Personally I like clean, sharp, minimalist designs. I find it odd that Apple can design minimalist hardware running skeuomorphic software.

Although not a user of OSX, I was always fond of it's minimalist design. I was appalled when I saw the recent leather-looking calendar application. They had such a good thing going for them before

nvllsvm said,

Although not a user of OSX, I was always fond of it's minimalist design. I was appalled when I saw the recent leather-looking calendar application. They had such a good thing going for them before


Yea, curse that leather. The rest of the app is skeuomorphic element or not but that leather is just so ugly.

nvllsvm said,

Although not a user of OSX, I was always fond of it's minimalist design. I was appalled when I saw the recent leather-looking calendar application. They had such a good thing going for them before

The Mac has always been pretty skeumorphic

spengbab said,
Pretty much every audio plugin (VSTs for DAWs like Logic/FL Studio) I've seen seem to be designed in this way...

This. And many of them work together with analog input devices so it totally makes sense. Apple may be the most visible to average consumer, but didn't invent it nor is the most prevalent use.

I normally like all the editorials here, but this one fell too short of what has been said already. With those insider reports being discussed for a few weeks now, this editorial should have provided more topics to encourage it's discussion about UI and Skeuomorphism.

Up until the past month or so, I used to really be against skeuomorphism in software design, and I do love Microsoft's more "modern," "digital" approach to the design of software; however, it seems that most, if not all, the services I love and use are adopting skeuomorphism and following a similar--or even the same--design philosophy as Apple (e.g. Facebook have used a lot of skeuomorphism in their new Gifts product), so I feel it's probably best I get on board with that, at least until the fad dies down more, because I value consistency so much.

Yes, it's interesting that people almost expect it now. But maybe big companies need to do a little more telling, and less listening? Microsoft told us that the ribbon in Office 2007 was what we needed, and despite the fight-back, it was ultimately a better experience.

That being said, I think that skeuomorphism is cute...

Calum said,
Up until the past month or so, I used to really be against skeuomorphism in software design, and I do love Microsoft's more "modern," "digital" approach to the design of software; however, it seems that most, if not all, the services I love and use are adopting skeuomorphism and following a similar--or even the same--design philosophy as Apple (e.g. Facebook have used a lot of skeuomorphism in their new Gifts product), so I feel it's probably best I get on board with that, at least until the fad dies down more, because I value consistency so much.

Kinda like how Google Chrome's tabs look like folders....

Brody McKee said,
Microsoft told us that the ribbon in Office 2007 was what we needed, and despite the fight-back, it was ultimately a better experience.

Not for me. I sort of got used to it, but still hate it. Many times I still find myself struggling to find some of the tools I used to have at the shortest reach within the old UI. I really wish there was a way to revert the Ribbon back to the old tool bars.

AWilliams87 said,

You didn't say anything which wasn't said before.
Can anyone ever say that they've said something that wasn't said before?

AWilliams87 said,

You didn't say anything which wasn't said before.

and everyone visits other tech websites.
who cares if it's 'trending' or not.

It's mandatory for every Tech website to carry atleast 1 editorial about skeuomorphism.

With that being said, I agree with everything in the editorial,

Brody McKee said,
Haha, thanks. I'd noticed we didn't have one, so I wrote this up.

You guys have yet to do an editorial about 'RIM is dead, long live Apple'.