The Future for Apple Human Interface Design

In recent iterations of iOS — Apple’s mobile operating system for iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad — and in recent versions of OS X on the desktop, you will undoubtedly have noticed a move towards visual elements that mimic real-life objects. The ruled, yellow notepaper for the Notes app, the torn-paper effect at the top of the stitched, leather-bound Calendar app, and more are examples of this.

These software design elements mimicking real world objects have introduced a new word into our vocabularies: skeuomorphism. Such effects have, however, divided opinion, and it is just possible that we will see Apple shift away from these elements in future.

What, Exactly, is Skeuomorphism?

Skeuomorphism is commonly understood to be, according to Wikipedia, the “design element of a product that imitates design elements that were functionally necessary in the original product design”, and here comes the important bit, “but which have become ornamental in the new design.”

That is significant. Skeuomorphs are merely eye-candy. And a lot of people dislike design elements that are not necessary to the function, not just you (perhaps?) and I. If you have been reading the Apple press, lately, it is widely reported that Sir Jonathan Ive similarly dislikes skeuomorphism.

How has Skeuomorphism Become so Divisive in the Apple World?

If you have ever wondered why your Mac Book Pro, iMac, Mac Mini or Mac Pro was the epitome of cool — with its sleek, minimalist, brushed aluminium surfaces — yet the software it runs is a mishmash of stitched leather, torn paper, linen textures and green baize, then you are certainly not alone.

Skeuomorphism seems to be one of those ‘Marmite’ phenomena: you either love it or you hate it!

The designer of your Apple hardware, Sir Jonathan Ive, is reportedly against skeuomorphism. His industrial design language, that draws inspiration from the function-determining-form minimalist approach of Braun’s Dieter Rams, certainly seems to suggest so.

 Braun T3 Pocket Radio and iPod

The Braun T3 Pocket Radio inspired the iPod. (image credit CultOfMac)

Your software – OS X, on the other hand, has in recent years been drawing inspiration from Apple’s handheld devices that run iOS. Scott Forstall, until recently in charge of iOS, is said to be a huge proponent of skeuomorphism. Indeed, Steve Jobs himself has also been reported to favour such design elements.

This makes sense, in a way, since Apple continues to welcome an ever increasing number of Mac owners whom had their introduction to Apple devices through an iPhone, iPad or iPod. It makes OS X friendlier, familiar too, to those transitioning from Windows on PCs. Hence the convergence of ideas from mobile to desktop.

For long time Mac owners, however, these unnecessary design flourishes detract from the understated, functional and thoroughly-thought-through design for which Apple is highly regarded. For some such detractions becomes distractions that jar.

Skeuomorphism Can Help Computer Operators

Well, yes and no.

It is certainly the case that replicating real life objects can help the computer operator make sense of the interface.

Take settings, for example, where the user interface design of software might use switches to toggle between on and off. This is quickly and easily understood and, when employed correctly, is a sensible approach.

Time Machine in OS X

Time Machine uses a switch metaphor to convey its status: ON or OFF.

Remember, though, that skeuomorphs are the visual design elements that are superfluous to the function. They are a design indulgence that adds no more to the function of the software interface. They have no use and little purpose. They have gone to far. Skeuomorphism is just gilding the lily.

In essence, visual metaphors are good. Skeuomorphs, less so.

What Next for the Future of The OS X Human Interface Design?

With the recent board-level shake-up at Apple, Scott Forstall (pro-skeuomorphism) has gone and Jonathan Ive (anti-skeuomorphism) is now to be overseeing software, as well as hardware, design.

With this change it is now widely thought that the increasingly indulgent design direction of OS X software will be reversed and be brought into line with Apple’s approach to its hardware.

Skeuomorphism in action in Calendar app.

Skeuomorphism in action in Calendar app.

This has to be a good thing. Whilst the Notes app mimics a pad of ruled paper, the stitched leather of Address Book and Calendar and the torn-paper effect is not necessary for functionality. By the time we get to the dark wood and green baize of Game Centre (I presume to be reminiscent of gaming tables) then the visual assault is so severe as to render the application functionally confusing and counter intuitive.

To continue on a skeuomorphic approach to interface design inherently means a confused approach with inconsistencies in function and expectation across all apps within OS X.

The omission of skeuomorphism, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily mean bland human interface designs. Look no further than Mac apps such as Tweetie that introduced a design that was clean and elements that were functional.

Sure, when Twitter bought Tweetie to become their official Mac client they did screw up much of the app, but Tweetie itself was influential. The developers of Sparrow, originally a Mac app for Gmail email, drew very heavily on Tweetie for inspiration. So much so, in fact, that they approached Tweetie’s developer beforehand.

That pull-to-refresh element that is prevalent in many apps, including Apple’s own Mail.app, …yep, that came from the developer of Tweetie, too.

Conclusion

As we have discovered, skeuomorphs are design elements that mimic real world objects but contribute nothing to the function. They are ornamental, merely a designer’s indulgence. We have also seen that human interface design elements that draw on real world objects can be useful metaphors that help the computer operator to understand the interface.

Moving towards a cleaner, functional human interface should mean less confusion, greater consistency across different apps which, in turn, aids understanding and efficiency of use. Perhaps Apple was in danger of developing bloatware full of eye-candy and, whatever the reasons for Scott Forstall’s departure, Apple can turn the tide of crass interface designs for something that is truly befitting of the design masterpieces that are the Macs that you and I use day to day.


  • David

    Totally agreed! In iOS I do like iBooks, the shelves and the pages (because they give the option to go full screen and scroll if you’d prefer anyway).
    But the designs in iOS and OSX of apps like Notes, Reminders, Contacts, Dictionary, Game Centre and so on are disastrous and 100% counter productive.

    Standard and minimal UI makes for a tidy and coherent OS. Actually jealous of Windows now because of this, and that’s embarrassing!

    • Conor

      Very much agreed, especially with regard to the last line of your comment!

      The over indulgence of eye candy that’s been creeping into Apples UIs has cheapened the experience for me. I hope Apple go back to being how they used to be.

  • Erica

    I happen to like it. I never was a user of iCal and Address Book until they changed the look. I ditched Google Calendar for it. I would be pretty bummed if they got rid of it and went for a more boring look like before. Why can’t they just give others the opportunity to go back to the chrome interface if they wanted to? The app Cocktail by Maintain allows you to do this, so why can’t Apple build it in? I left Windows OS for Mac OS X because it was unique.

  • Pascal

    I think skeumorphism is fine if every user sees wharf it is about, and so helping about the functionalities. For Example, having little yellow squares To write down: this is Luke post-it, i Know i can drag it everywhere as i do With it IRL, but on the contrary, i never use à paper calendar, adress book… Therefore, I don’t see the benefit, and even worse, as stated david below, it is counter- productive.
    I really hope Apple app design will tale more in account the customer knowledge of thé skeumorphed object.

  • Jason

    Just imagine the saved space from all those skudo’ resources that will now (hopefully) be removed? Especially since there are now retina versions of each one too.

    All those images, which serve no purpose other than as eye-candy, hogging your hard drive space and slowing app launch times as they are loaded into memory. Granted, they can be fairly small and just tiled across the ui, but even so they must have some impact. Possibly why we need more RAM since Lion?

    I wonder how quick OS X will be when they all removed? It should be quite slick and smooth!

    • Johnny Winter

      You’re spot on. I did mention the term ‘bloatware’ in the article. All of that ornament must take up significant space.

    • Dan

      That’s a very good point, Jason!

  • SamDS

    am i the only one who likes everything Apple is doing in regard to interface design??
    apart from Find My Friends app, everything looks nice and how would you do a notes app without it looking like a old Sony Ericsson notes app or just a silver version of current apps?

    is the silver version enough??

    • Johnny Winter

      I chose the ‘Find my Friends’ app icon for this article as it is the pinnacle (nadir?) of the current approach to human interface design. (And it had the representation of two humans on it.)

      I agree, grey or silver across the board might not be good. I think there is a balance to be struck. I think it’s skewed to far towards skeuomorphic.

  • Johnny Winter

    Thanks for your comment, David. The stuff that Microsoft is doing with it’s (no longer called) Metro Interface is interesting. It seems to work well on their smartphones, still not sure that it is implemented will in Windows 8 but at least they are trying an idea of their own.

    I do feel as though Apple’s hardware and software is at odds with each other. Perhaps that will now change?

  • http://www.wilnichols.com Wil Nichols

    Read this. Better explanation of skeuomorphs; the concept is not limited to graphics in an interface.

    The application seen may be ornamental, but it allows for communication with audiences that do not understand the immediate digital metaphor. It can be painfully ornamental (i.e. Game Center, Find My Friends), but the concept can be functional as well (i.e. electric piano, digital piano UI).

    As a UX designer, I’ll end up working on an app’s icons, interface, branding, etc. As a means of communicating with multiple audiences, skeuomorphism allows for an understanding with a far greater audience.

    • Johnny Winter

      > skeuomorphs; the concept is not limited to graphics in an interface.

      Indeed not, but the article was specifically about the graphics in the OS X interface on Macs.

      The piano example is a good one. Skeuomorphism really works in this case. But that is because it is a, pretty much, direct copy of a real world object and, perhaps, there is no way to recreate it in an easier to understand way on a tablet screen.

      When you come to Game Centre, the green baize and wood effect does nothing to help the user.

      I think that your example of skeuomorphism that works (the piano) is a better example than the one I gave in the article (a toggle switch).

      To my mind, I think Apple had the balance about right in Snow Leopard. When they introduced torn paper in Calendar (in Lion) that really did show that they were spending time on the wrong things. Better to introduce consistent functionality and user experience in Calendar across OS X and iOS. This has been pretty woeful for more than three years, now.

      I did also concede in the article that skeuomorphism in OS X was likely to be friendlier to those coming to Macs from an introduction with iOS devices (were sk-ism is seemingly prevalent).

      Thanks for your comments.

  • Skylore777

    I like skeuomorphism, if done well, just as I like most other designs if done well. People are mistakenly equating skeuomorphism with bad design. A UI design can be bad even if there are no elements that reflect real-world items.

    Besides, who wants boring all-gray machine-looking interfaces anyway? That would be too sterile and totally annoying.

    • Johnny Winter

      > A UI design can be bad even if there are no elements that reflect real-world items.

      This is a valid and important point.

  • Tim

    I want the awesome eye-pleasing grayscale interface of OS 9 back! Just make it more crisp and stay away from bulging glassy stuff and it would be perfect.

    • Johnny Winter

      It’s funny, isn’t it. There’s a little company called Microsoft who bloated out their software with lots of glassy effects and needless visual periphery that slowed down computers with the sole purpose of displaying animations. Much quicker to turn it off – and they gave you that option. Now they’ve moved to a new visual interface (previously, and no longer, known as ‘Metro’) that removes all of this bloat in favour of a crisper and simpler design.

      Whilst it may not be to everyone’s liking, it is good to see them moving to something simpler. But is it too flat? Too boring? I’m not sure.

      To my mind OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard was Apple’s best. Now if that had iCloud capabilities baked in, Apple would have the perfect OS, IMO. ;-)

  • Christian

    I actually like the calendar app, and I can’t imagine opening up IMovie without a big bright movie theater marquee greeting me, with my projects that look like movie posters, also I love they way the Find My iPhone app looks like someone just unfolded a map onto a wooden table, you can see the cresses in the map! What other company puts that much thought into there apps!

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