Imitating Artefacts in a Digital Age - Part One - phydcreative - design & branding, video production, web development

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  • October 28, 2012
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I was listening to a podcast the other day with my iPhone’s new ‘Podcast’ app when stumbled upon a little nostalgic gem. When you select the podcast episode you want to listen to, you’re able ‘flick up’ the episode image to reveal a retro tape deck player with animated spin and record tape that finally unwinds when it gets to the end of the podcast episode. As much as I enjoyed my trip down memory lane of where I reminisced on the rotating cassette wheels of my Sony WalkMan, as a designer I had to question this features purpose and relevance. Questions that began to arise were, “would anyone born after the late 90’s relate to this in the same way I did and did this bring any intended purpose to the apps functionality?” It got me thinking more and more on user interface design and user experience and as I began to dig deeper I found there is a war raging behind the scenes of interface design and at the centre of the battle is it’s catalyst – ‘skeuomorphism.’

 

Skeuo-apps, Podcasts and Reminders on Apple’s iOS

 

The Oxford Dictionary defines a skeuomoph as, ‘an object or feature which imitates the design of a similar artefact in another material.’ Applied to today’s digital age this can be seen in any digital application or site that makes use of the aesthetics and/or functionality of an object that currently exists. Think of any ‘button’ you ever clicked on a website, it’s digital form and function was directly derived, inspired and replicated by buttons in our physical world.

The skeuomorphism battle has some pretty interesting arguments coming from both the pro and con camps. Those all for skeuomorphism see it as a tool that directly aids in the user’s experience. They see a direct advantage of utilising recollection as a tool for simple and effective usability. As an example let’s take a look at the modern day digital SLR camera. It’s basic shape and form is almost unchanged from its predecessor for over 60 years. It’s as if the design itself is timeless; a person of any age can instantly recognise the form and shape of the object as a camera and instantly know how to use it so why reinvent the wheel? It’s as simple as ‘point and click.’ This deep-seeded recollection in users is being utilised by many websites and apps in the marketplace today and at the forefront of this is much of Apple’s app user interface design. Check out some of their recent apps such as Find-my-Friends, iCal, Reminders and Compass.

Where some see this recognition in objects and materials as a positive, there are others that question it’s relevance when it comes to moving forward in today’s digital age. Lets again take a look at the modern day SLR camera; why does the camera need to be that shape as there is no longer a need to install a roll of film? Is it the most efficient and economical way to construct the physical makeup of the camera? Could money be saved in another form of design? Could the photographer be better off with holding the camera and taking the shot with one hand as opposed to the traditional two? Put simply, is resting on tried and tested form and function going to allow us to innovate a better design?

 

Minolta SLR Camera, released circa 1960

 

Canon 5D Mark III, release 2012

 

To move forward in the innovation a more efficient and productive user experience, should we completely omit skeuomorphism? I think that there is more to it than just omission as well as just an obvious digital replication of a physical object. The answer I feel lies at the heart of the intention. What is it you’re developing, and why?

If you are planning on developing or are currently in the process of developing a website or an app there are a few things to consider about your design and how you intend your users to interact with it. Is your target audience getting the most out of what you’re putting in front of them? Most importantly, are you getting the most out of your target audience? Over the next few weeks I plan to breakdown, show and discuss more examples of websites and apps that are clearly on one or both sides of this user interface battle. In the meantime, if you have a question about your website or app design needs we’d love to hear from you. Drop us a line, and we’ll make an appointment to come in and chat with us.

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