Skeuomorphism. Nice word, huh? But what the hell does it mean?
People still ask me all the time. But why? It’s an outdated concept nowadays…or not?
Skeuomorphism is a common term in UI design and describes the ability of an interface object to mimic its counterpart in the real-world in appearance and how users can interact with the object itself.
A typical example is the floppy disk icon on the save button. This little element has the power to make interface objects familiar and easily recognisable by our users.
Skeuomorphism in real-world
Like the Skeuomorphic objects, the Skeuomorphism concept itself has a parallel to the real world, and it’s called “affordance”.
The term “affordance” was originally coined by psychologist James J. Gibson in his 1966 book, The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems.
The most famous examples of affordance are push, or slide buttons and door handles. The design of these objects suggests to their users how to interact, so the next action to take is predictable and expected: they can be pushed, dragged or rotated and the objects themselves promote a natural interaction.
Key to iOS UI success
The concept is easy nowadays, but it wasn’t in the early days of computing.
In the early versions of Apple OSs (like MacOS and iPhoneOS), skeuomorphism was heavily adopted (realistic objects, glossy finishing, polaroid style pictures, real-like buttons, scrollbars, etc.) by the Apple UI designers.
It was spoiled even by the third party developers (leather panels with stitches, paper-like apps, app icons, etc.). And the success and diffusion of iOS UI are founded mainly on top of this vision, especially for touch-enabled devices.
Skeuomorphism is dead
But like a love story, it comes to an end. Apple announced iOS 7 at the annual WWDC on June 10, 2013 (and released on September 18). Apple then endorsed flat UI design elements, moving away from the skeuomorphic design.
The time was ripe enough, the skeuomorphism was no longer necessary.
Right after Apple, in 2014 Google released its Material Design. It was a whole new design language for Android based on flat design principles (+ a little set of skeuomorphic elements).
Long live skeuomorphism
Today we know that cognitive friction is a source of user frustration and the pure flat design is not the (only) answer.
Skeuomorphism and flat design can exist at the same time but for different purposes.
The new skeuomorphism incorporate a new level of mimics such as animation, motion, and physical properties. UI elements behave physically like real objects (gravity, elasticity and other physical laws).
Today though, the appearance are stylised rather than photorealistic in a sort of a Skeuomorph-flat Design. UI elements still have the task of reproducing the real familiar objects today in a flat sauce.
Google Nest app is another great and inspiring example.
Skeuomorphism is no more an outdated concept, and no, it is not dead at all. It’s more relevant today than ever even though with a modern flat approach. Latest devices are powerful and can manage efficiently incredible micro-interactions and animations. Will Skeuomorphism be again the key player in the UI Design future?