Copyright 2013 Kevin Suttle

Frame of Reference

The real issues at the heart of modern interface design.

Kevin Suttle
Jul 3, 2013 · 5 min read

Now that skeuomorphism is a thing, and “flat design” is busy becoming the next flavor of UI styling, I’d like to provide a deeper perspective of the issues we’re facing with digital products.

We’ve all seen the posts and videos of children subjected to items that were familiar to us growing up, but have no place in the modern world. Dial-up modems, landline telephones, cassette players—the list of outdated technology grows daily. This means that the generations ahead are losing affordances daily as well.

What are affordances? Affordances, simply put, are a common visual understanding of how an item should be used. A great example that Donald Norman gives in his classic book “The Design of Everyday Things” is scissors. Very rarely does anyone look at a pair of scissors and wonder how they are intended to be used.

The legacy we’ve established in interface design is built upon physical affordances, an issue that has been brought into the harsh spotlight by Apple’s software designs.

There has been quite a bit of confusion over what skeuomorphism is. Many define it as “creating digital products or interfaces that resemble their physical counterparts”. The goal of skeuomorphic style was to leverage our pre-existing affordances and lend a healthy amount of familiarity and confidence to digital interfaces. Somewhere along the line, creativity took a back seat to Photoshopped mimicry, and designers began to notice.

The other point that begs reiteration is that design and style are rarely the same thing. Graphic design aligns closely with visual style at times, but one cannot mistake product features or information architecture as “style”.

I believe that designers took issue with the so-called “skeuomorphic” stylings because they appeared to lack significant thought, and perhaps, even felt hollow. What many designers have overlooked is the fact that the same thing can be said of so-called “flat design”. It’s all about the implementation. If the navigation or layout of an interface is poorly assembled, solid colors and primitive shapes won’t help you.

Drop shadows, gradients, bevels—all of these things are nuances that can serve to guide a user into an interface’s expected interaction. Again, these effects can be misused and end up frustrating a user or just looking plain bad. The goal of good interface design is to get out of the way of content, and help the user accomplish a task. Visual design is only a small part of this process, but arguably the most noticeable.

With the introduction of iOS 7, we’ve seen a very different approach to the “authentically digital” interface.

The App Store in iOS7 (beta)

Notice the icons for ‘Share’, ‘Install’, and ‘Updates’—similarly designed, yet potentially confusing when broken down. An arrow breaking out of a square makes sense for Share, and an arrow pointing into a square for updates starts to make sense in that light. The Install icon, a cloud with an arrow pointing down, makes sense on paper I suppose, but how does that differ from the model that the Updates icon is based on? (Also, when are we going to get to the punchline for the joke about the difference between “the cloud” and “the Internet”?)

This brings us back to the issue at hand: “skeuomorphic” familiarity vs. “digital authenticity”. Some things haven’t changed. Notice that the Search icon in the screenshot above is still a magnifying glass, whose choice has always been admittedly confusing. While it’s easy to nitpick, these conventions were established by the hard work of many talented people over the years. They are subconsciously, and unnoticeably ingrained into our daily lives. We’d do well to remember the pioneers who built this foundation.

In the past, the desktop software world was modeled after paper-based offices and the technology within them. The order on the shoulders of today’s interface designers is that software is no longer siloed into cubicles meant for inter-office memos and word processing. Not only is the office metaphor inappropriate and dated, its scope is far too narrow for today’s ever-growing usage contexts.

The problem with rethinking any outdated icon imagery is that we have nothing to base future iterations on. Think about it: Locks, safes, folders—all of these are antiquating, but not being replaced.Even “file" has a place in our physical world. The steep hill to climb is, again, that we have no frame of reference in digitally-born generations for these concepts. I am starting to think more and more that the icons are a symptom, and that the task is to create a new model for interacting with editable and user-created content.

One related issue I think that needs to be discussed is the nomenclature used for interactions. Think about terms and phrases like “log in/out”, “e-mail”, “post”, etc. Each of these terms have roots in the physical, pre-digital worlds. Does it makes sense to start here, and devise new concepts and terminology to inform the visual design concepts for document/account management?

The bigger question is: why now? Why do we all of a sudden care about folder metaphors, page flip interactions, and torn sheets of paper in interfaces? I think it’s a result of the rapid adaptation designers have been forced to do over the last decade. With new contexts, new patterns and understandings, come moments of clarity where previous workflows and models are re-thought from the ground-up. New device data, sensors, and APIs have also provided exponentially more detailed usage statistics than ever before. These data sets inform research, which inform design and are part of a cyclical process.

I also believe that this shift in interface models is an effect of a mobile-first generation. The percentages of mobile-mostly, and mobile-only users are ever-increasing. The antiquated mental models of desktop software simply don’t resonate with the current generation of users.

We’re also living in a society that demands constant and sustained innovation, which, coupled with a propensity for instant gratification, puts a tremendous amount of pressure on product/UI designers.

When the dust settles on this debate, I think we may just feel a little silly. Given the advent of wearable tech like Google Glass, graphical interfaces will recede to the very bottom of the priority list, while content will remain king. Information architecture will dominate job postings as brands finally give in to context-driven content (as opposed to advertising-driven content).

The most natural of human interactions are becoming intertwined with technology to empower physical connections with information that mankind has never experienced before. Keyboards and mice were invented because we didn't have voice, gestures, or touch. When physical interfaces become the majority, these debates about style will feel like wasted time.

Theories of Form

Thoughts on the future craft and communication of design.

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