UX Power Up: Skeuomorphism

Skeuomorphism is the visual art of mimicking real world metaphors in an interface…a dial looks like a physical dial, a sales receipt looks like an actual receipt etc. Apple is most notorius for promoting the design technique then suppressing it lately. Should you too?

Transcript of video above…


Frank Spillers, founder of Experience Dynamics, and it’s time for week’s UX Power Up.  Today, in mobile UX I’d like to talk about the term skeuomorphism.  It’s a mouth full, and maybe you’ve seen it or heard it in the news recently.  Apple is a company that’s known to put out a lot of skeuomorphic designs.  And these are designs that use visual metaphors that mimic real world objects, like a leather or a wood kind of grain, something like that.  

One of the things that’s been in the news lately it seems to, the story just keeps getting recycled is that Steve Jobs really liked skeuomorphism   And now that he’s gone, Apple is kind of killing it or removing skeuomorphism from their design approach in their interfaces.  So, I personally wanted to share with you that I actually think that skeuomorphism is fine.  And it’s not something that should – you know – to me it’s not like, “Oh you should get rid of it.” Skeuomorphism can be very very helpful to carry metaphors, to carry real world metaphors over into the virtual space and into the mobile space.  And things like a spin wheel or a pie menu, you know, that you might have something similar in the real world that you bring over that metaphor or that interaction with it.  But some visual design and some skeuomorphic stuff is just inappropriate and just doesn’t look very nice.  So, to me, it’s more of a case of what’s tasteful or artful and what’s not.  So I think it really really depends on how you are trying to use it and what you’re trying to use it for.  I think that there are 3 benefits of skeuomorphism  and I’d like to share those with you.  

So the 3 things that I think are potentially beneficial to skeuomorphism are – and these are kind of like tips – or benefits, if you will, of what good skeuomorphism can do for a design.  First of all, it should be subtle, and it should indicate subtly. So if skeuomorphism is the most obvious thing you see- like if you look at a design and you go, “Oh my god that’s such-and-such”, and all you’re thinking about is the real world object, to me that violates subtly.  So, skeuomorphism should just kind of sneak in and then maybe you notice it and maybe you don’t, you know maybe you unconsciously notice it.  That, to me, is good use of skeuomorphism.

The 2nd one, is aiding orientation.  Good skeuomorphism should aid your orientation to a screen, or in other words, your navigation or what to do on that screen. You go “Oh, I know what this is, because it’s sort of has a pattern that I’m familiar with, I’m not sure how I’m familiar with it, but I’m familiar with it.”  Let me give you an example, from Mint.com on their mobile app.  They had a little summary of, a receipt for their expenses, you know for things you’re tracking.  And here are the numbers, here’s the data.  All this is is really just the receipt to show where this category – food, restaurants, or whatever – was showing spends and total amounts.  And they laid this on a background, fairly subtle background, with a very subtle, kind of receipt – you know, it actually looks more jagged here, but in their design it was much smoother and very very low-key, and it was kind of like a receipt, like an actual receipt from a cash register.  A good use of skeuomorphism and in relationship to Mint.com’s overall visual design, and their metaphors, it fit in.  So, it kind of complimented the style or personality of their design.  But also, it should help you orient to the page, so that you know what it is.

The 3rd one here, which relates to orientation and subtly, is that skeuomorphism can help you activate, or help your user activate, a mental model.  Let me define mental model real quick.  So, the mental model is the assumptions, the expectations, beliefs, kind of the baggage – if you will – that the user brings to your design.  That’s their mental model, kind of their set of expectations, assumptions, and so forth.   So skeuomorphism can help you, kind of get you in that feeling of familiarity or help your user go, “Oh, I know what this is, it kind of reminds me or looks like x-y-z.”  Again, I think it’s a case of whether it is appropriate to do it with your design, whether it aids the personality, the orientation, if you can keep it subtle and it doesn’t get in the users face and thirdly, if it helps activate a mental model in a way that’s elegant, that isn’t disruptive, then good reason to use it.  So those are the reasons why I think skeuomorphism won’t go away, shouldn’t go away always and just to give you a little bit more insight into that, as opposed to the tabloid version of, you know Kill it – Keep it – Kill it – Keep it, anyway… Happy UX’ing.  Take care.

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