Issue #40: Skeuomorphism

The Button And The Spoon

As my father approaches his 80th birthday, his first contacts with the latest technologies become ever more interesting. As a pen-and-pencil architect and entrepreneur with 50 years of experience, technology is not a necessity; rather, just another useful tool. He setup his first fax machine at the end of the 90s, and got his first computer a decade after that. At some point in the 2010s he bought a smartphone, and one day asked me for help to finish some task on it. I remember his face when I told him to “touch the button that says ‘done'” and he replied, “which button? I do not see any button”.

In Spanish, just like in English, the word “button” (“botón”) can be used as both “push button” or “shirt button”. Being the son of an immigrant costume tailor who moved from Poland to Buenos Aires in the 1930s, my father’s brain first considered the latter meaning of the word “button”, before the former kicked in.

Truth is, on his smartphone, neither of these things were visible. Nor a push button, nor a shirt button, not a light switch, not a calculator button, not a door knob, not a push lever, nothing. What was visible was, instead, the blue word “Done” eerily floating in the top-right corner of the screen.

As my father said, there was no button.

Skeuomorpheus

As this article hits the press, a fourth installment of the Matrix franchise has just been released on cinemas worldwide. In the world of Neo and Agent Smith, a shirt button looks like a shirt button and might behave like a push button. Since The Matrix has been purposedly designed as the world that has been pulled over their eyes to blind them from the truth, it must be the quintessential skeuomorphic environment.

Here is an example: the Keymaker (played by Randall Duk Kim in the second movie) appears as a… well, a keymaker, sharpening keys as if he were in a Mister Minit shop. Looking at him at work, one can forget the complexity of the software keys represented by those entities; are they symmetric key pairs? Are they based on RSA or Ed25519? Is the keychain in his belt stored in the KDBX format? This movie supposedly happening in the future, one can imagine that the algorithms in use are very likely to be much more complicated than those we know today. But you get the idea. However they are implemented, those keys still look like metal keys, and they open doors. Or rather, backdoors.

As the kid in the waiting room of the Oracle said to Neo while doing his Uri Geller thing, there was no spoon.

Ceci n’est pas une Pipe

Affordances on a computer screen are mechanisms designed to prevent us from becoming crazy. We need analogies to navigate a world that is very alien to most of humanity. We programmers tend to forget this fact, but the very machine I am using to write these words is a marvel of complexity, one that downright baffles and confounds the vast majority of people walking this Earth.

Thirty years ago, user interfaces had all the effects required to provide a somewhat physical appearance to that which had not any. Search for screenshots of NeXTSTEP, Motif, Windows 95, Mac OS 9, and you will find lots of drop shadows and shitty 3D effects, where the light almost always seems to come from the upper left corner of your laptop. User interfaces were, in a quite literal way, deeper than they are today; which is why we call “flat” the current design fashion in vogue among UI designers.

Current research cannot reliably determine whether flat user interfaces are more or less effective than skeuomorphic ones; but it can provide some useful recommendations:

Flatness (and minimalism) should not be considered as a cause on its own, but as a means to foster easier and aesthetically satisfying interaction.

(Spiliotopoulos, Konstantinos & Rigou, Maria & Sirmakessis, Spiros. (2018). “A Comparative Study of Skeuomorphic and Flat Design from a UX Perspective.” Multimodal Technologies and Interaction. 2. 31. 10.3390/mti2020031.)

What remains, beyond all logic and rational considerations of measurable effectiveness, is satisfaction. And the biggest thing that disappeared in the transition from iOS 6 to iOS 7 was, without any doubt, my own satisfaction at dealing with this new idea of a user interface.

There is a lot of research and explanations and controversy and criticism about the pros and cons of flat vs. skeuomorphic user interfaces. This magazine being a big opinion piece, this author roots for a (hopefully, not so far away) future in which buttons on a computer screen will look like (push, not shirt) buttons again.

Beauty

When my father started his career as an architect, at the end of the 1960s, he got an internship in the office of Jorge Horacio Lestard, one of the most famous and widely recognized Argentine architects of the 20th century. Every week, in his office at the corner of Avenida Belgrano and Perú street, Mr. Lestard would gather his staff to review the progress of design projects, pitching various teams against each other, for some new design to be added to the Buenos Aires downtown skyline.

In one of those occasions, my father told me, Mr. Lestard inspected scale models laid on the conference room table, for longer than usual. Those were proposals for a new building of the Argentine Embassy in Asunción, the capital city of Paraguay. Mr. Lestard had been staring at them in silence for minutes, transfixed and without blinking, surrounded by his staff, all enthralled and waiting for his final verdict. At some point, Mr. Lestard raised his head and broke the silence, choosing a model from the bunch: “This one!” Among sighs and deep breaths, one of the managers came to him and asked, “why this one and not the others?” Mr. Lestard, who would become tenured professor at the Universidad de Buenos Aires in 1983, and future recipient of the 2002 Konex Award, simply shrugged, smiled, and replied.

“Because it is sooooooo pretty!”

Google can run as many user groups and statistics and gather as much data as they want to take design decisions, but at the end of the day, the only thing that remains in our minds and hearts is the satisfaction provided by beauty. Computer screens, in that respect, should be treated as artisanal pieces, both with purpose and aesthetics at the same time. The disconnection between designers and users has let user interfaces to drift off to a space where only designers are satisfied by them. It is time to remember the users trying to find those buttons, trying to bend those spoons, and to take their satisfaction into account, too.

Cover photo by Nigel Tadyanehondo on Unsplash.

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Adrian Kosmaczewski is a published writer, a trainer, and a conference speaker, with more than 25 years of experience in the software industry. He holds a Master's degree in Information Technology from the University of Liverpool.