Embracing the Digital Landscape

Categories Technology

Lately it seems as though every other article I read online about software interfaces is in some way related to the concept of skeuomorphic design, with the prevailing opinion amongst young digital natives being that it is often an unnecessary and dishonest factor of interface design. I tend to agree.

A skeuomorph is a physical ornament or design on an object copied from a form of the object when made from another material or by other techniques. For example, pottery embellished with imitation rivets because the object was once made of metal, or a calendar application which displays the days organised on animated month pages in imitation of a paper wall calendar.

Wikipedia.com

In my opinion, in regards to its use in digital landscapes, skeuomorphism is simply a transitional device from one medium to another. It’s a design direction capable of interfacing with a wider population-bracket (inclusive of the non-tech-savvy segments) because of it’s perceived familiarity achieved through the appropriation of the visual cues belonging to common cultural objects with analogous functions to their new digital replacements.

 

To the casual user, the command prompt (left) is much less “orienting” than the skeuomorphic world of OSX (right). Both represent differing levels of abstraction.

 

This has clear business benefits if user tests support that it does indeed broaden the spectrum of usability and thus increase potential market share. In fact, I feel this may be why Apple saw value in it as a tool.

 

But, here’s the thing: The transition period is almost over.

 

Mainstream consumers are already fully exposed to smartdevices, tablets, netbooks, touchscreen kiosks and interactive surfaces. I daresay that through intermittent frustration with the disconnect between visual appearance and interface behaviour they have also learnt that though elements of the various interfaces may look like tangible things, they don’t behave like them. Mainstream audiences understand the digital landscape a little bit better than a few years ago, it might be time to dial down the abstraction in order to facilitate complex interactions and open up opportunities for developers to allow users to solve a broader, more complex set of tasks.

 

This. We kind of want it.

 

I’ve yet to use Windows 8. I’ve only heard bad things about it. Yet, I’m finding that a lot of what I think they were trying to achieve are things that I’ve also considered myself as valuable for the furtherance of interface design that is honest, mature and incredibly useable.

 

The lack of “chrome” means a higher Content:Interface ratio

 

I was inspired to read that Metro (the namesake of the design language created for Windows 8) sought to abolish “chrome”, which got me thinking about the relationship between content and interface. The less chrome, the more real-estate for content. This is almost a self-evident notion, but when you consider and make note of the pixels used for non-content AND non-function purposes in any given applications, it’s actually still rather novel. But, as with all philosophical inclinations that laud simplicity, less is more is always harder to achieve than is first thought. Regardless of success, Windows 8’s entry into the mainstream will certainly answer some questions that I have about user interfaces and public readiness.

“The new user interface is less of a problem than it would have been 10 years ago because people have got used to mobile interfaces”

Forrester Research’s senior analyst David Johnson, UCstrategies.com

 

So, how ready are we? And as a designer I also have to ask, what familiar visual languages can I use to fabricate the desired interactions?

 

Luckily, video games exist. Video games have led to something almost as over-mentioned as skeuomorphism, that is, the gamification of things. The concept involves all sorts of behavioural theory, incentivisational practices and even lends exposure to augmented reality. In fact, I believe that gamification will be (if not already) an integral component of modern interface design and a vehicle for positive behaviour change.

 

 

No one seems to mind the infodense blend of 2D and 3D elements, HUD or realtime data overlays. In fact, it helps the user achieve a goal.

Pioneer’s augmented reality HUD for in-car GPS (read more here)

 

Icons, progress bars, real-time overlayed data, gestural inputs, rewards, social ranking, menus, inventories, micro-trading, experience points, contextual hints. There’s 2D elements hanging out in 3D space and inexplicable notifaction sounds coming from a nearby omnipresent source. It’s not an acid trip but it’s certainly not reality and we’re somehow OK with it. I like to think of the history of video games as a huge chunk of free research and development that can be applied to interactive products and user experience design, especially in regard to user enjoyment and return patronage. But essentially, video games have helped in the creation of a shared language for a new digital frontier.

 

Then you throw mobile into the mix.

  Your experience will definitely vary.

 

Mobile has demands, most of which are data based and outside my area of expertise. But it’s important as a designer to try and understand the medium.

 

Data is expensive, both to your wallet and collective global consumption.

 

New interfaces should deliver a small packet from the server and then do the rendering client-side. Basically, send the schematics, not the building.

 

For me, it’s all about vector graphics and algorithmic art. Contextually aware content zones and dynamic text. Things should be static insofar as they are contextually appropriate. Data should only be sent as contextually appropriate. Devices need to become more aware of their context of use.

 

Mobile also means variegated delivery points. I have an Android phone, the person next to me has an iPad. Let’s say we both decide to use the same web app. The design issue here is evident because the screen sizes between both devices vary greatly – so the same web app has to have enough fluidity to expand or contract into the various “frames” that it is pulled into (be that an iPad, laptop, smartphone or whatever else is commercially well-dispersed). The current solution – in regards to creating a consistent user experience between these frames – is what is referred to as responsive design. Responsive design literally responds to it’s frame according to a set of rules. There are many ways of going about responsive design, from contextually dropping elements, hiding them, conforming to a grid, setting up ratio relationships between elements or all of the above and more. It’s an automated style guide.

 

It’s all a lot to consider, but all these convergences between technology and culture are exciting to me as a designer because they signal opportunities.

 

I believe that the average consumer market is fertile soil for innovative advances in interface design and that we will have to embrace the digital landscape in order to facilitate that advance.

 

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