Skeuomorph:
(Greek: skeuos—vessel or tool, morphe—shape), is a derivative object that retains ornamental design cues to a structure that was necessary in the original. Skeuomorphs may be deliberately employed to make the new look comfortably old and familiar.

There is no question that Android interface design has caught up with Apple IOS in terms of delivering a premium user experience, and with the release of Android 4 (or Ice Cream Sandwich) it appears that two opposing philosophies are emerging in mobile UI design.

An interview at fastcodesign.com with Android UX Design Chief Matias Duarte makes interesting reading. Duarte’s design thinking seems to be opposite of Apple’s – while Apple go for a skeuomorphic design heavy on using metaphors, Duarte opts for the opposite. His rational (and I’m para-phrasing here, you can check out his interview here) is that people don’t care for real looking buttons or metaphors – they are a hang up of  a 30 year old computer interface design, and over-designed buttons with a 3D effect look great on their own but overwhelming when all put together. In his words: “…when you assemble the individual elements on a screen, each one becomes prominent on its own… Each is very pretty, but when you try to make a wall or a house out of them, all the embellishments fight with the larger building.”

In the fastcodesign.com interview with Duarte, references to Android’s new UI design being ‘like a magazine’ crop up rather a lot – although never directly attributed to Duarte as far as I can tell, the magazine as UI metaphor gets mentioned a few times – on the surface this seems at odds with his design thinking, as a magazine inspired layout, complete with turning pages, is of course… a metaphor. Magazines have been around a lot longer than computer interfaces, and can hardly be called a current and modern interaction model.

And then there is that problem of the ‘Pictures Under Glass’ technology, a phrase nicked from the very insightful Bret Victor. In this great blog post, Victor rants (his word) that “Pictures Under Glass is an interaction paradigm of permanent numbness.” – we can’t ‘feel’ the pages of a magazine through the interface of a touch screen device. Using ‘real’ objects as interactive elements within an interface helps a little with this problem – buttons under the glass of a touch screen will never be tactile, but they can have the appearance of being tactile, which can only help.

I am not a huge fan of using metaphors but I often find myself encouraging their use. I have found them useful for quickly communicating functionality – the one great advantage of using metaphors and skeuomorphic design is that you already know how something is going to work – if there is a dial, I know that I have to turn up or down. A toggle? I can toggle it. The big downside is that we tie ourselves to the limitations of the objects we are basing our metaphors on, we lose the chance to innovate or create new methods of interaction.

I would like to think that the average smart phone user is capable of learning new interactive conventions and can get by without the blatant signposting of metaphors, and that decent UI design can be accomplished with new interaction conventions; but to make sure a UI is understandable quickly, without instruction and by a broad demographic I will choose a metaphor. This piece of advice I have lifted from http://developer.android.com sums it up: “Real objects are more fun than buttons and menus: Allow people to directly touch and manipulate objects in your app. It reduces the cognitive effort needed to perform a task while making it more emotionally satisfying.”

Android 4 is promising a much more refined and improved user experience. As more people upgrade and as Android’s market penetration continues to grow it will be interesting to see how Apple reacts.

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Related links:

  1. John Siracusa at arstechnica.com writing about Lion and Apple’s use of the Skeuomorph. (Part of a much larger article)
  2. Info on Android 4