Since the evolution from apes to humans, we have made many inventions, some intentional and some accidental. Be it the wheel, matchstick, telephone or the radio, everything that we came up with has shaped today’s modern world of technology. With innovations came new terms and methods which rule our lives today. In today’s digital age, Skeuomorphism has kept the contemporary design basics in relation to the yesteryears’ originations.
So, what is skeuomorphism? Let’s talk examples.
Think about the calculator you use on Windows. Would you be able to know what it meant if you hadn’t used an actual calculator in real life? No, right. The thing that helped you to distinguish the Windows calculator is an aspect of UI/UX design known as skeuomorphism. Skeuomorphism is a combination of two Greek words, 'skeuos' meaning vessel or tool, 'morphe' meaning 'shape.' Used together they imply a vessel shape. In design language, skeuomorphism means depiction of real-life objects in the software world. It is about representing the essence of the object, what it stands for by mimicking the design to resemble its real-life counterpart.
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the term ‘save’ in computer context? Isn’t it a floppy drive? What about ‘edit’? Isn’t a pencil the first thing that comes to mind? Alternatively, how about you tell me what’s the purpose of a trash can or recycle bin on a computer? You get the idea right. Skeuomorphism is the thing that lets you know that the recycle bin or trash can in a computer is a place for junk (i.e., deleted) files.
Skeuomorphism gained popularity in the 1980s. Back then, things were about experiences. How someone interacted, what he/she learned from it had more significance when compared to today’s scenario. In today’s scene, however, the dependency of product on experience has diminished. Results have taken the crown from experiences and today’s world has become much more result-oriented. This tilt in preferences of results over experience led to minimalistic and flat designs, elements that were more responsive and had less UI clutter. However, there’s no denying to the fact that skeuomorphism has its fortes.
• Familiarity. The foundation of this design principles lies in everyday objects, things that any layman might come across in their day-to-day life. So, there is some link associated with these things as one usually subject themselves to interact with these entities on a regular basis. Playing with these everyday entity figures in design helps the user gain awareness of some aspects of a product function and makes the learning curve slightly gentler.
• Better affordances. By affordances, I mean indications. The current minimalistic design looks away from the early tangible impressions of designing for the sake of minimizing clutter and content focus. However, in this process, designs today have created their own identity while stepping over the skeuomorphic designs. (ex. Use of chevron over big textured pull tabs)
• Better feedback. Interaction with physical entities invites more feedback which contributes to the user experience. Minimalistic flat designs are devoid of such feedbacks, hence, lack some of that user experience. All things apart, there is a definite positive about using skeuomorphic designs. The introduction to and walk along with the digital era becomes much more comfortable for older generations, thanks to the visual cues from the skeuomorphic shapes. Alternatively, skeuomorphism has come under severe criticism. Skeuomorphism design relies hugely on real entities. This characteristic is well and good in the real world, but not in the design world. The several features of real objects would muddle up intent causing design chaos. Since the current generation is more productivity-focused, this nostalgic connection to objects in designs hinders the productivity and limits the software's capability. Calendars, address-books are things that had their weight in yesteryears and are unknown to today's younger generations.
In today's context
There are some design evolutions in this digital era that do not have any ties to any skeuomorphic perspective. Swipe to delete, pull to refresh, and the hamburger menu, are some of the UI developments that won a lot of designers’ and people’s hearts. However, that does not imply they can be ever-present. Design in any field, be it UX/UI or structural is always altering. User designs mature over time. A model that is in trend today might be obsolete tomorrow. A designer has to keep track of the trends and adapt their plans accordingly to be on the same page as others and collectively provide a unified experience to the users.
Evolution in design is omnipresent, but to say skeuomorphism is a total hindrance in present design context would be overstating things. There is the admission of interest for flat designs over skeuomorphic designs, but that does not overcome the fact that you cannot abandon the notion entirely. The designers have been there. They have gone ahead and discarded the skeuomorphic touches from the design, and guess what? The designs struggle. Without any sense of familiarity, the user experience with the product gets worse. This thing is especially real in a time where the population is still coming to grips over analog to digital.
There is the acknowledgment of flat designs but with a hint of skeuomorphism. Designs do resemble skeuomorphism in some ways. The outline might resemble an object but will have few toned down visual aspects like texture, gradient. This balance of skeuomorphism along with flat, minimalistic design helps to maintain the experience aspect although there might be differences in appearances.
Put it this way. Skeuomorphism is not dead; it’s just that it has evolved in non-skeuomorphic ways. Product designs rely on objectives, and these do not alter. A modification in design principles results in alteration of methods to achieve the goal. Skeuomorphism in design terms is about the method in use. How an individual completes a task? To save a file, you either click on the floppy icon or the button titled ‘save.’ Your intent (i.e., to save the file) remains constant, the way you do it (i.e., clicking on the floppy icon or save button) differs.
There are various instances supporting the notion of skeuomorphs in design. Microsoft’s transition from Windows 7 to Windows 8 was a big one. While some were excited about the new tiled layout, some were skeptical. The result? Windows 10, which is a mix of some skeuomorph elements from Windows 7 and tile approach of Windows 8. Evolution is a good thing, but in the case of UX/UI design, the process is not always progressive. Interface designs went overboard and suffered and then turned back to skeuomorphism. One cannot just abandon the concept of skeuomorphs entirely as there are aspects of user design and experience that do not have a digital counterpart.
It is this aspect of associating real life with a product interaction that makes a user experience engaging and fascinating. Skeuomorphism adds the touch of real life to the user experience of using a product.
Controversy of skeuomorphism:
There is an accusation on skeuomorphism that it creates theatrics instead of user experience. The adaptation of real-world objects into product brings undesired rudiments which could ruin the experience of the user with the product. Current scenario favors a fast and responsive design which remains true to intent or results. This result-driven strategy makes ornamental obligations take a back seat. So, the detailed visual treatment to the design is something that keeps minimum footprint. The necessary real-world elements are usually the object shapes. Creators work out a model that has some features and gets the point across the user. Skeuomorph designs are inert to resizing. Any alteration to shape and size affects the user perception of the design with regards to the real-life substitute. So, involving skeuomorphs confines you in certain ways, taking away the full freedom of designing while sacrifice ease of use and navigation. Hence, a shift to simpler flatter designs composed of circles, squares, and rectangles that are resizable have become norms.
However, as you already know, design evolves and changes. The norms are changing and are in favor of skeuomorphism. The digital era’s shift to the digitization of things (or better known as the internet of things) has brought back skeuomorphism. Almost every gadget that you can find in the market these days has a ‘smart’ touch to it. Be it mobile phones, televisions, watches or even refrigerators, most of these electronics have evolved into smart gadgets by being able to perform multiple tasks. There was a time when TVs only showed us cable programs or phones only used for calling. Nowadays, in addition to the primary duties, televisions can browse the internet, play songs while phones can send images or even allow video calls. With so many features and settings involved in these devices, there had to be some form of familiarity to help in operation learning and interaction with the devices. Skeuomorph design and layouts assist in streamlining user experience of products.
Apart from all the ‘smartness’ in gadgets, the industry has also seen the rise of augmented and virtual reality. The virtual world was, at one time, confined in two-dimensions. However, now with the advancement in computer technology, a person can interact with objects in a simulated environment. So, how does skeuomorphism work in this case?
While Augmented Reality blend virtual elements with the real world, Virtual Reality completely shuts out the user from the external world, engaging them entirely in the simulated world. AR and VR experience are hugely dependent on user interaction, which is higher than the rest of the product experiences in the industry. This dependence is because both AR and VR are response-feedback systems. Since these are heavily reliant on the interaction of a user with the simulated world, the interface needs to be straightforward and responsive. If the user experience has the presence of an unknown or incomprehensible element, there is a high probability that the user will fluff to achieve the envisioned objective.
All these cases point towards one thing, i.e., the impact of skeuomorphism. We got to learn that skeuomorphism is an essential part of the design but needs adapting. It requires constant updating to keep up with the design norms of the time. With skeuomorphism, it is about simplification of intent in product design to enable a positive user flow. Hence, breaking down tasks into essential interaction elements is the way to proceed while designing to preserve physical interaction with things while not compromising on the speed of access.