Why apps shouldn't always reflect the physical world

Editor's Corner
Shane Schick

Press the button. Flick the switch. Open the file folder. They're all terms we immediately know, but the context is a lot more complicated in a software-centric world. When you hear them, do you think first of handling objects in the physical world or using an app? Your answer will say a lot about how you will respond to interface design. More developers need to think about how their target market will react to this question.

One of the best developer blogs I regularly read is by Matt Gemmell, who's based in Scotland and focuses on iOS apps. In a recent post he reflected on a series of design-related comments made by Jony Ive of Apple--about how devices like iPads and iPhones are intended to be so well put together that you couldn't imagine them any other way. However, many consumers struggle to find their way around an app for the first time, so this often isn't the case with software. Gemmell makes an incredibly sophisticated argument against the most common solution to this problem: skeuomorphism. This is the approach whereby we try to make moving from one page to another in an ebook just like flipping a printed page in a real-world book, to cite just one example.

Here's what Gemmell has to say about the dangers of relying on skeuomorphism, particularly in software design:

QuoteOur industry isn't young anymore, but it's still full of fear about whether so-called non-technical people will be able to use its products…Buttons apparently have to look "pushable", or no-one will push them. The reality is more nuanced. Our tastes, and capabilities, have moved a bit beyond screamingly-obvious knobs and dials. We don't need drop-shadows to encourage us to poke at something. All we need is an invitation, in the form of icons or labels or animations which imply functionality, and a consistency of presentation which allows us to make a good guess about what we can interact with."

This is not more than just a highly insightful blog post. It's a throw-down to all developers--of apps, of tablets, of phones, of anything--to transcend what seems like the easy route to adoption. As Gemmell points out, it's certainly possible for developers to move too far in the opposite direction. Microsoft would not be rethinking the "live tiles" in Windows 8 if a user learning curve wasn't a formidable force. Yet, there must be some kind of middle ground on which the best app designs can be created.

As mobile gaming and app use becomes more immersive, perhaps we'll start to identify truly "native" digital experiences. Swiping and pinching seem like the beginnings of this, but there are surely other actions that will emerge soon. As a developer, you can wait until these things become as obvious and commonplace as pushing a button. Or, you can be a part of a trailblazing moment in design that will set the standard in the way Apple has for an entire industry.--Shane