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Skeumorphs – Good, Bad or Ugly?

Posted by bcmoney on May 31, 2013 in CSS, E-Learning, Flash, HTML with No Comments


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Nifty elevator interface. #skeumorph #nasig13

Nifty elevator interface. #skeumorph #nasig13 (Photo credit: BryanAlexander)

What are Skeumorphs?
In designing and developing new software systems and applications, a common strategy is to attempt to approximate device user interfaces to mimic or look like real-world physical objects. This is called a Skeumorph, or a skeumorphic design.

Some of the biggest problems with Skeumorphs are that they are time-sensitive and may not actually do a great job at approximating a particular item or interface from the real-world. For example, we still use the floppy disk to represent “Save” activities, when an entire generation of computer and internet users have grown up without the use of Floppy Disks.

This approach to implementing software solutions has been propagated by Apple in particular, as well as a number of other companies such as Adobe and Microsoft of late. On the other side of the fence is Google and Microsoft who have traditionally had very non-Skeumorphic designs that feel more like using a software interface than approximating any particular object in the real-world.

 

Where do Skeumorphs work?
Here are a few examples of types of interfaces for which I think Skeumorphs tend to work well (for the most part):

 

What are some non-Skeumorph design elements?
Some examples of non-Skeumorphic designs and Flat Design features would also be useful for comparison:

 

Side-by-Side Comparison

So let’s see some side-by-side examples of Skeumorphs .vs. Flat Designs that are each relevant in their own rights:

Skeumorph Flat
communication
newsletter email client/word processor
advertising
billboard ads text ads (responsive)
text
e-reader (flippable magazine) news articles (responsive layout)
retail
e-receipt shopping cart
medical
e-prescriptions electronic health record
music
radio invisible/collapsible player
food
nutrition label interactive recipes
sports
e-scoreboard fitness tracker
images
pinboard gallery
maps
static embedded map (cartograph) LBS augmented reailty (camera hotspots)
events
calendar timeline
people
rolodex (contacts) social graph
weather
thermometer long-range forecast (table)
games
1st-person Online Games 3rd-person Online Games

 

Conclusion

While I agree in principle that we should not constantly consider Skeumorphs as the best or only design approach, I would argue that they certainly have their time and place where they can be a viable if not superior alternative in terms of usability. In particular, it helps in the first generation of an application where an entire system is moving for the first time from physical modes of interaction such as paper and mechanical to electronic and digital ones such as HTML forms or touch interfaces. Making things look familiar gives useful cues to users trying to adjust to the new application for the first time, and can definitely ease the move from physical to digital. At the same time, we can sometimes accomplish more by going beyond the limitations of the physical world and stepping outside our comfort zones and ingrained processes.

 

 

 

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BC$ = Behavior, Content, Money

The goal of the BC$ project is to raise awareness and make changes with respect to the three pillars of information freedom - Behavior (pursuit of interests and passions), Content (sharing/exchanging ideas in various formats), Money (fairness and accessibility) - bringing to light the fact that:

1. We regularly hand over our browser histories, search histories and daily online activities to companies that want our money, or, to benefit from our use of their services with lucrative ad deals or sales of personal information.

2. We create and/or consume interesting content on their services, but we aren't adequately rewarded for our creative efforts or loyalty.

3. We pay money to be connected online (and possibly also over mobile), yet we lose both time and money by allowing companies to market to us with unsolicited advertisements, irrelevant product offers and unfairly structured service pricing plans.

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