Skeuomorphism – a familiar touch or kitschy ornament?

It happens daily in front of our eyes, but few of use might have heard of “Skeuomorphism” so far. Originally referring to the marks left by tools on a product (such as brush traces on metal), it is also a technique in visual interface design. There, it means applying textures of physical objects to screen elements, sometimes also bringing entire metaphors from the physical to the digital world.

"corrugated" window resize handle in Mac OS 9

“corrugated” window resize handle in Mac OS 9 (source: guidebookgallery)

This has happened from the very beginnings of the interface but it popped up as a discussion at IxDS very recently. The latest Apple OS 10.7 Lion might have been the reason, or at least a prominent example and of course our design for the SiMKo security phone.

The OS X native Address Book and also the Calendar show very strong references to former filofax-style organizers – probably, I must add, since I have never used such organizers and few people around me have. Even less in the expensive leather bound examples that the Apple software now imitates. And with this description, I already mentioned two questionable properties of this interface style or technique: it refers to very old artefacts, that younger people might have little relation to; and it imitates material while it is obviously not there.

The iOS 5 Address Book on the iPad (source: rivacrmintegration)

Apple is known for appealing interfaces that are easy to use. In the highly dynamic field of mobile UI design, however, we also find completely opposing and aesthetically remarkable approaches in Micrsoft’s Metro style and Android Holo. The question – that I won’t be able to answer in this article: Is skeuomophism just a matter of style or does it really help people (i.e. a question of user experience)?

People Hub in Windows Phone 7 (source: wpcentral)


Let’s see what arguments we can bring to the debate. Good contributions to this debate come from Tobias Bjerrome Ahlin from Spotify and Thom Holwerda (both articles from 04/2012) and I added some considerations of my own and from office discussions.

Arguments on the pro side

  • Familiar: Skeuomorphic styles use visual elements that people know already to make them feel more at home. It lowers the entry barriers.
  • Easy to learn: Physical world references help users understand an application easier because they can reuse their knowledge.
  • Luxury: Textures from expensive materials make an application look more valuable or at least fit better into the portfolio of a particular target group
  • Hardware-Software-Consistency: Former Apple UIs were in line with the hardware around it and created “one piece” impression. Aluminium cases and brushed metail surfaces. Or colourful plastic enclosures and the Aqua interface. Not true for the latest UIs of Apple. (even from OS X 9 on)

    A bit of aluminium from the casing on the left and brushed metal UI elements (source: xverse10)

  • Playful: They are fun because skeuomorphic metaphors are still a bit surprising in digital interfaces, and they invite to touch and use an application. (from Ahlin)
  • Storytelling and “Framing”: Especially on personal devices such as phones and pads, users think less in tasks and more in leisure time categories. A visually rich interface tells them a story through the appearance not an info text and thus gets them in the right mood (or matches their mood) for this particular app. (from Ahlin)

Arguments on the con side

  • Disappointing: the textures are very obviously a simulation. What you feel is still the plastic of the touch screen, what you smell is still the electronic device, not the leather it displays. Even the reflections on the display tell you that. You feel fooled, at least unconsciously.
  • Outdated: I and even less the “digital natives” have ever used a physical address book or an expensive leather book as a calendar. Hence, the references used by Apple have no target to point to (the signs have no thing, no designata, as semioticians would put it)
  • Inconsistent: a lot of core interface elements don’t fit into a physical metaphor. No physical calendar has a dialog box with “OK” buttons. No book has scrollbars, you flip pages (some applications have both, nevertheless, point from Holwerda). This might also be called the “Microsoft Bob” argument.
    Apple Address Book uses the book metaphor heavily, it even as a page-flipping animation when you “add” a contact – but you can’t go from one contact to another by flipping pages.

    Old leather from the Calendar app frame meets glossy, virtual frame from the dialog box. (source: berlagelyceum)

  • Ego-Centric: textures, layout, behaviour is optimised for one app, to mimic it’s physical counterpart. In a different app, the same buttons might be in different places, the user has to learn each app UI anew. (see the layouts of Calendar and Address Book above) (from Holwerda)
  • Media Ignorant: the UIs are running as software; on devices that allow very very little physical experience. Designs that concentrate on this “bodyless” character make much more sense (to me) or are at least aesthetically far more interesting because they offer something “unseen”.
  • Clutter: skeuomorphic details take up screen space that might be used better for other purposes (including empty space). This is an efficiency argument and needs to be balanced with e.g. playfulness. But “could less be more?” is still a valid question.

Looking at these lists now, alternatives to skeuomorphism seem to be the better choice. However, a couple of arguments lack empirical validations and hinder clear decisions. We can get at least some of the validation from good user tests (e.g. for “Easy to Learn”) but user experience is more difficult to test unequivocally. This is something I’ll have an eye at.

The lists are a good ressource for pitfalls or important questions, however, that might help us defining a design strategy. When going for a very clean and digital interface, did we care enough about making it accessible, engaging and fun? And when we went for skeuomorphic designs: are our designs clear enough, do the metaphors still work well with the digital environment they are in, are we clear about the story to tell or is it just decoration?

For the question of the “better” approach, the debate is still on!

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User Testing

paper prototype

interacting with paper prototype

sketches after testing session

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auto-pilot for your relationships

For a healthy relationship, you should leave a short notice for your friends at least once in a while. But — huh — somtimes, days are really packed and you tend to forget things like that anyway…

Why not let your digital companion take on some routine care taking? Computers are well versed with keep alive customs:

The “keep-alive” keyword […] allows the sender to indicate its desire for a persistent connection.

Here is how it works:
keepalive scenario
With the socially aware address book (from my Master’s Thesis) it will know who your friends are–and you will be able to describe your social aspirations, too. You then only need to define where you store interesting images or your latest writings or what you’re currently occupied with and the system will start sending off short notices every now and then.
If your friend happens to implement the same digital assistant (second line in the picture), your digital sidekicks might end up in a circle of automatic messages and reponses, chatting along on their own. Bypassing your human existence altoghther…
But your assistant can also propose some more personal messages that require your contribution (as depicted in the last line).

After all, some digital support is better than neglecting your remote friends too much, isn’t it?
(discussion declared open…)

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Analytics by Semiotics

When talking about virtual and real worlds it soon gets difficult to determine what we consider as virtual and real. Our thoughts and imaginations are not technically enhanced or otherwise mysterious but they are not part of the actual, material world, either. They do shape our perspective and our plans and actions.

Public Buildings are solid environments but their particular determination, they way we perceive the building and select a proper behavior is not built-in but a system of signs and codes that we read permanently.
With the means of Semiotic Analysis I investigated on the relation between (real) buildings and our interpretation, that means our (virtual) reconstruction. The results are presented by an interactive documentation that reflects the subjective process of decoding (unfortunately, texts in German only). It is the fruit of the Master Class in Design Theory, led by Prof. Dr. Rainer Funke.

As a first example, I examined the Berlin Central Railway Station as a hub of public transport on the one side and I discovered an interference with the mixed-in shopping mall concept on the other one. Having travelling in mind initially, a passenger has to cross the shopping sector. This changes the context for his decoding of sign systems, so he misses the guides to the trains easily.

Berlin Hbf Identitaetskrise - Titelbild flash, 3.4 MB

For the second example, I was wondering which signs and features render a church into a somewhat mystic room with a very special atmosphere. Although one could still call it a house by its primary features it makes people whisper and feel different. Featured buildings include St. Hedwig, St. Paulus, Sophienkirche, and Maria Saal (Kaernten, A)
mythosraum kirche - title flash, 4.6 mb


predict the tomorrow

Everyone uses Google (or search engines in general) to find something from the past: What are the soccer results from last week end, who wrote an article about surveillance, where is that “critical update” for my webbrowser? Google finds out the questions and needs of a lot of people (e.g. 50% of all US-search) and with a little extrapolation one could say: of the world. The (monthly) statistics on the psyche of the world can be inspected at the Google Zeitgeist.
The future is nothing random but created by ourselves everyday through actions that are driven exactly by these questions and needs that condense at the search interface of Google. Wouldn’t Google be able to predict the things to come?

While this is one of the stunning (at least to me) results of the Google and Borges class at Humboldt University, I developed a game concept that takes one step back and leaves prophecy to the players.


simulation and truth

For getting a grip on my master thesis I made up a collection of fields of interest. There are a couple of buzz-words that I want to unfold in order to make them fructous for further investigations. This is one of the first steps and I hope to be able to add some details soon.

simulation depends and constructs reality (WoWarcraft, Second Life)
machines simulate an interface in order to get usable for humans

thoughts and theses?
opposite (according to Baudrillard): Illusion

is simulation linked to virtuality?
is operationalization the basis for simulation?

unique, personal experience reproductive society, sampling

what role plays the “I” and how do we define it? >emotions

democracy (many) experts (peers)
poetry and truth (>Goethe)

human control system, adding salience(“weight”) to information

Links to authenticity and maybe truth?

a way to liberty/freedom (>Schiller)?
some things can not be described directly but rather circumscribed
storytelling, truth in poetry

which truth(s) might be created, available or perceived by being immersed into some medium, computer games in particular?

can truth come from (super)complex systems? What do emergent structures show?
are evolutionary systems useful?

massive systems can no longer be calculated but must be estimated statistically and are often simulated in advance > simulation



HalfLife Screenshoot found on

Immersion (lat.: imergere = to dip): feeled presence in another world

A “world” might be defined by

  • a set of objects and individuals
  • an inhabitable environment
  • its complete understandability (for external spectators)
  • space of possibilities (to take action etc)

building blocks of immersion

  • being caught (backgrounds from cognitive science)
  • a computergame defines the setting and the “destiny of the voyage”
  • by interacting we accept the (game)rules

There is no effort necessary, only conscious analysis is capable of distinguishing between real and virtual. Familiar images and hardware that is intuitively operable help to stay “inside the world”.

Finding ourselves in a state of “amphibic” awareness, we flicker between sensing reality (keyboard, environment) and the game world.

“Possible Worlds” is a term established by Analytical Philosophy (David Lewis): We define our world as a part of the real, absolute world by our perspective. Our view and the real world are linked indexically.
Immersion/Imagination shifts the center of our (real-world) perspective into a fictional world (recentering). The new world is constituted by its rules only which cannot be questioned in consequence.

This is very briefly the content of a presentation I gave (long version in German follows) while I was attending a class at FU Berlin, Seminar for Film Studies on Computergames and Media Theory hosted by Judith Keilbach. It is based on the text

Marie-Laure RYAN, Narrative as Virtual Reality. Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media. Baltimore/London 2004: Johns Hopkins University Press



I’m very happy that I managed to get into the Masters Program for Interface Design at FH Potsdam. This proposal and a little presentation did it for me!
Now the real work starts as I want to re-work my proposal and re-think my ideas. I’m very curious about the results…

Here you can find the first outlining of my work (german only, unfortunately)

real? why our world has to be virtual if it wants to be authentic pdf, 32 kb