Blind from what we see
The first UpFront of 2013 started with a new concept: a panel discussion on skeumorphism vs the flat lands. A very interesting and insightful discussion which got me thinking: Does skeumorphism, the craft of designing user interfaces as they look like in the real world, hinder innovation? Do we blend out the possibilities lying to our feet because of trying to make it look and behave in the real world?
Of course one major idea behind the making things look familiar is that it lowers the threshold for new users. An ebook reader that has pages to flip, with text on something which looks like paper and even allows you make a marks by folding a corner is really easy to use even for beginners. It is an existing concept and idea transferred onto this new media, called Touchpad. And copying existing real-life concepts to make technology more accessible has a long tradition in human history - ever wondered why we have a “floppy disk” as save-button-icon or save our data in “folders”? Because we copied existing concepts onto the new medium.
But that trend also has its downside. What you do there, in Business-talk, we call a “copy cat”, trying to emulate something else by pretending to have similar behaviours and attributes. And an obvious downside of that is the lacking behind-factor, as long as you try to become as good as something or someone else, you’ll never become superiour. Because your absolute highest limit is becoming as good as them. And even if you’d ever reach that, you wouldn’t know what to do then. That is very similar to becoming as good as something offline - a sentence I heard multiple times that evening: as long as your highest goal is become as good as the paper version, you’ll not always lack behind but you will not reach your own potential.
There are plenty of advantages of using a digital version of a book, to stay with that example, just starting with the really low production and distribution costs. And just thinking about having it on you all the time and being able to look up stuff you market in it from all around the globe, because it is synced online. That’s a feature a paper book will never give you. But if you concentrate on become as good as the book, you’ll miss what it can’t do. Or, to take an example that brings you further, how about an ebook-reading assistant, which helps you look up strange or old wordings by underlining them and giving you a small hint. That is something ebook technology allows us, but if you focus on becoming as good as a book, you’d miss that, because a normal book will never have that.
Now, you could argue, this is just a small case and those topics are obvious, so why would that question the usage of skeumorphisms. You can still do all those things within a good paper-looking ebook-app. Well, my point is less of the actual App you are building but the mindset you put behind that. By looking at the features of something else you are restricting your own horizon to that and only a bit further. And to the argument, that you are willing to sacrifice this potential innovative usage of this media for the sake to make it easier for the users, I’d like to go back and take a very famous example:
When creating the first version of the world wide web, if Tim Berners-Lee would have used the examples of the time, books and magazines and designed the webpages on the principles of those, our world would be radically different now. Because in Books and Magazines the concept of blue, underlined parts in the text, which bring you somewhere totally else just by touching them - obviously - wasn’t existing. But only by looking further than what was existing at the time and by incorporating those new features into this medium, though taking the “problem” of having to explain its usage and benefit to the user the first few times, the web became as wide spread and interconnected as it is today.