Now brochures are skeuomorphs, too?

Not too long ago I spoke with a client about skeuomorphism: An interesting concept, where items are designed using elements from other, usually older versions. There are plenty of real-life, physical examples around: Stone-washed jeans are a skeuomorph. Bricks or wood paneling printed onto wallpaper. Or the fake wooden sidings on American cars from the 60s. But more recently – and most contentiously – this has been used in the design of software and app front-ends. Apple is well-known for mimicking real objects with its interfaces: iCalendar looks like a desk calendar, the address book app emulates a paper address book, iBook looks like the shelf in a bookstore. Other vendors use the same principle: Camera phones make a shutter noise when you take a picture, note taking apps look like a block of lined paper. And digital audio apps use the same dials we know from analogue technology.

Since we’re talking about it, I have to admit to a personal bug bear: So many of these skeuomorphs are products, which only exist in the US. That desk calendar? Not used in Europe since the early 80s. Evernote’s pretend-legal pad on yellow paper with that curiously placed, vertical red line? We don’t have them over here. Still, users are flexible – these analogues have now become almost universally recognised references.

How skeuomorphism made sense

There is of course a very valid argument for the use of mimicry: It works well and the users have less of a mental transfer to do, as they move from one version of technology to the next. And after all, familiarity holds off the fear, which is part and parcel of all things new. It makes new things easier to use, faster. In some cases – the 3D design of buttons – the end result even seems to look more sophisticated. Although I’m sure that’s just habit.

In the past this resemblance to things we know had a very real function: It helped us discover new interactive skills. Now we know to swipe across a screen, to scissor our fingers when we want to zoom something. Now we know to double-tap and drag and swivel. And it was certainly easier to learn that in familiar surroundings.

Apple got into deep waters, design-wise, when they “declared death to skeuomorphism” in 2012 with the launch of IOS 7. Microsoft before them was laughed at – By me, among others. I cringe in retrospect. – when they presented their logo for Windows 8. Gone was any reference to real things. No more easy-on-the-eye mimicry of things we know. No more pretense. Now we have simpler, flatter surfaces, no more 3D in what is undeniably a 2D environment.

Design without a crutch

But more importantly, there is more of an opportunity to look at true user experiences, without using the real world as a crutch. It’ll take a while for users to become comfortable with what initially feels like a less intuitive design. It will also take a while for the designers to develop interfaces that truly reflect the way the elements of software are being used.

For the umpteenth time I am talking to a company who wants to relaunch their marketing collateral. All those beautiful brochures in A4 portrait format, published as PDFs, can we re-do them, please? I am having a devil of a time trying to convince them that no one ever prints them, so maybe we could do away with the front and back cover? And look at the format, wouldn’t a landscape format be more appropriate, to be viewed without the need to scroll on-screen? And instead of linear story telling, which as far as I’m concerned went out of fashion in the early 2000s, could we enrich the functionality by linking items, building in zooms and adding those videos we already use elsewhere?

I need to talk to them some more about skeuomorphism.

A few references, pro and contra:

Nit picking, part 1: The Oxford Comma

I love punctuation in English! So cute! Is cute a term I can use here? Almost no rules! And the few there are, people will still disagree on! Love it.
Ok, here’s one for my fellow non-native speakers. And some native speakers I know:
In English, you mainly place commas to help the reader structure the text. There are very few exceptions. The Oxford comma is one of them. An Oxford comma is a comma before “and” (rarely before “or”), where it’s absolutely necessary.
Classic example:
“We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.” Here JFK and Stalin are strippers.
“We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin.” Here JFK and Stalin are not strippers.
So, in your first example you don’t need the comma, it does not aid understanding. The second is the correct version, assuming we are all thinking of the same JFK and Stalin. Brits and Americans disagree on the Oxford comma. The Brits apply it mainly as explained above, the Americans almost always place a comma before “and” and “or”. I think that’s not very helpful for reading or understanding, but hey, if people are consistent …

Stuck in a usability rut

So, is it good or is it bad to be stuck in a rut? Google forces me to face my routines twice this year. Last weekend it killed its reader and in November it will turn off iGoogle, its really rather wonderful dashboard. Yes, the reasons are obvious – “thou shall not have another internet filter but Google+” and all that. And maybe I’m just ornery. But even so …

… I am not a typical user, or so I found out over the past 3 months, reading comments and threads about RSS feeds and how people use them. I have subscribed to only 11 feeds. That number has been constant for years. Two major news organisations, a couple of very intelligent people, some artists. And Calvin & Hobbes for easy smiles.

The reader was embedded in the iGoogle dashboard until last Friday. And I’m now in month 2 of finding a functioning replacement. Not a continuous search, I’ll admit. But the reader is an important part of how I approach the world every morning. I simply LIKED how it worked and what it gave me. Ugh.

The most obvious contender Google+  doesn’t work, because even if more and more people are using it, MY feed sources certainly aren’t providing their news in the way I want to consume them. The Next Web has provided, so far, the longest list of alternatives to Google Reader. Rather symptomatic of how prepared the tech world is for this change, as differentiators they list … operating systems? Oh dear. If we are still talking at that level, I need to brace myself.

So, I’m not a happy bunny. If I can find the right replacement, it means that I need to change my habits. Yes, it keeps you nimble, you par force develop new perspectives, maybe even add a new skill or two. Yet here I was, hoping that this would be one area, where I could give in. Stay with the oldies-but-goldies. Just relax and enjoy. Bummer …

Ok, so let me just put it out there. This is my wish list: I want all feeds to be available in a single window. With multiple views to choose from, please. List, tiles, lots of info, very little, what have you. I’m working on a 13” MacBook Pro, so don’t waste screen real estate with a slick, lots-of-white-space design, please. Not functional.

A decent preview option would be nice. One that pays some small homage to the design of the original sites, yet allows me to save time by not going there directly.

I’m not even talking about mobile. That’s self-understood. I don’t need a separate iPad app BTW. Unless you have truly remarkable additional functionality up your sleeve.

But, please, do have a widget or gadget ready to be embedded in a dashboard. I do not want to have another tab open in my browser to make sure I catch the news. And I will find a replacement for iGoogle in time for the November deadline. I mean, I have known about its demise for a year now. Surely there are lots of companies out there, ready to jump in and make me a happy camper again?


Privacy for the Masses

This seems to become the summer of data discontent. There’s Edward Snowden and the rather casual treatment of our data by the US authorities – although I’m certain they are not the only ones. Now I’m hearing about Kobo and how they are including minute changes in the electronic version of books so they can track who passes them on to whom? More and more sites make my life ‘easier’ by signing in using my Facebook, LinkedIn or Google account. Easier? Really?

Nick Harkaway of Blind Giant fame has written an eloquent essay on the Transparency for the Masses. Long and full of thoughts previously new to me. Well worth a read.

The only thing he does not mention – and it’s a constant worry – is what I would call the innocence of the masses. I think I have a pretty good understanding of where my data are and by what mechanisms I create new data about myself. I am confident ‘the world’ will find sensible, workable, if not ideal, solutions to all the issues, as long as activists keep active and certain governments or regulatory bodies do what they do best. I am well enough informed to protect myself and my own. But there are so many people who have no clue. They are not aware of the consequences of what they do and where the data collecting touch points are. If they knew, would they start to object, I wonder? Would the momentum of the discussion be different? It’s a sore point with me …