Friday, 10 January 2014

All skued

Give us back some controls!
A New Year request to Apple: give us back some skeuomorphism.

If you aren't familiar with the term, a skeuomorph may sound like a monster on Dr Who, but it's just the use of virtual real world items in a computer program user interface to make it more approachable.

Until recently, Apple went a bit mad on skeuomorphism. You would get, for instance, a calendar app with a background like a sort of leather blotter. This serves no purpose and looks a bit tacky, rather like those early American electronic devices that came in a plastic casing made to look (badly) like wood. But functional skeuomorphism - making an on-screen control look like a button you can press, for instance, is very valuable because it clearly identifies which bits on the screen are active and which aren't.

Take a look at the current iPhone calendar app, pictured alongside. The words 'Wednesday 8 January 2014' are not controls - they are just a label. But the words 'Today   Calendars    Inbox' at the bottom are buttons. If you touch them, they do something. The only distinction is the colour, which isn't enough.

Not only do the words at the bottom just look like labels, rather than controls, there is no indication of the span of the active area. Is that bar divided into three equal segments, or is it just the text that is active? It's not clear.

The fact is, on-screen buttons are just as well established now as real buttons. They aren't really skeuomorphic, they are just very useful. A good visual user interface, which is what Apple aims for, should be so obvious that you never have to ask for help. It should be clear where you touch the screen to do what. And that just isn't the case with this uber-minimalism.

So don't go mad. Don't bring back the visual knickknacks for the sake of it. But for goodness sake give us back decent, functional controls that are obviously that, and not confusable with basic text. It's not difficult to do. And you know it makes sense.

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