The evolution of the user interface, or UI, has been very interesting to watch for those of us who have been there from the beginning. Back in the very old days, computers were cold and forbidding, with stark text on black backgrounds, emitting occasional beeps if you were lucky. They were the province of experts, people with logical minds and a lot of time on their hands to learn all the ways to force the computer to do what they wanted it to do. To the rest of the world, computers were like a vast alien realm watched over by wizards: useful to ally yourself with, perhaps, but you wouldn’t want to live there.
With the advent of the graphical user interface (GUI), however, computers became palatable to less technical users, people who weren’t interested in learning the language of computers for themselves. Great pains were taken not to frighten these people. User interface experts looked around themselves and created complex visual metaphors based on common office items at the time. Thus the “desktop” was invented; notepads, drawers, and trash cans were recreated in two dimensions. Documents unfurled like scrolls of paper. Files were organized in manila folders inside drawers within filing cabinets.
By adding easy-to-understand visual metaphors, computers exploded into the workplace. The concept of “putting something in the Trashcan” is completely understandable by anyone living in modern society, even for people who might have had difficulty with “marking a computer file for deletion.” This kind of metaphor, where a device or object copies another, is called a “skeuomorph.” On-screen devices come complete with rendered knobs, switches, and sliders, echoing varieties of manual functionality that we can intuitively grasp. They’re not always literal, or even visual: the shutter-click sound on your iPhone is an auditory skeuomorph, a relic from the earlier days of picture-taking.
While under the direction of the late Steve Jobs, Apple’s design aesthetic tended heavily towards the skeuomorphic. The Apple desktop calendar was rendered with accents of rich leather and hand stitching. The Bookshelf app on iPad came complete with wood veneer. The thinking went that, the more realistic and familiar the visuals became, the more comfortable people would be with the design.
But as the years marched on, something curious began to happen: the visual metaphors started losing their punch. Some see it as a generational change. As the children of the 1980s embraced computerized versions of their real-life objects, they declined to use the actual real-life objects. The number of people who used leather address books and big metal filing cabinets kept dwindling; after all, who needs them, especially at home, when you have computers and tablets and smartphones?
Then the children of the 21st century, growing up in the world their parents created for themselves, looked at the visual metaphors of green felt desktops and LCD calculators and felt nothing. For them, the skeuomorphs of their parents are vestiges of the “good old days” which hold no power. These second-generation users care more for what devices are actually capable of rather than how they replace older, less efficient devices.
In 2013, Apple debuted iOS 7 for their mobile devices and OSX Maverick for their desktops. Both of these are notable for their lack of skeuomorphism, moving instead into brighter, more abstract iconography. At the Apple keynote, one of the developers shook his iPhone. “Look,” he said, “even without all the stitching, everything just stays in place!”
Computers aren’t scary, distant devices for a majority of people anymore, and more and more users don’t need to be forced to use them. Skeuomorphic design may not be going away anytime soon, but it is evolving away from the real world into a new tier of metaphors. It’s an exciting time for UI designers, much like how it might be for linguists to watch a new dialect evolve from an old language.
Wherever UI design might go, particularly interface design for the web, we at Matcha Design will remain at the forefront. We pick the flashy trends from the solid performers, and help our customers stay current. Contact us today and discover what the future holds for your website.