The Face of Function

note I wrote this piece in November 2012. It was a response to the meme called skeuomorphics which was running at the time. The imagery referenced in the article were the ones posted in the New York Times on the subject. Skeuomorphism was not even a word until recently (it’s still not in the dictionary). And then there was the professor who said that everything people were calling skeuomorphic was not skeuomorophic; skeupmorphism was something else he said. Here, for historical purposes, is what I wrote on the subject.

I loved the personality of Steve Jobs. Absolutely and immensely, without apology. One of the things I loved about him was his sense of humor. When he first announced the iPhone he said he had something new for the audience. He said over and over that there was a new iPod, a revolutionary mobile phone, a breakthrough internet communications device. “Are you getting it?” he asked, “these are not three separate devices.” Behind him appeared an image of the original iPod Classic with a rotary telephone dial grafted onto it and the small glass window showing a four or five row of menu shown in the classic Mac font, Charcoal. Steve laughed, then the audience laughed. After the laugh he showed the real brand new iPhone.

In a way, he was poking fun at himself and everything he stood for. Intuitive design was one of his, shall we say, obsessions. It’s what made Apple computers, and the devices they made, as popular as they were. Maybe you never saw the original presentation of the iPhone, but what if you could, for example, place the skin or theme of an old-fashion rotary dial, make it functional, and include dial sound effects, over the numeric keypad and give that iPhone to your great-grandparent for Christmas? They would know instantly, and without instructions or help from you, how to use their new iPhone. After a few calls, they might discover the keypad and realize it could be used as a shortcut for dialing. After that, they might find the potential contact list that was being created for them in the background. After that, they might explore more and discover other apps and how easily they could learn to use them.

“We have a revolutionary UI.” he said about the new iPhone. “We can put any user interface we want on them.”

Macs had folders, other kinds of computers had directories. Macs have return keys, others have enter keys. The return label was a carry over from electric typewriters which was a carry over from manual typewriters where a user would have to physically crank a lever and slide the paper holder (the carriage) to start a new line on the paper. Most of us know that the return key and the enter key have the same function, but I have watched people using word processors on old PC’s hit the “enter” key and sit back and wait for something to happen when all they wanted was a new line of text.

Maybe these are examples of skeuomorphic design. I say maybe because there hasn’t been consensus on whether computer icons are included in the definition for skeuomorphism. The word skeuomorphic did not even exist until recent times. Wikipedia tells us that the word came from the Greek “skeuos” meaning tool. So skeuomorph means to morph a tool. I don’t think it was the intention of Steve Jobs or Apple Computer in its nascent stage to create skeuomorphic products. In other words, there was never an Apple computer that was designed to look like an old fashion typewriter. That is left to the steampunkers.

Rather than morphing existing tools, I believe that Steve Jobs’ intent was to use the notion of skew in creating the computers, devices, and icons – to make them “neither parallel nor intersecting” but recognizable. And to take us on a journey that was, and is still, neither parallel nor intersecting to any we have been on thus far.

Course correction was always part of development, no matter where it happens. Way back in time there was QuickTime 3 and 4. The player had a tiny thumb wheel for volume adjustment. It was cute, but it was not immediately recognized. It was, I suppose, modeled after early handheld transistor radios or cassette players that had small physical thumb wheels. The thumb wheel on the QuickTime player was not only not immediately recognized, it was also not easy to use. You would position the cursor over the wheel, then move the mouse up or down to adjust the volume. It worked, but the mouse could slip off the control and the cursor wasn’t actually on the wheel when performing the adjustment in the first place. In one the keynotes, I forget which one, Steve announced a new QuickTime player (the thumb wheel was part of QuickTime through 4.1 at least). He said, (paraphrasing) “Ok, you didn’t like our thumb wheel, so here is the new QuickTime player – with a slider button for volume.” The audience cheered. And a slider button for volume adjustment has been on everything ever since.

Many of the faces of functions in modern times (todayish) seem outdated. All over the internet we see icons that cause us (me) to ask: Why is email still always represented with an icon that looks like the back of a paper envelope? Why is a telephone number depicted with an old-fashion handset next to it, some even with the spiraled cord attached?

I like the page turns in iBooks. There’s a time and place for continuously scrolling pages too, but what about the books where a new chapter or section should have an indication of some kind that the user is on or coming onto a new chapter or section? There needs to be an option for that.

I think the tan header in iCal is fine, even if it is modeled on a leather appearance. I have seen enough brushed aluminum for this lifetime. But the Stitching Has Got To Go. I can imagine Steve laughing his head off over the controversy this has caused.

I’m neutral on linen backgrounds. It looks nice in some places. It looks overdone in others, but it’s never in the way of usability.

The yellow pencil header in another app serves no purpose that I can see. It may even confuse some users. You will think I am joking here, but I have witnessed someone reaching for the eraser icon (not on an Apple device) to change some text and when it didn’t work he told me the program didn’t work.

And what about that reel-to-reel screen in the Podcast app? When I first heard about it, I thought it would be a close up of the works inside a cassette tape. At least they were portable. But it does seem to be modeled on an old reel-to-reel tape deck. I’ve been getting podcasts since 2003. While a lot of the truly homemade “what I had for breakfast” podcasts are gone, a lot of podcasters still do not use all of the features available to them in placing a podcast in iTunes. The reel-to-reel image may seem outdated, but I think there might be a foreshadowing message in it. Apple has technology that the average user is not aware of, and in making these technologies more well known, perhaps there will be a new method of podcast delivery, or the prospect of a new level of polish expected in podcasts.

The faces of function are a collection of bridges, like neural pathways. The matter of skeuomorphism, if icons are a part of the definition, is neither black or white, nor yes or no, not all or nothing. It is what’s appropriate for the time and for the people using the new devices and apps. They can be humorous or whimsical if that is the developer’s intention, but in general they should be useful in some way.

It was announced recently that Jony Ive will oversee the software interface at Apple. We know Jony Ive as the designer of Apple hardware. He designs Apple’s physical products. The consideration of detail is amazing. The computers and devices are beautiful, but are they absolutely perfect? I had one of the dome-type of iMacs at one time. I loved the design, the floating screen especially. I thought was a slight flaw in the design though: Whenever the optical disk tray would open, it would bump into the keyboard. It didn’t harm the computer as there was a sensor that detected the bump and retracted the tray automatically. It was mildly annoying, but I overlooked that because of the design and functionality. I’m sure it was as good as it could have been for its time. And I got used to pulling the keyboard out of the way.

The brand new iMacs are beautiful, and more powerful than ever. The ports are still on the back however. I am guessing that Jony Ive would prefer that no ports at all were required, but that may be further off than the next iMac iteration. There has to be another way to do this.

What can we hope for in the next generation of software interfaces from Apple? I do not expect Jony Ive to wipe the entire icon slate clean. Besides, it’s a team effort. Nevertheless what are some solutions that will satisfy many different people and how they like to use the Apple devices. Should there be different apps that do the same thing, but the user chooses based on interface preference? I don’t think so. Should there be “learning interfaces” that automatically change an interface based on how the user uses the app? Maybe, but perhaps that might be a bit intrusive. Might there be intermittent suggestions to the user to revisit the app settings where there would also be explicit documentation about the available interface options? This might be the kind of bridge that people will appreciate.

I would like to see Phil Schiller say, at the next Apple Special Event, “We have taken away the stitching in iCal.” And the audience responds with cheers and applause. Maybe that’s all we need really.