The Apple Watch, skeuomorphism and metaphors

I had a Twitter exchange with John Gruber yesterday in response to his point about the Apple Watch and skeuomorphism:

I don’t think iOS or OS X needed to eschew skeuomorphic textures, but Apple Watch did.

Gruber was referring to Craig Hockenberry’s piece about the Apple Watch’s OLED display. In particular Hockenberry’s argument that the move to flatness was strategic:

I’ve always felt that the flattening of Apple’s user interface that began in iOS 7 was as much a strategic move as an aesthetic one. Our first reaction was to realize that an unadorned interface makes it easier to focus on content.

But with this new display technology, it’s clear that interfaces with fewer pixels have another advantage. A richly detailed button from iOS 6 would need more of that precious juice strapped to our wrists. Never underestimate the long-term benefits of simplification.

My response was that several of the Apple Watch faces are skeuomorphic, especially the Mickey Mouse one, to which Gruber replied “How so? I don’t see any 3D shadows or textures.”

You can read the back and forth that followed at your leisure, but the summary of the arguments is that I believe the dial faces are still screens pretending to be analogue/physical hands and dials (or Mickey Mouse watches) and thus skeuomorphic. Gruber doesn’t believe them to be inherently skeuomorphic.

Clock hands and dials exist because of the clock-making history of cogs, pendulums, springs and dials, the latter of which almost certainly took their form from sun dials. Digital versions of them are as skeuomorphic as fake digital knobs on screen-based software synthesisers.

Gruber argued that dials are not inherently skeuomorphic since

Analog clock design is useful on screen as any chart or graph. See the definition of ‘analog’

He also pointed out, quite rightly, that mechanical watches can have digital displays, such as the Groundhog Day clock and these (pretty ugly) examples of mechanical digital watches.

My point was not whether dial faces are useful or not. They clearly are, since many people are used to reading the time from dial faces and that’s how most of us learn about time as kids.

Dials are useful on digital displays because analogue—in the sense of continuous measurement instead of stepped, digital units—offer useful visual cues. Phrases like “a quarter of an hour” or “half-past nine” (or even the German version of “halb Zehn”, which means “half of ten,” a.k.a 9:30) are visual references to quantities in a circle. But it is exactly those references to previous technologies that makes dial faces on a screen skeuomorphic, in my view.

Most people don’t use a watch’s analogue nature that much, unless you’re timing something in seconds with a watch that has a sweep hand. In fact, analogue watch faces are not really continuous measuring devices in the strict definition of “analogue”, since the hands move in tiny steps as the ratchets click across the teeth of cogs. Also, you don’t usually stare at your watch for long periods time, but take glances at it, as Apple makes a point of telling us:

Since wristwatches were invented in the 19th century, people have been glancing at them to check the time. With Apple Watch, this simple, reflexive act allows you to learn so much more. We optimized your favorite apps for the wrist by developing Glances — scannable summaries of the information you seek out most frequently.

The OED lists two definitions of skeuomorphic:

  1. An ornament or ornamental design on an artefact resulting from the nature of the material used or the method of working it.

  2. An object or feature copying the design of a similar artefact in another material.

Wikipedia’s entry generally sides with the first definition, but the expanded example includes the second. Gruber’s original comment specifically says “textures,” which I have to admit I missed in my response. But the debate led me to think about many of the interesting ideas about interactivity contained within this term.

Skeuomorphism and metaphor are closely related and metaphor is an intrinsic part of interaction design. Arguably, skeuomorphs are just a visual subset of metaphor—plastic that looks like wood, screen-based calendars that look like paper and stitched leather—but sometimes the metaphorical relationships are more complex.

The Digital Crown of the Apple Watch interface is skeuomorphic in a broad sense too. Here I’m not arguing that the material metal of the Digital Crown is different from its forebears, but that “the nature of the material” includes what the interface controls. There are few technical reasons for the Digital Crown being the controlling interface. Apple could have used a non-moving touch sensor on the side, for example. It is a carefully thought-through aesthetic and interaction design decision. It makes sense to our perception and understanding—our mental models—of what a watch is. A crown is part of the watchness of a watch.

I would warrant that a tiny part of our brain has a mental model of the Digital Crown mechanically controlling the Apple Watch display, even though we consciously and intellectually know that is not the case. It’s the same reason we bang the side of our monitor when the computer isn’t working.

This a subtle interface magic trick that interaction designers pull off over and over again. We think we’re pinching and stretching a picture on a touchscreen, for example, but of course we’re wiping our fingers in a certain pattern across a pane of glass and not actually pinching anything.

Interestingly, there are few physical world equivalents of the pinch and spread actions that I can think of. The two obvious examples of this are what we do with our bodies and with dough—both things we learn to work with at the youngest of ages and probably why it feels so intuitive.

Metaphors tend to become ever more nested and complicated, especially in language, as Lakoff and Johnson argue in detail. Indeed, it is difficult to use language without using metaphors. That last sentence is full of them, for example. Metaphors and language are “tools” that can be “used.” In the next sentence, sentences are “vessels” that can be “filled.” (Once you start thinking this way, you’ll start to go mad trying to use language without them).

When interfaces go digital, albeit with some physical input devices, the boundaries start to collapse. In my PhD, I wrote about this conflation of the metaphorical and actual and used the example of files and folders:

This goes some way to explaining the issues of interface metaphors being half ‘real’ and half metaphorical and why Apple’s Exposé was able to break the desktop metaphor without it jarring. Because operating a computer is both physical and virtual the process gets blurred – at some point in the usage of a system that retains its metaphorical conventions fairly rigorously the ‘desktop’, with its ‘files’ and ‘folders’, ceases to be a metaphor for its users. It is as though the willing suspension of disbelief is not just suspended, but dispensed with. The desktop really is the desktop and our files really are our files and not just metaphorical representations – something that anyone who has experienced a hard drive crash and lost all their data will appreciate. (p. 53-54)

I used Apple’s Exposé back then as an example of what I called an “intentional metaphor.” Exposé breaks the desktop metaphor because I can’t actually make all my papers hover in the air while I choose the one I want and then have them snap back. But it does have a real-world equivalent in the form of spreading everything over a large table or on the floor to make sense of it. The extra magic part of Exposé—the “hovering in the air” part—is what I would really like to be able to do and I understand the metaphorical intention of it.

This is the way that I think Apple’s Digital Crown and also the Taptic Engine will also make sense to us. They connect into existing ideas of how we use and interact with things and people and extend them. Ex-Apple Human-Interface Inventor, Bret Victor, wrote a wonderful rant about this. I see this all as a form of interactive or intentional skeuomorphism and it will be interesting to see how this expands as designers and developers explore this new realm.

Antirom 20th Anniversary Event

Antirom Splash

REWIND to 1995 – A collective of young Londoners launches Antirom, a CD-ROM of experimental interactive software, at Cameraworks gallery in Bethnal Green. The many brief, playful, funny ‘toys’ on the disc have quite an influence in interaction design circles.

FFWD to 2015 – Generations of computer hardware rush past leaving Antirom unplayable on any current device.

But now Antirom is coming back to the East End so you can have a go (again?). We’re having a party, and talking about interaction design hosted by Protein’s Studio 2 Gallery at EC2A 3EY.

There’s a panel discussion and demos on Friday 27th Feb and a party in the evening. Saturday 28th will see another panel discussion about the history of the interactive interface and a chance to drop-in and play with some of these early interactives on the original hardware.

I’m flying to London for a couple of days just to be there, so I would love to see you there.

Some of the events need a (free) RSVP so we can gauge numbers. You can find all the details on the antirom website.

From hunch to research direction to design concept

The hand

The most common issue service design students face is project paralysis in the face of infinite possibilities and the synthesis of a mass of research material. Services are often complex and the interconnectedness of problems can soon appear too difficult to tackle. Taking the leap to tentatively develop an idea, and letting go of the need for it to be the best idea possible is often a real challenge, especially when the concept remains an abstract and complex.

I wrote a post over on Medium titled Getting From Here to There about moving from a hunch to research direction to concept. It looks at what the service design equivalent is of an architect’s rough sketches of a large project as opposed to the detail of a single touchpoint. It started as a mail to my service design students, but I thought others might find it useful in teaching, learning or practice too.

I’d love to hear your feedback in the margin comments on Medium.

IFTTT vs ifttt

You may have noticed some very short posts recently. Today actually. Except they are from a while ago. I have a recipe on If This Then That that posts the description field of my Pinboard bookmarks tagged with “blog” to Playpen. I used it to link blog more frequently, but got out of the habit of it because I couldn’t remember the format. Obviously I wasn’t doing it frequently enough.

Today I wanted to write the post about the Millennials using this method, so I checked the recipe. Apparently the IFTTT recipes are case sensitive and it was looking for the tag “blog”, not “Blog”. When I changed the recipe, it found several bookmarks of blogs that I had tagged, not surprisingly, “Blog” and auto-posted them. I initially deleted the posts again, but since they’ll show up in the RSS feed and are interesting links anyway, I have restored them. They are quite old discoveries though.

In retrospect, using the tag “blog” as a trigger was pretty dumb. I’ve changed it to something else now. Maybe it will increase the frequency of my link posts—a format that Twitter has largely killed off.

Protection Racket

On Thursday, Google launches a new service called Contributor that Gigaom bills as “a crowdfunding platform for publishers.” According to Gigaom, the program is “designed to allow web users to pay sites that they visit a monthly fee, and in return see no Google ads when they visit those sites.”

Google still takes a cut of that revenue, so now they get their money either way. In other words, the lack of click throughs become irrelevant. Readers see a thank you message or, possibly, no ads at all.

In what way is this “crowdfunding”? It’s simply a subscription model, only worse. Google are heavily responsible for the web being filled with the cruft of their poorly designed ads. Now publishers have an incentive to fill their pages with more of them, just so users will pay to turn them off.

Think of the reverse-UX behind that for a moment: “We know these ads are annoying, but instead of making them less annoying, we see an opportunity to charge people for ignoring them.” Of course, they’ll get some useful data out of that too.

It’s a protection racket. “Nice webpage you’re reading here, pal. It would be a shame if someone filled it with ads.”

Help Launchlabs crowdfund their creative co-working space

launchlabsplan

“At home you feel lonely and at the office you get nothing done.”

True words from my friend and frequent collaborator, Andreas Erbe, from Launchlabs in Basel, although in my case, “at home you get nothing done and at the office you feel lonely,” is also true.

Andreas and his colleague Tiziana Meletta have launched a crowdfunding campaign on the Swiss crowdfunding platform, wemakeit.com. They are building a co-working, co-creation and innovation space at Gundeldinger Feld in Basel and need some help reaching their final goal.

They are creating a “place where you can choose either to work alone, with a colleague, co-create in a team or host an event.” Pledges range from a 10 CHF trip on their crane right up to 5,000 CHF for a lifetime workspace. That’s pretty good when you consider you would spend that on about three months’ office rent in Switzerland.

Please consider backing them, you can either head directly to the funding page or use the embedded version below. The video is in German, but subtitled in English (Andreas is half English, half Swiss, so feel free to fire off questions in either language).

Service design combined with smart resource usage

My older brother Matt works as Lead Researcher, The Circular Economy at British Telecommunications (yes, he is older than me, although I get the bald head and grey beard). He recently gave a talk at Nesta’s Smart Resources event about his role on a project to redesign and rethink BT’s HomeHub router. Although the initial focus was on reducing resource consumption, you will hear him talk a lot about service design and customer experience benefits too (he is speaking around 2:24). He also talks about how this is also about a cultural change as much as any engineering or design challenges.

Social engineering may just be the most important skill service designers need to learn.

There’s also an interview snippet it with him at 3:00 here, again talking about how important the service design aspect is:

Capital One’s acquisition of Adaptive Path shouldn’t be news

Last week’s announcement by Adaptive Path that they have been acquired by Capital One sent, if not shockwaves, certainly large ripples through the tech press. Wired said it was the “death rattle of the Web 2.0 era”, Techcrunch linked it to Capital One’s launch of their new mobile wallet app. Kerry Bodine wrote that “her head just exploded”, but then went on to write some very smart thoughts about it. Who knew exploding heads could be so thoughtful?

The general gist of the reactions echoed Jesse James Garrett’s own in their announcement post: “I know, weird, right?” But the acquisition is no weirder than Marc Newson joining Apple.

Banks are, of course, in the money business, but their retail sector is the experience business. When was the last time you actually bothered to read, let alone respond to, one of those formal letters from your bank informing you of a change of interest rate or a change to their terms and conditions? I’m guessing it’s probably about as often as you thoroughly read through the iTunes Store terms and conditions the last time you updated. Even if you did read it, your ability to react to a rise in interest rates or higher fees is minimal.

Now think about the last time you were annoyed by poor customer service, a lousy app, a clunky website, unfair fees, a huge queue in your local branch. I’m betting is was more recently and is much more burnt into your soul than the interest rates.

You can’t hold your bank account in your hand and examine its build quality like an iPhone or a suit before you buy it. The quality of the bank’s service to you is made up of all your experiences and interactions with different touchpoints and, crucially, whether they all seamlessly fit together or not. Those experiences form a relationship that builds up over time. Like any relationship, the odd bad experience might be forgiven, but a continuous stream of bad experiences eventually leads to the point where the pain of leaving is less than the pain of staying.

Now imagine if a bank spent as much time crafting the joins between customer experiences as Jony Ive does ensuring the seam between the iPhone touchscreen glass and the milled aluminium housing is as invisible as possible. Isn’t it obvious that this is exactly what all banks should be attempting to do? Acquiring Adaptive Path is only weird in that it has only happened now and not 10 years ago.

The banking press got in on the act with American Banker (rhymes with…) going for the thoughtless headline, “Capital One Seeks Creative Spark with Purchase of Design Firm”. That article quoted Jacob Jegher, a research director at Celent with this:

“When the paint starts to peel on the walls of the branch and the carpet starts to fray and the glass is scratched, what happens? It gets renovated. Same can be said for digital banking.”

True to financial analyst form, this exactly misses the point.

UX & service designers aren’t painters and decorators there to make things look glossy while the money guys get on with the serious business of turning some numbers into bigger numbers. Focusing on the experience, means thinking hard about how best to deliver that experience. If it were easy, customers would love their banks like they love their iPhones. Instead they love their banks like they love multiple root canals. The process of re-thinking the experience will and should lead to re-thinking Capital One’s internal organisation and culture. (Though, by the sound of Jesse’s post, they already have a culture ready for this).

My heartfelt congratulations to Adaptive Path. I don’t begrudge anyone who has spent years building up a successful business selling what they have created and taking on a new direction. As Lou Rosenfeld said, “If you want to risk selling out, run a conventional agency.”

My hope is that with Adaptive Path on board at Capital One, their ambition is to do to the banking sector what Apple did to the mobile phone.

[Update: Russ Unger pointed out to me that this is really big news and everyone should know about it, which it is of course. The title is a little clickbait-esque)]

Learning from Raiders of the Lost Ark

I’m in the research phase for a book project that looks at how and what designers and organisations—particularly those involved in service design or complex projects—can learn from filmmakers.

In the words of Peter Sellers Michael Caine, not a lot of people know that I studied film as an undergraduate and carried on until my final year until I was fully sidetracked by interactive media. But the filmmaking process has always played a big role in the way I think about how multi-disciplinary groups of people can best work together creatively.

More on that in the future, but right now the area I am researching is storyboarding. I frequently teach groups of self-proclaimed non-drawers how to storyboard in workshops so that they can pitch their service propositions and ideas. Working visually with a sequence of images on sticky-notes on the wall is a much quicker and better way of walking through what a service experience might look and feel like than just using text. As you move your eyes across the touchpoint sketches, you build your own mini mental storyboard of the user/customer journey.

To combat the “I can’t draw” panic that many people have, I regularly use Pixar Story Artist Emma Coates’ great technique of drawing from films. You take a film, such as Raiders of the Lost Ark and freeze-frame every time the shot changes. Then you sketch a thumbnail of the shot as quickly as possible. I give my workshop participants about 10-20 seconds.

2014 09 11 4 32 32

At that speed, everyone draws equally bad (or good, depending on your point of view). I have done this with mixed groups, often with illustrators in the mix, and the previous skill level has little to do with the final result. In fact, sometimes those trained to draw well have a problem letting go and drawing rough. The key skill is being able to see which elements are important and which are not. That’s a skill that is useful in many other contexts.

As it is for Emma, Raiders of the Lost Ark is a classic youth memory of mine and remains one of my favourite films in terms of structure and staging. Thanks to its heritage from melodramatic Sunday afternoon matinee movies, the staging and framing are really clear to sketch.

Filmmaker Steven Soderbergh recently posted an exercise also using Raiders as an example to look at staging:

I want you to watch this movie and think only about staging, how the shots are built and laid out, what the rules of movement are, what the cutting patterns are. See if you can reproduce the thought process that resulted in these choices by asking yourself: why was each shot—whether short or long—held for that exact length of time and placed in that order? Sounds like fun, right? It actually is. To me.

Raiders bw

Cool, that Soderbergh posts about this, but even cooler is that he made a black and white version with the soundtrack stripped out of it for the exercise. It’s great, go take a look.

For some extra goodies, check out these: