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.

Apple, Beats and wearable tech

All the speculation about Apple designing and iWatch and the noise about their acquisition of Beats got me wondering why we do not pay more attention to the tech we are already wearing and why some of it is socially acceptable and some not.

There is a kind of inverse correlation between assistive technologies and wearable tech. It is socially acceptable, cool even, to wear glasses—a medical aid that sits front and centre on your face—but hearing aids are seen to be uncool, even though they are less visible. This is quite unfair, but despite the efforts of artists and designers like David Hockney and Susan Cohn to make hearing aids a feature and not hide them, they remain socially stigmatised.

Conversely, wearing Google Glass turns you into a glasshole, whilst wearing a pair of Beats headphones makes you cool. Well, the coolness factor is debatable with Beats headphones. One Amazon reviewer describes a pair of Sennheiser Momentum headphones as “much more of a premium look and feel than the plastic ridden beats. These are something that an adult can be seen in public in without looking like a complete tool.” Nevertheless, plenty of people do find Beats cool, despite them being the worst noise polluters I ever have to sit next to on the train. Besides, it is hard to argue with $3 billion. In short, headphones and glasses are hipster, hearing aids and Google Glass are not. Bluetooth earpieces appear to have taken on the stigma of hearing aids, plus the toolness of Glass. Wearers shouting into thin air and mostly being annoying salesmen probably does not help their case.

Obviously, wearable technology has a future, but it is easy to forget that how much of the future is already here. I carry my iPhone around in my jeans or jacket pocket. Am I wearing it? Kind of. It depends on your definition of “wearing”. If I stick it in my front shirt pocket like Joaquin Phoenix in Her, is that wearing my phone or just carrying it around more publicly? What about sticking it on my arm while jogging? That probably counts as wearing it.

The irony of all the bullshit calls for Apple to produce an iWatch is that people are wearing watches less often because they have a smartphone in their pocket that they use instead of a watch. To make an iWatch would be for Apple to make a device that replaces a device the iPhone already made redundant.

The other trend for wrist-worn tech either look like a bloated Livestrong wristband or a flexible ruler from the 80s. All of these require lots of persuading people they are cool enough to wear, which usually requires lots of marketing money. Pre-iPhone it was hard to imagine a phone that had no buttons and was just a panel of glass. Although Apple did spend plenty of money on marketing, the key factor was that it was the phone everyone had been waiting for because manufacturers had made such a hash of phone design up until then. Nobody thought they were going to be ridiculed for using one in public. It was designing for an unarticulated need more than marketing that achieved that. The iPhone went with the flow of public desire for such a simple, yet powerful, device.

If you are designing a piece of wearable tech today, perhaps one that is not so miniature—the size of a matchbox, say, so that it has some decent processing power—then you have two choices. You either come up with something that is new and confronting, like Google Glass and try and persuade people that, no, honestly, they really are cool. Or you look at the big chunks of tech people are already wearing, like those half-buns perched on your ears. That’s where I would consider building some new, amazing, wearable technology. You can jam a lot in that space an people still think you are wearing a cool pair of headphones instead of looking like a tool. That is far easier to sell and eventually the technology will get smaller and fit into earbuds, which is what every iPhone comes with anyway and everyone is used to wearing. The production designers of Her got that part very right.

Tim, Jony, Mr Dre (because I’m fairly certain you are not really a doctor), you know what to do.

Mapping The Entertainment Ecosystems

Mapping The Entertainment Ecosystems has already been blogged by John Gruber so you have already read it, so this is more for my own reference as anyone else’s.

In case you haven’t already seen it, Mapping The Entertainment Ecosystems of Apple, Microsoft, Google & Amazon maps the entertainment ecosystems – Music, Movies, TV Shows, eBooks and App stores – of Apple, Google, Microsoft and Amazon across the planet with some nice interaction HTML5 maps.

It makes for interesting reading/viewing. Note how absent Africa is from most of the maps apart from eBooks and Apps and North Africa is pretty much absent from all of them.

(And if you find that interesting, you’ll love Worldmapper – one of my favourite sites to explore data cartographically).

Sir Jonathan Ive: The iMan cometh

Sir Jonathan Ive: The iMan cometh is an appalling headline for an unusual interview with Jonny Ive in celebration of his knighthood.

Some great quotes:

Most of our competitors are interesting [sic] in doing something different, or want to appear new – I think those are completely the wrong goals. A product has to be genuinely better. This requires real discipline, and that’s what drives us – a sincere, genuine appetite to do something that is better. Committees just don’t work, and it’s not about price, schedule or a bizarre marketing goal to appear different – they are corporate goals with scant regard for people who use the product.
One of the things we’ve really learnt over the last 20 years is that while people would often struggle to articulate why they like something – as consumers we are incredibly discerning, we sense where has been great care in the design, and when there is cynicism and greed. It’s one of the thing we’ve found really encouraging.
What is more difficult is when you are intrigued by an opportunity. That, I think, really exercises the skills of a designer. It’s not a problem you’re aware or, nobody has articulated a need. But you start asking questions, what if we do this, combine it with that, would that be useful? This creates opportunities that could replace entire categories of device, rather than tactically responding to an individual problem. That’s the real challenge, and that’s what is exciting.

Keep Thelonius Monk Off Your PowerBook

Since we’ve got a couple of MacBooks now I noticed my old 2GHz iMac G5 gathering dust, which seemed to be a shame with that lovely screen. Jon Hicks’s post on setting up his Mac Mini as a media centre prompted me to convert the iMac into a PVR/TV combo (plus it’s still handy as a computer).

The key is the Elgato EyeTV Hybrid tuner stick, which also comes with their great EyeTV software. Although digital coverage is rubbish where I am, we do have analogue cable, so the Hybrid is future-proof-ish.

One of the things that Jon uses is Syncopation, which keeps iTunes libraries in sync across different machines. I don’t really need this as I’m using Airfoil to send audio anywhere, and in any case the iTunes library is shared and my network isn’t that fast to be pinging movies around the place.

But the thing that made me smile was this bit of the blurb on the Syncopation web-site:

Syncopation also allows you to control which files are replicated. Suppose your husband loves Jazz, but you’re not a fan. You can set up a Block List that will keep his Thelonious Monk off your PowerBook.

Hypercard lives again


Hot on the heels of my post about Director 11 there’s now a web-based version of Hypercard called TileStack. It’s still in beta (aren’t they all?), but you can sign up to test it out or check out the video of it in action.

The original Myst was released as a Hypercard stack and, until the Sims came along, it Myst was the best selling computer game of all time. I’m not just being mysty-eyed (sorry…), for many Hypercard was the forerunner of all that Director and Flash goodness.

(Via Slashdot).

IMAP folder subscriptions with GMail and Apple Mail


If you’ve read 5ThirtyOne’s post about setting up Apple Mail with GMail’s IMAP you may be enjoying iPhone goodness and be all happy. But you may also be miserable about the fact that GMail’s implementation of IMAP fakes your IMAP folders based on your labels in GMail, which means you end up with duplicate messages in

Personally I think labels make much more sense as they’re more like smart mailboxes, where you don’t have a duplicate of the message, but rather a flag saying what it concerns. The problem is that if you like to locally cache your IMAP mail for offline viewing, you’ll end up with hundreds of duplicate mails in because thinks that a message in a label ‘folder’ on GMail is distinct to the version of it in GMail’s All Mail folder (your mail archive on GMail).

Some mail clients, like the powerful but ugly Thunderbird, seem to have more comprehensive settings to subscribe or unsubscribe to certain folders on IMAP servers (and I’m not sure how many people know you can do that in any case). So the solution would be to unsubscribe GMail’s All Mail folder and you’d be fine.

Alas, not only is the subscription/unsubscription is in a relatively obscure place in (highlight the mailbox and Get Info brings up the window with Quotas, Mailbox Behaviours and also the Subscription List) but also Apple’s IMAP subscription doesn’t seems to work on almost all IMAP servers, including GMail.

Jiggling Icons on the iPhone

There are plenty of big announcements and coverage of Steve Jobs’s Macworld keynote. I’m happy to see the new AppleTV, movie downloads and rentals, and of course the MacBook Air.


But it was the the jiggling icons in the new iPhone home screen selection. When you are moving icons around and sorting them the icons jiggle in anticipation (or perhaps fear of being trashed).

Why does this frivolity matter? Well, the first thing for me is, of course, the playfulness of the interface. Die hard functionalists will probably hate it and find it an unnecessary waste of computing resources, but then so is any GUI.

Playful interfaces not only bring some pleasure to everyday tasks, they also encourage the user to explore and through exploring they learn the way the interface works. That’s what playing is all about and the good thing is it doesn’t feel like you are learning, it just feels intuitive or fun.

It also helps add personality to the interface and phones are extremely personal devices.

Lastly, why not? Everyone appreciates a pleasant physical environment – nice cutlery, a stylish lamp, a lovely pen, a favourite armchair. Most of those are necessary – a packing crate, an old door and a couple of piles of bricks functionally work as a desk set-up, but you wouldn’t want to work like that every day. We all spend an inordinate amount of hours on the computer or phone, it makes sense that it’s pleasant to use.

[tags]iphone, apple, macworld, keynote, interface, play, gui[/tags]