interaction

The Apple Watch, skeuomorphism and metaphors

by Andy Polaine on March 25, 2015

in General

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.

LeapMotion

by Andy Polaine on October 15, 2012

in Links

LeapMotion is a USB device now available for pre-order that “creates a 3D interaction space of 8 cubic feet to precisely interact with and control software on your laptop or desktop computer.” According to the website

The Leap senses your individual hand and finger movements independently, as well as items like a pen. In fact, it’s 200x more sensitive than existing touch-free products and technologies. It’s the difference between sensing an arm swiping through the air and being able to create a precise digital signature with a fingertip or pen.

The video embedded above shows it off pretty nicely. The device itself is about the size of the power brick that comes with the Mac Minis or the AppleTV (or used to). It’s, not coincidentally, similarly designed, so it’s not going to look like some ugly chunk of plastic and LEDs on your desk. This is, I think, not to be underestimated if you are asking people to invest in a new kind of interface that will, indeed, sit on their desk to be stared at all day. People are pretty pernickety about what goes on their desk.

When I say invest in, I’m really talking about time. The device itself is pretty cheap at $69.99. I can see this being a bonanza for people making interactive installations and performative interfaces (which is why I came across it, thanks to Joel Gethin Lewis).

It looks like LeapMotion is responsive and accurate, but there is still the question of holding your hands in front of you all day. With a desktop version, I foresee an elbows-resting-on-the-table-while-wiggling-the-hands mode of usage. Perhaps it’s time to invest in an elbow rest Kickstarter project.

Little Digits – Finger Counting with the iPad

July 12, 2012

Little Digits (iTunes link) is a new iPad app from Chris O’Shea’s company Cowly Owl described as a “fun educational app that teaches children about numbers by putting a new spin on finger counting.” Using the iPad multi-touch screen, Little Digits displays number characters by detecting how many fingers you put down. Children can learn […]

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Interaction 11 Student Competition

October 5, 2010

All you interaction design students out there get ready to show us your goods. This year I’m co-chairing the Interaction 11 Student Competition with Liz Danzico and we want to see you thinking laterally. The competition brings forward exceptional and engaged undergraduate and graduate students in both critical thinking and hands-on experience over the course […]

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Archetypes and Metaphors

May 18, 2010

There is an interesting piece over at Johnny Holland by Rahul Sen titled Archetypes and Their Use in Mobile UX. It’s probably worth reading it and coming back here, but the introduction gives you an idea of where he’s headed: “Have you ever needed a user manual to sit on a good chair? Probably not. […]

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Photosketch

October 12, 2009

PhotoSketch: Internet Image Montage from Tao Chen on Vimeo. Photosketch: Internet Image Montage provides a simple way to make image composites by doodling a picture, adding labels and then letting the engine scour the Internet for suitable photos. Once it has found the most appropriate matches, it composites them together. I can see lots of […]

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The Little Man in the Box

June 25, 2009

Hi from Multitouch Barcelona on Vimeo. All of us anthropomorphise our machines, perhaps no more so than the car and the computer. Hi, A Real Human Interface from Multitouch Barcelona (an interaction design group that explores natural communication between people and technology) is a charming example of how we think about computers and interfaces from […]

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Schematic and Public Multitouch Social Interaction

June 17, 2009

Touchwall Demo from Joel on Vimeo. Joel Johnson’s exclusive (on Vimeo?) video and interview with the folks at Schematic about their new touchwall shows them dealing with some interesting public multitouch issues. I hate the marketing crap that goes with it and the inevitable Minority Report reference (please, stop making that reference multitouch people), but […]

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Interaction Forum ’09

May 18, 2009

I’m going to be giving a talk over at Interaction Forum ’09 at the Design School in Hildesheim next week (Tuesday 26th). If anyone is in that neck of the woods, come and say hello – maybe send me a tweet and we can catch up. I’m going to be talking about play as guiding […]

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New magneticNorth web site

April 30, 2009

Great to see magneticNorth’s new website live. Brendan gave me a sneak peek of it yesterday and I love it. The navigation is very playful and intuitive. Actually it is intuitive because it is playful. You basically scribble a doodle and this makes a mask into which a piece from their portfolio opens. You can […]

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