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.

Dave Malouf on Storytelling and Interaction Design

I talk a lot about the importance of thinking about the story of your product or service. I have always assumed this has to do with my background of studying photography, film, video and interactive media-I originally wanted to be a film director—and my work as a writer. But the need and interest in story seems to be a growing trend across a range of disciplines, from design to business to life. Here’s a good talk on Storytelling and Interaction Design from Dave Malouf that he gave at the From Business to Buttons conference. It ends with a great example and a challenge:

Andrew Hinton describing Path’s failure as a UX failure

Andrew Hinton describing Path’s failure as a UX failure:

This is in part what some of us in the community are calling the failure of “user experience design” culturally: UX has largely become a buzzword for the first list, in the rush to crank out hip, interactively interesting software. But “business rules” which effectively act as the architecture of the platform are driven almost entirely by business concerns; content is mostly overlooked for any functional purposes beyond giving a fun, hip tone to the brand of the platform; and interaction design is mainly being driven by designers more concerned with “taste” performance and “innovative” UI than creating a rigorously considered, coherent experience.

The whole piece is definitely worth a read. Apart from the insights into interaction design “lenses,” the “Huh? Wait a moment…” description of how he understood what was happening is enlightening.