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.

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)]

Chris Risdon on Orchestrating Touchpoints

Whilst I’m at it, here’s a great talk by Chris Risdon from the same conference talking about orchestrating touchpoints. His anecdote at the beginning is priceless. I’m particularly interested in the way he takes the journey as the hub from which everything extends from. It’s service design, but he comes at it from a UX point of view, which tends to focus on the journey at the start. He does a great job of really defining what a touchpoint is as distinct from a channel or a medium:

Smart companies trust people

I just backed David Hieatt’s upcoming book, Do Purpose on the crowd-funded publishing site, Unbound. David is a smart guy and a kind of serial entrepreneur. The book explores companies that focus on their purpose. Here’s an excerpt:

Most companies don’t have a purpose. This may sound odd but most people have forgotten why they are in business. The founders are dead. The purpose is no longer there. They think it is just to make money. But making money is a result. It is not the purpose. For me, a business that has a purpose is much more energised. It is the wind for the sailboat. It pushes you and the team on. It is the fuel for the journey ahead.

A lot of businesses fail because they give up. They give up because they never had a purpose so when things get tough, they quit. I would say 90% of businesses haven’t worked out why they are in business. I think it’s vital to do so. It’s important to do so because it gives you great motivation. Understand the why. It’s pivotal to your success. Your team needs to understand it. And sooner or later your customer will get what you are about too.

In a recent blog post David writes about smart companies who understand that most people are good:

For me, I don’t understand bad service. Why wouldn’t you be on the customer’s side? Why would you go to all that trouble to get a customer just to let them walk away? Why would you want a customer just once and not for a lifetime? 99% of customers are good people. Yet, all the rules in place are to protect companies from the 1% who aren’t so good.

The best companies have figured that one at. They have realised most people are good. They give them the benefit of the doubt. Smart companies trust.

As someone involved in service design, this is a question I ask about ten times a day. Germany (where I live) and Switzerland (where I work) tend to have excellent infrastructure, which means things like trains (especially trains) and public services work very well. But they also have terrible customer service when things go wrong, which is the time when you need excellent customer service most of all. I’ve lost count of the times companies have acted unreasonably, even illegally, in order to stick to the point of a contract or terms and conditions. It seems so obvious that you shouldn’t treat people this way, especially paying customers, so why does it happen?

The answer is culture and culture comes from a sense of purpose.

There is a phrase often used by managers in Germany and Switzerland, which is Vertrauen ist gut, Kontrolle ist besser!. It roughly translates as “trust is good, control is better.” It is why organisations still insist on using clunky and useless time tracking tools such as SAP, despite ample evidence that it reduces motivation and job satisfaction and thus productivity. If you can read German, my college, Jan-Erik Baars recently wrote a good post about this (or read the rather average Google translation of it).

This culture of trying to constantly monitor what employees do harks back to the mindset of the industrial age. It might make sense when employees give their physical labour, but their mind is theirs to own, but it makes little sense in any kind of service or knowledge working industries in which the mind-body connection is paramount. That is to say, around 80% of developed nations’ economies. We want to interact with humans, not robots. The irony of this phrase used by corporate managers is that it was originally coined by Lenin.

The worst effect of this culture is the destruction of trust and the cultivation of resentment. If I pay for a product or a service and something goes wrong, I want to be presumed innocent, not treated as a potential criminal out to rip off the company in question. Of course, a tiny percentage of people may try to rip off that company, but the cost of being nice is that some people will take advantage of you.

Germany and Switzerland are cultures that love rules. There is a rule for everything possible, which means there are forever exceptions to those rules. That creates a culture of rule adherence at the cost of empathy and common sense. Companies that turn this on its head do not even have to stretch that far. Simply being reasonable instead of pernickety can feel like a breath of fresh air. Imagine what a customer feels like when they are actually treated pleasantly. It feels so great you want to remain a loyal customer forever and tell everyone else about it. The same goes for employers. Assume your staff are reasonable adults and treat them as such and they’ll be loyal. Treat them as potential thieves who need to be constantly monitored and they will act like thieves and try and get away with as much as possible.

Companies that get this right have a sense of purpose beyond just making money and they usually make money precisely because of this sense of purpose. I’m looking forward to David Hieatt’s book and his take on how to achieve that.

Services that fix services and the inverse experience umbrella

I often use air travel as the archetypal example of a multi-channel service that unfolds over time. Modern air travel consists of lots of minor annoyances that aggregate to a massive pain in the arse. When analysed individually, each of these annoyances can be dismissed as something not so bad that customers should be willing to put up, but it is the totally of the experience than counts.

Airport security is an area that is particularly awful and that people are resigned to. Much as the economy trumps social or environmental concerns, security trumps any kind of care for paying passengers’ experiences. That is unless you go through Sweden’s Göteborg Landvetter Airport, in which case security feels like an IKEA showroom.

I was intrigued to hear about Global Entry on John August’s Scriptnotes podcast as Craig Mazin’s One Cool Thing. By now it is common knowledge that the TSA is a disaster and swamp of scandals. Entering the U.S. feels like Kafka’s The Trial—a miserable, disorienting experience of being barked at by half-witted officials. Global Entry is a program that pre-approves people and offers them this service:

At airports, program participants proceed to Global Entry kiosks, present their machine-readable passport or U.S. permanent resident card, place their fingertips on the scanner for fingerprint verification, and make a customs declaration. The kiosk issues the traveler a transaction receipt and directs the traveler to baggage claim and the exit.

In other words, exactly the smooth, hassle (and being hassled) free experience it should already be. It’s a paid-for service to fix another one that doesn’t work and an admission that the normal system is simply broken. At the moment it’s only or U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, Dutch citizens (oddly—why only the Dutch from Europe?), South Korean citizens and Mexican nationals.

Aboalarm, a German app and service that I’ve written about before does something similar, allowing people to easily remember to quit their phone and utility contracts and even helping them send a signed fax to the customer service centres. It works seamlessly, but should be what customers are offering their customers to do instead of deliberately making it hard for them to leave. There is always a market opportunity for services that fix other poor services.

The Inverse Experience Umbrella

A price umbrella is where an expensive product, such as the iPhone, leaves room in a market for a competitor to offer something cheaper. That competitor can eventually grown and start taking the market share of the company that originally created the umbrella.

Something similar can happen with customer experiences. Services that have awful touchpoints that become the norm leave a kind of inverse experience umbrella in which a competitor just needs to take a touchpoint experience that is universally accepted as being poor, but that is also the standard expectation, and turn it around to be a positive experience. It is precisely because the expectations are so low in the first place and that customers are resigned to it that the positive experience carries such weight.

Staying with the airline theme, one of the most recent examples of turning a universally ignored touchpoint was Virgin America’s Safety Video. The assumption of competitors appears to be that nobody ever pays attention to them, so why bother spending much money on them? The twist of deciding not to film it inside an aircraft cabin freed them up to create something that not only does not get ignored, but even got a glowing review in The New Yorker.

The challenge is to meet the expectations that have been set by the video across all the other touchpoints. One commenter on the New Yorker article wrote, “After watching the video I spent the rest of my flight searching in vain for something on Virgin’s in-flight entertainment programming that was half as much fun.”

Design research: sorting your shoe walking from your talk talking «

Design research: sorting your shoe walking from your talk talking « is a good piece on being realistic about design research and choosing the appropriate method from @skewiff (Mel Edwards). I liked this update of the old cliché:

Do I think this is the most overused collection of words in relation to research:

“To really understand people you have to walk a mile in their shoes. That means you have to take yours off first.”

Yes. In reality, when you go out and speak to people you need to think of them as Imelda Marcus – for they wear many shoes. And you need to find and walk in the right ones. But you need to wear your ones when you design. Your shoes matter too.

Most important, she asks the right questions in the first place including: “Why are we researching: to drive, inspire, inform?”

How to tell managers they’re wrong about UX research and still get hired

How to tell managers they’re wrong about UX research and still get hired from Dave Travis over at Userfocus.

Heard these before? ‘Market research uses hundreds of people. How come you can get answers with just 5?’ ‘Our product is aimed at everyone, so we can use ourselves as users.’ ‘Users don‘t know what they want’ ‘Apple doesn‘t do user research so why should we?’ ‘Our agency does all of this for us.’ Here’s how to successfully counter each of these objections.

The Psychologist’s View of UX Design

The Psychologist’s View of UX Designis a useful article from Dr. Susan Weinschenk, author of Neuro Web Design: What makes them click?. It really applies to all design, not just UX. Most of it is pretty obvious, actually, but much of it gets forgotten.

I came across it on Johnny Holland who summarize it well:

  1. People Don’t Want to Work: they will do the least amount of work possible to get a task done;
  2. People Have Limitations: they can only look at so much information or read so much text on a screen without losing interest;
  3. People Make Mistakes: Assume people will make mistakes. Anticipate what they will be and try to prevent them;
  4. Human Memory Is Complicated: People reconstruct memories, which means they are always changing;
  5. People are Social: they will always try to use technology to be social. This has been true for thousands of years;
  6. Attention: Grabbing and holding onto attention, and not distracting someone when they are paying attention to something, are key concerns;
  7. People Crave Information: Learning is dopaminergic—we can’t help but want more information;
  8. Unconscious Processing: Most mental processing occurs unconsciously;
  9. People Create Mental Models: People always have a mental model in place about a certain object or task (paying my bills, reading a book, using a remote control);
  10. Use Visual Systems to help people.

The book is on Amazon here: book (Amazon affiliate link if you want to give me a kickback – non-affiliate link here). It gets mixed reviews, so your mileage may vary, but it may be a useful addition to your library if you need some arguments to persuade clients or colleagues of the value of what you are doing.

If… Behavioural Heuristics and Design

If… Behavioural Heuristics and Design is a excellent, long, but well-explained post by Dan Lockton on behavioural heuristics. Important for designers, because, he argues:

There are lots of models of human behaviour, and as the design of systems becomes increasingly focused on people, modelling behaviour has become more important for designers. As Jon Froehlich, Leah Findlater and James Landay note, “even if it is not explicitly recognised, designers [necessarily] approach a problem with some model of human behaviour”, and, of course, “all models are wrong, but some are useful”.

I always like Dan’s in-depth views on these subjects and how he relates them back to design so well. He also details a workshop he did at Interaction 12 Instapaper it up and read it at your leisure. There are lots of links to follow in there too.