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.

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)]

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