Skeuomorphism is dead, long live skeuomorphism
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Skeuomorphism is a term most often used in graphical user interface design to describe interface objects that mimic their real-world counterparts in how they appear and/or how the user can interact with them. A well-known example is the recycle bin icon used for discarding files. Skeuomorphism makes interface objects familiar to users by using concepts they recognize.
Skeuomorphism is related to what ecological psychologist James Gibson termed “affordances.” Affordances refer to action possibilities of objects or other features of the environment. The most commonly cited examples of affordances include door handles and push buttons; their physical designs inform users that they can be rotated or pushed. Skeuomorphism represents affordances in digital user interfaces. It fits with our natural interpretation of objects—but in a digital world.
Skeuomorphism’s use in making interfaces more familiar and thus easier to use stems from the early days of computing and mobile computing. For instance, early versions of Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS, used skeuomorphism heavily across its user interface (e.g., buttons resembling glossy ‘real’ buttons, photos with white borders looking like physical photographs, etc.). Skeuomorphism in iOS was widely regarded as part of the reason it was so intuitive to use by people who had never used a touch-based smartphone before.
It has been widely debated, however, whether users have become so accustomed to interacting with graphical user interfaces that skeuomorphism is no longer necessary. Opponents of skeuomorphism argue that natural-looking objects can make an interface look cluttered and that some of the objects mimicked in skeuomorphism have become obsolete and meaningless to users (e.g., the floppy disk for the “Save” action). Proponents, on the other hand, argue that humans can never become as accustomed to the digital world as we are to the physical world—so, simple skeuomorphism will continue to be helpful.
Here’s the entire UX literature on Skeuomorphism by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:
Take a deep dive into Skeuomorphism with our course Affordances: Designing Intuitive User Interfaces .
Affordances are a key concept for designers. If you want to build products that are intuitive and easy to use, fully understanding the relationship between the human mind and technology is crucial. An “affordance” refers to the possibility of an action on an object; for instance, we say that an elevator button affords being pressed, and a chair affords being sat on. The concept was popularized by HCI (human-computer interaction) expert Don Norman in the late 1980s, and it has since played an essential role for user experience professionals and researchers. Understanding this term is essential for anyone who wants to get a deeper appreciation of what it means for a product to be “intuitive.”
Taking this course will teach you both the theory of affordances and also how to build instantly perceptible affordances into your own designs. Your users should be able to identify the actions afforded by a design with speed and accuracy. Thus, the better you can make your affordances, the more likely you will prevent the user from becoming frustrated (which can happen very quickly). In order to achieve this, you as a designer must appreciate how users perceive the world and how experience, context, culture, constraints and other factors affect our ability to detect the possibilities of actions on offer. This is at the heart of why those interested in a design career and established designers alike must gain a firm grounding in the meaning and potential application of affordances as a designer’s tool.
Throughout the course, we identify the major milestones in the evolution of the term “affordance” and outline how it applies to practical user experience (UX) design. Along the way, we look at the affordances of objects in the real world and screen-based interfaces so as to reinforce the concepts and principles covered in each lesson. You will soon realize how vital a solid grasp of affordances is—the name of the game is to make designs that users can take to naturally and without having to hesitate to ask themselves, “What happens if I do this?”.