Modern skeuomorphs are touches of the past in a digital age

Clive Thompson discusses skeumorphs, “a derivative object that retains ornamental design cues to a structure that was necessary in the original” (Wikipedia definition), in a digital world:

Now ask yourself: Why does Google Calendar—and nearly every other digital calendar—work that way? It’s a strange waste of space, forcing you to look at three weeks of the past. Those weeks are mostly irrelevant now. A digital calendar could be much more clever: It could reformat on the fly, putting the current week at the top of the screen, so you always see the next three weeks at a glance…

Because they’re governed by skeuomorphs—bits of design that are based on old-fashioned, physical objects. As Google Calendar shows, skeuomorphs are hobbling innovation by lashing designers to metaphors of the past. Unless we start weaning ourselves off them, we’ll fail to produce digital tools that harness what computers do best.

Now, skeuomorphs aren’t always bad. They exist partly to orient us to new technologies. (As literary critic N. Katherine Hayles nicely puts it, they’re “threshold devices, smoothing the transition between one conceptual constellation and another.”) The Kindle is easy to use precisely because it behaves so much like a traditional print book.

But just as often, skeuomorphs kick around long past the point of reason. Early automobiles often included a buggy-whip holder on the dashboard—a useless fillip that designers couldn’t bear to part with.

I’ve noticed the same thing on my Microsoft Outlook calendar: the default is to show the full month of February even today when I don’t really care to look back at February and would much rather see what is coming up in March. I can alter it somewhat in the options by displaying two months at a time but it still shows all the earlier part of February.

What would be interesting to hear Thompson discuss is the half-life of skeuomorphs. If they are indeed useful for helping users make a transition from an old technology to a new one, how long should the old feature stick around? Is this made more complicated when the product has a broader audience? For example, iPhone users could be anyone from a 14 year old to an 80 year old. Presumably, the 14 year old might want the changes to come more quickly and tends to acquire the newer stuff earlier but the device still has to work for the 80 year old who is just getting their first smartphone and is doing partly so because they only recently became so cheap. How do companies make this decision? Could a critical mass of users “force”/prompt a change?

This is also a good reminder that new technologies sometimes get penalized for being too futuristic or too different. If skeu0morphs are used, users will make the necessary steps over time toward new behaviors and ways of seeing the world. Perhaps Facebook falls into this category. The method of having “friends” all in one category is often clunky but if users had to simply open their information to anyone, who would want to participate? However, by gradually changing the structure (remember we once had networks which were a comforting feature because you could easily place/ground people within an existing community), Facebook users can be moved toward a more open environment.

In general, social change takes time, even if the schedule in recent decades has become more compressed.

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