Skeuomorphism is the easy way out
For the past two months, we’ve been reinventing Kicksend. What was once a humble filesharing platform is becoming an incredibly simple way to stay in touch with family and close friends through photos.
As a part of the redesign, I’ve scrapped the old aesthetic completely. Along with fast and easy-to-use flows, we’ve simplified the visual design. We even use it to guide users through common actions, and through (technologically) complex actions like professional photo printing. You’ll see the result of this work in a few months… we’re not done yet.
While working on Kicksend, I’ve been tempted many times by skeuomorphism, for several different reasons. We have galleries, albums, sending… all things you can touch or do in the physical world.
… an element of design or structure that serves little or no purpose in the artifact fashioned from the new material but was essential to the object made from the original material — Wikipedia
Our audience consists of nontechnical people and parents – people who would understand how a physical photo albums or snail-mailing photos work. They’ve seen and done those things before.
It’s logical, user-friendly, and trendy. Apple does it. That must make it okay, right?
Skeuomorphism is a bad habit that designers have picked up, and it needs to stop. It doesn’t make any sense.
It’s not just a photo album
On the surface, it might seem like an “album” in our iPhone app is no different than the one sitting on my mother’s bookshelf.
- They’re both called Albums
- They hold a curated group of photos
- They’re created with the intent of sharing
- They’re created with the intent of saving / storing
But that’s really where the similarities end. In reality, Kicksend has vastly more functionality, and the interactions are more complex.
- Share with n people, all at once, anywhere in the world
- Realtime group comments
- Metadata-related features
- Printing at full-resolution to any Walgreens
- It’s portable and occupies negligible physical (and digital) space
Some argue that skeuomorphism helps novice users understand how something works, but it’s a flawed argument. Skeuomorphism helps people misunderstand the capabilities and limitations of digital products based on their understanding of a physical analog.
It’s not design
Copying design choices (use of materials, shapes, manufacturing limitations) purely as aesthetic is toxic, and it’s not design. It misunderstands the very nature of what product design is supposed to accomplish and ignores the true nature of what the product is and what it does.
At the risk of sounding trite, I’ll quote Dieter Rams again:
Good design is honest
It does not make a product more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept.
It seems like trends in web / app design follow what is most technically challenging to do instead of what looks or works best. Unfortunately, this current trend is less about design and more about creating artistic representations of old products. It looks sexy on Dribbble or in App Store screenshots, but that’s about it. These creations are incredibly hard to iterate on, and the analogy breaks once new or innovative features are added.
Sorry, but anyone with Photoshop can learn how to make stitched leather, wooden shelves, or neon text. It’s just art… and easily replicable at that. Some sites will even give you a finished PSD with all of the layer styles and assets created for you.
It’s easy to look at a photo and copy what you see, bypassing any critical thinking about user experience. It’s easy to think that copying an iconic product or using stitched leather automatically solves those problems for you. It’s easy to do what’s popular.
What can we do?
Do what designers and engineers have been doing for a century. Stay true to the content, materials, medium, and constraints. Build something that solves a problem simply. Well-designed products don’t need to look like something else to be easy to use.
At Kicksend, our entire business is keeping people close through photos. Customers want to be able to share photos with people that matter to them, converse around those photos, and print them anytime. We’re not using leather-bound linen or wax stamps to help them do that, and we never will.