Efficiency, affordance, & skeuomorphism

There have been many lengthy debates on the value of skeuomorphism in design, and I wanted to put down my thoughts as I’ve purposefully avoided employing it in any broad sense in the design of Khan Academy.

There is nothing wrong with skeuomorphism per se. As a design tool, its primary benefit is the ability to communicate the way something should work by helping a user recall its physical analog. The best and most used example of skeuomorphism in web design is probably three dimensional buttons. The ability to make something look press-able is an incredibly powerful tool. People encounter buttons all the time, they know what they can do when they see one. +1 for Skeuomorphism.

The major drawback is that it is frequently costly, both in terms of screen real-estate and visual complexity. In addition, it is frequently abused to give a feeling of “realness” with no regard for how that affects the usability of the implementation. Here’s an example of an incredibly cool app that I find really frustrating to use:

This app was clearly designed for people who have used one of these devices before since the UI makes no sense otherwise, but even at that it comes up seriously short. Those dials, that would be completely usable on a physical device, are *extremely* frustrating to use on a touch screen. A combination of the lack of tactile feedback (the clicks at each position of the dial) and the necessary trade-offs that were made to compensate for lack of precision makes using those dials feel inaccurate and clumsy.  And check out those sweet vacuum tubes! I am guessing most people using the app don’t even know what they hell those are.

Modern computer interfaces allow for a different set of efficiencies that are not easy to get in the physical world (can you say flexible layouts?), and designers should be looking for ways to take advantage of those not work around them. Like anything else, skeuomorphism is a tool that’s available to designers. This particular tool requires some real thoughtfulness and precision to use well. Unfortunately it is a tool that comes with no instructions and few indications of exactly where and when to use it, and that leaves many folks holding it business end first.