“With the complete roll-out of iOS7 comes a new era for user experience,” the overzealous tech luminaries might say, “that is free from the shackles of skeuomorphic metaphor.” No longer will we rely on cheap images of wooden shelves and folders to understand the way applications work.
The fact of the matter is that, even with the (near) death of skeuomorphism, it is impossible to escape metaphor. In fact, you cannot conceive of much at all without metaphor. Before I receive any hate mail from militant anti-skeuomorphists, let me explain what exactly I mean by metaphor.
Conceptual Metaphor Theory was proposed by a linguist from UC Berkeley named George Lakoff, and it states that all abstract thoughts are understood through metaphorical comparisons to other more basic, universal concepts. One of my favorite examples of this is related to intimacy¹. In English, we talk about intimacy mostly in terms of proximity and temperature. Having a close relationship means you are very intimate. A warm person is one that is intimate with others. So how did these metaphors come to be? Why don’t we use something like verticality to denote intimacy?
The key maxim here is that metaphors for understanding such abstract ideas always break down to fundamental human sensory experiences that are generally learned in infancy. When you were a baby, who was the person in your life that you were most intimate with? Your mother. She held you close against her warm body when you were scared or hungry. As we grow up, we use these early experiences of intimacy to explain and understand our relationships with others. We can only conceive of intimacy in terms of human warmth and physical proximity — INTIMACY is WARMTH and INTIMACY is CLOSENESS.
Our understanding of different user interfaces is based on the conceptual metaphors as well:
- We know to press the button on the top to increase volume because of the conceptual metaphor MORE is UP.
- We know to look for inactive programs in the bottom of our screens and below other windows because OFF is DOWN.
- We know to add similar files to the same directory because of the conceptual metaphor RELATIONSHIPS are CONTAINERS.
Our understanding of an interface, according to skeuomorphism however, is based on literal metaphor:
- We know to press the button on the top to increase volume because of thats how it is on physical boom boxes.
- We know to look for inactive programs in the bottom of our screens and below other windows because it’s the same with papers we haven’t looked at in a while getting lost under a big stack.
- We know to add similar files to the same directory because that’s how filing cabinets work.
((The file system on most operating systems is still based on a literal filing cabinet metaphor, which is why it is not common for one file to exist in multiple non-hierarchical folders -after all, they don’t in real filing cabinets!))
It’s not a poor assumption², but it’s quite shallow. As you might notice, these literal metaphors are actually understood via conceptual metaphors – even the physical objects! It’s conceivable that if the metaphor MORE is UP did not exist, there might not be any vertically-oriented volume controls on boom boxes. It’s not boom boxes that make digital volume controls intuitive, its the underlying conceptual metaphors.
At the end of the day, skeuomorphism is more than a terrible design aesthetic; it’s an obstacle to doing really great design. Great designers create experiences based on what they know about how humans think, and thought is made up of conceptual metaphor, not just book shelves.
¹ Some other crazy metaphors to think about are ECONOMIES are BUILDINGS, LIFE is a JOURNEY, SEXUALITY is a WEAPON. You can find a list of other metaphors here.
² It is actually a great mechanism to increase early adoption for more ground-breaking technologies. When a new kind of technology enters the market, it is almost always compared to existing technologies to help users understand it — one example is the first cars being called horseless carriages. The iPhone was especially unprecedented, so it was probably strategic for Apple to base much of their UI on real-world things to drive adoption.