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The Digital World: Interface Metaphors

| May 13, 2010 | Comments (2)

A few weeks ago the iPad was released and has been the source of discussion, controversy and envy. Much of the buzz centers on Apple’s indifference to Flash content and Adobe’s outraged response. There is also much to read in regard to the direction that Apple has decided to take in the design of their applications. On Apple’s User Interface Guidelines Page they suggest, “Whenever possible, add a realistic, physical dimension to your application. The more true to life your application looks and behaves, the easier it is for people to understand how it works and the more they enjoy using it.” They exemplify what they mean with their own iPad apps. The calendar app looks like a tearaway desk calendar, the address book app looks like a rolodex, and the e-reader app looks like a hardcover book complete with page turning animations.

I can picture somebody walking into an Apple store to see what the fuss is about. Although they use a computer they would not consider themselves a techie. They pick up the iPad and begin playing with the apps. They would find that most of the programs look similar to real world things they use every day, but it’s all in one sleek, futuristic container. Reading on a screen would seem less disconcerting because it looks like a book. When you put yourself in the shoes of an everyday person this design direction makes sense. Apple is aiming to make computers like an appliance, you pick one up and it works, you don’t have to guess what the machine wants you to do or call your neighbor’s kid to fix it for you when something goes wrong. This is the future of computers, made for everyone with a tightly controlled marketplace that produces a wide variety of easy to use applications that just work. There are many who are uncomfortable with this de-stratified vision of the future where you don’t need tech support to quarantine your computer virus or plug-ins to make your operating system or browser work. There is a lot of hard-won expertise at risk.

Now, after analyzing Apple’s design direction, I have to wonder if it is always the right way to go. I, too, was impressed by iBooks and its page curling animation but I quickly tired of a faux book distracting from its own content. I personally find the Amazon Kindle App to be a much better reading experience. There is no fake book in the background or fancy page turning animations by default (you can turn them on in the settings). The program is simply a container for the book’s content. They are not trying to use a graphical book metaphor because the iPad is not a book, it is a screen. There is no unnecessary ornamentation distracting me from what I am trying to do, read. Craig Mod has some great articles on this subject on his blog, check them out here and here.

Although the realistic interface metaphors that Apple is promoting have initial visual impact I wonder how we will look on them 5 years from now. Lukas Mathis, in this great article, explains that special care must be taken in interface design to use metaphors that are neither too realistic or too abstract. An interface element in software or on a website needs to be recognizable enough to understand its function but not so specific that we get confused or fixated on their visual accuracy. He uses this great example from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, a great resource for those interested in any visual-related field. We recognize the face furthest to the right as a face despite its fewer details and are not tempted to spend too much time focusing on the the formal quality of the image.

Amazon’s Kindle App achieves this as well. It is obvious that I am reading book content because it is an a text block not unlike a real book but, unlike iBooks, there is no specific page rendering where I can get confused by paper stock or fixated on how many pages seem to be left. The interface is true to the device and there is no additional varnish trying to convince me that this is just like some nostalgic idea of curling up with a dog eared paperback by a fire.

The reading experience on a tablet is new and different and I like it. I love the immediacy of reading, sketching, watching TV, email, and web-surfing all on the same device and leaving the laptop in my bag at the end of a work day. I love real books and still read and use them, but this is a new platform and deserves interface design that plays to its strengths and not what has come before.

2 Responses to “The Digital World: Interface Metaphors”
  1. Good article, thatks. I love the Scott McCloud part. He is one clever dude.

    Anyway I read the iOS guidelines you referer to, and they seem to have changed them from what you wrote. they now say:

    “When appropriate, add a realistic, physical dimension to your application…” instead of “Whenever possible”.

    btw. I’m using your article in my bachelor.


  2. avatar Noah Read says:

    Thanks! Glad you liked the post. Good luck on your bachelor!

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