Improving the document experience through digital innovation

Even if you’ve never heard the term skeumorphism, you probably know what it is. It’s a design term that comes up in new systems and products. When something familiar is metaphorically applied to something new, that’s skeumorphism. For example, when personal computers were being invented, interface designers took cues from office life: hence Desktop and Trash. Apple is famous for using skeumorphism in their visuals, as you can see in the iPad screenshot below. The app is really a collection of pixels, but it’s shaped and shaded to look like a book—an artifact from the physical world that everyone’s familiar with.

The Contacts app on iPad in iOS6 visually recalls a printed book.
The Contacts app on iPad in iOS6 visually recalls a printed book.

Skeumorphism gets a bad rap. Are users really too stupid to understand something if it’s not candy-coated to look like something they already know? Would a Contacts app that doesn’t have a hardcover binding really be so hard to understand? Many people see these sorts of visual treatments as gratuitous on the part of the designers—gimmicks at best. Perhaps these are fair criticisms. And Apple seems to have relented, seeing as in iOS7 they did away with many of these visuals, as you can see in the updated version of Contacts, below.

Contacts on iPad in iOS7
The Contacts app in iOS7 has no more remnants of the physical world…

When iOS7 came out, the critics (of skeumorphism) rejoiced. And yet, skeumorphism is all around us—do they not notice? The Desktop metaphor, for example, lives on strongly. And there are tons of other examples. And skeumorphism is not always a bad thing. As a Fast Company Design article rightly explains:

There is validity to a skeuomorphic approach. To create any good interface, it is essential for the designer to understand the cognitive models that a user brings to any new product. Designers have to take into account the conventions and operational principles of the products and services that the users are familiar with, even if it is simply just to know how to evolve. Clearly a great deal of objects and tools we use could do with the attention of a good designer or design team, but there are also plenty of highly refined design solutions that embody fundamental design principles, conventions, and years of collective refinement that there’s no need to attempt to reinvent the wheel.

Let’s look at one example in particular, which has an interesting impact on the document experience: Retina displays.

A few years ago Apple introduced high-density displays in their phones, and the technology has since spread to their other products, as well as products by other companies. (Okay, Apple didn’t invent high-density pixel displays, but they certainly brought them into the limelight.) Most recently Apple announced their new 27-inch iMac with an astounding resolution of almost 5,000 pixels wide. Check out this image to get an idea of how big we’re talking.

The new iPad (Air 2) likewise exhibits display improvements: Whereas in previous generations the glass, touch sensor and display were each separate pieces—with space in between—their all laminated together in the latest iPad. (See the image below, from Apple’s website.) The tracking has also been improved, so that there’s more accuracy and speed in response to user (finger) input. The result, as Apple says, is that “when you touch the screen it feels as if you’re touching your content.” This claim has been corroborated by many reviewers of the device.


Where do such displays come from? Is it purely out of technological capacity? Not really—in the case of the new iMac, for example, Apple touts how they had the idea before the technology could support it, and they had to push the technology to get there. Thus these displays must exist because we believe that they would somehow improve the experience of using the computer.

What does improve the experience mean? In the case of Retina displays, the point is for the display to be so dense that the eye cannot distinguish individual pixels. In real life, there are no pixels. If we see pixels on the computer, that means whatever we’re seeing is not like real life—it’s a reminder (if a subconscious one) that we’re looking at a screen. Thus improve the experience must mean better emulate real life. In the case of the new iPad, the new laminated display seeks to remove some of the distance between the user and the content. That distance, of course, is a layer of unreality—there’s no such air pocket or time delay when we’re manipulating objects in the physical world. Again, this innovation seeks to better reflect real life. Both Retina display itself and the new laminated iPad screen, then, are examples of skeumorphism—though I haven’t seen anyone classify them as such.

New technologies allow us to interface with information in new ways. When we are confronted with a new technology, the information experience is impacted. Thus I may not be remiss in suggesting that, to some extent, all technology has to start out skeumorphic in order to be accepted. As the Fast Company Design article quoted earlier describes:

The e-ink–screened Kindles are examples of how this was done with great success. The products carry over just enough of the fundamentals of editorial design and the conventions of physical books—that took 400 years to evolve—to make it feel appealing to avid readers and comfortable for them to use.

If people have nothing to latch onto, they will reject new developments; and if the new experience is judged to be sub-par compared to the old experience, they will also reject it. Amazon smartly wanted to impact the reading experience as little as possible with the introduction of the e-ink Kindle. And from there? New Kindles were introduced with LCD’s, and Apple created a reading app for their own tablets—and many other companies released e-reading–related products. Once people got used to reading long form writing electronically, these companies wagered that people might be more inclined to make the jump to reading on pixel displays. And once more people were using pixel displays than e-ink displays, the time was right to make those pixel displays much denser.

As demonstrated by this example, we seem to go in waves of embracing experiences that mimic analog reality more and then less and then more and then less…

As demonstrated by this example, there’s a sort of co-evolution between technological innovation and skeumorphism. It comes in waves. New things can’t be too new, but they can slowly hedge away from reality once they’re heavily used. Then, when people realize they’re missing something they used to have, a little more skeumorphism is sprinkled in. We meander through the swamp of technological innovation and skeumorphism, I suppose toward the destination of good experiences—ones that mimic reality.

Let’s look at the history of writing. In the earliest days of homo sapiens, we only had gestural communication (both oral and bodily), then we had words—just a modification of grunts. Then we started encoding those words in writing. The oldest writing had no spaces or punctuation; it reflected an endless stream of sounds.  But before writing could be globally adopted, it had to get the capacity of transmitting paralinguistic information—pauses, tone, etc.—which is paramount in oral language. So little by little there came to be spaces between words and punctuation here and there. Then we had standardized handwriting. Then we had printing, which came along with prescriptive grammars. Eventually we got standardized spelling and editorial style. Then we got digital type—and then an evolving parade of e-readers, as chronicled above. Writing continues to evolve so that the experience of reading and writing is improved. Again we are faced with the question: What does improved experience really mean?

The more something mimics reality, the better the experience with it. Good poetry is good because it says something true. Good debates are good because they give fair treatment to all perspectives. Good food is good because it showcases the best of each ingredient that goes into it. Good games are good because they are absorbing.

Improved e-readers mimic printed books. Improved books mimic manuscripts. Improved manuscripts mimic the spoken word. The spoken word mimics gesture. Gesture mimics the world at large. We understand quite well what it means to describe Retina displays as mimicking printed books. But what does it mean to describe Retina displays as mimicking manuscripts, as mimicking orality, as mimicking nature? It seems that the driving force behind such innovations is to make the digital (the discrete) seem analog (continuous).

Is making the digital become analog the highest goal?

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2 thoughts on “Improving the document experience through digital innovation

  1. You also notice technology comes with less and less instructions.
    Its not that manufacturers are trying to save a quick buck on paper printing, or the cost of writing the instruction manual. Often you can still get a copy if you go searching.
    This is the design principal. People shouldn’t have to learn to use a new product, it should be seamless. This is a core concept within human computer interfacing (HCI).
    Is this too an example of skeumorphism in that way?

    1. I think so—when we say something is “intuitive,” what we really mean is that it is “like things we’ve used before and are familiar with.” Although at this point I think we’re extending skeumorphism far beyond what it was originally intended for. Not that that’s a bad thing! I think it’s an interesting way to frame the discussion.

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