Historically, good UI design was largely treated as an afterthought, and not without good reason. After all, if you get the programming of a piece of software right, the UI typically emerges as a property of a thoroughly worked-out design concept.
Yet there’s no denying that the importance of eye-catching and intuitive UIs has only grown over the years. Factors such as higher resolution displays, touch-inputs, and a wider range of users interacting with digital products have all come together to put UI design at the top of any new project’s priorities.
However, analysts have pointed to an emerging gulf between users and certain designers with respect to what good UI design means. Many programmers who were on the ground when the very first graphical user interfaces went live in the early 90s have fixed ideas about what a satisfying user experience looks like, and it’s often quite distinct to what you’ll find adorning the most popular iOS apps.
So what exactly is this difference, and how can it be bridged in meaningful ways to prevent quality software being overlooked on aesthetic grounds?
To understand the differences in opinion at play here, we need to get to grips with the notion of skeuomorphism. This word refers to a design modality wherein mimicry is used to evoke use-cases historically associated with the object in question, and it’s very common in physical products.
Skeuomorphism serves as an efficient way to ease transitions between successive generations of an object, especially if the underlying means by which that object functions has changed.
Take, for example, the first push-button telephones. When these first came to market, and began to gradually replace the out-moded rotary-dialer design of their antecedents, they retained the circular number layout even though this had no meaningful application in the new design.
The fact that the majority of phones, including mobile devices, no longer do this points to another key feature of skeuomorphic design we will touch on below – it’s normally associated with transitional moments.
Oftentimes skeuomorphism is also employed in order to be evocative, or to retain elements of previous designs that people enjoy. One of the best examples of this today is to be found in modern slot machines, which often play the sound of gears and levers falling into place when one pulls their lever, even though this mechanism no longer serves any functional purpose due to the internal cogs and gears being swapped out for circuit-boards in the 70s and 80s.
Early GUIs Benefited From Mimicry
In software design, the best known examples of skeuomorphism are likely the Recycle Bin and Trash Can on Windows and Macintosh operating systems respectively. This folder, which is used to store items marked by deletion before their permanent removal, evokes the function of a physical trash can. In order to make this relationship apparent to users, these folders are not only named after their physical counterparts, but feature icons depicting them.
Most early software design sought to use this type of design language to help guide users in navigating their user interfaces. Drop shadows, beveled buttons, and floating windows were all employed to make it easier for first-time users to navigate a digital workspace intuitively.
Flat Design Now the Preference
Where this has changed is that we have reached a saturation point in the adoption of computing and the internet. In light of this, those elements that once served a helpful purpose now increasingly clog up the clean lines and crisp presentation of modern web design and operating systems. This has led to a move away from skeuomorphism in UI design, particularly on mobile.
While programmers familiar with the early days of UI design often find something comforting and straight-forward about classic skeuomorphic icons and elements, studies suggest that modern users tend to associate this design-language with outdated and insecure products.
And when iOS 7.0 was released, back in 2013, it was a sign for many in the industry that skeuomorphism was dead. Apple’s early iterations of its mobile operating system were among the last stalwarts of skeuomorphic design on a leading platform, and when iOS 7.0 debuted with reworked “flat” icons, it decisively tipped the balance in favor of more minimal aesthetics.