When the iPad was released last April, several applications on the device were derided bydesigners for their “kitsch” use of real-world interface metaphors, a practice promoted in the company’s Human Interface Guidelines for developers. But, the backlash didn’t account for the goals associated with releasing a product with a novel interaction experience. By comparing applications on the iPad and the movies Noël Carroll describes in his essay “Toward a Theory of Point-of-View Editing: Communication, Emotion, and the Movies”, we can see that Apple was completely justified in suggesting that designers use interface metaphors in their iOS applications. Skeumorphism is simply a mass-design tool used to immediately familiarize the user with completely new experiences on the iPad and to make the user want to interact with the iPad in the first place.
However, before Carroll’s thesis can be applied to the iPad, its artificial barriers need to be expanded to encompass different audiences. Carroll’s thesis hinges upon the claim that the “innate human tendency to follow glances” and the ability to decipher facial expressions account for point-of-view editing’s success, which I find limiting and unnecessary. If we think of Carroll’s target audience of the entire human population as the extreme of mass design instead of the norm, his thesis can be adjusted to the Fishian idea of “interpretive communities”. With the entire human population as a target audience, it makes sense that only innate human tendencies would be effective tools. However, when aiming at a smaller target audience—but not so much smaller as to no longer be a candidate for mass design—such as Apple’s target audience of the middle and upper class American population, culturally specific tools become appropriate for use. With this new understanding, it follows that innate tendencies are not the only methods by which mass information can be transferred, but that learned tendencies, such as those of reading a book or writing on a note pad, are also effective. While Carroll refers to the area as “mass art”, I will refer to it as mass design, as “design” alludes to the decisions made in crafting the experience for the audience and allows us to apply the concepts outside the realm of art. It is my goal to show that the interface metaphors Apple employs and advocates in their applications are a tool successfully used to achieve mass design.
To evaluate Apple’s promotion of real-world interface metaphors, we must first establish what their goals were for the iPad. As with any company, Apple’s primary goal is to maximize its profits, which requires engaging as many consumers as possible. The iPad itself has to be immediately compelling to be able to convert “tryers” to buyers. To do that, it has to be easy not only to show its features in use, but also for consumers to understand how to use an iPad right away. What is more is that the uncharted territory that comes with releasing a brand new type of product means that getting the users to acknowledge its necessity in the first place is a goal unto itself. For this reason, although it may not be to the liking of designers, Apple would stand to gain from designing for the short-term “wow factor” at the cost of long-term user experience on the iPad as a way to increase adoption rates. With this goal, Apple attempted to make the iPad “consumable by the maximum number of people employing the minimum effort”, just as Carroll’s movie-makers did with their movies.
Even before Apple designed the interface for the applications on the iPad, the interaction on the device was geared towards real-world metaphors. The “multi-touch” gesture input that Apple has patented is doing exactly what interface metaphors do, only in a physical sense: taking real-world interactions and applying them to user input on the iPad. Before multi-touch, tablets used styluses—or worse: touch screens with pointers. In the model, where you actually swipe to turn the page of a book, it makes to extend the metaphor into the interface as well and animate the turning page. The two go hand-in-hand, and they do so brilliantly to create a very enticing first encounter with the device, exactly what Apple was aiming for.
One feature of the iBooks application that has been met with significant criticism is the bookshelf metaphor used to display your collection of e-books. Critics argue that as soon as your collection is greater than a handful of books, the view becomes increasingly harder to navigate. And they are absolutely right, but it does not mean the system was poorly designed by Apple, as it does not take their goals for the interface into account. It doesn’t take a genius to conclude that the system would fall apart with larger collections, but Apple didn’t need to design for larger collections. The bookshelf view was designed to elicit immediate positive reactions, not to organize information in the most efficient way. Seeing representations of physical books that glide into place and animate unfolding when opened is much more appealing to a user than a plain-text list of book titles. Neven Mrgan rightly asks, “If your booklist was also available as a boring (and useful) black-and-white table, would that be the screen you’d show your friends?” Apple chose to do exactly what Carroll argues that movie-markers do; they “favor design elements that render their narratives accessible to large audiences”, even if the elements don’t appeal to the avant-garde. So interaction designers can complain all they want about the experience with larger collections, but Apple wasn’t targeting that experience, they were targeting first time users, and they did so extremely well. Think of it this way: after being enticed into buying the iPad to read books, are you going to throw it away when you realize it doesn’t handle large collections well? Sure Apple could have added a “list view” that allowed for easy browsing of many books—and they did in a subsequent application update—but for the iPad’s release, the feature wasn’t a top priority.
Apple’s release method also accounts for why they strongly recommended developers use interface metaphors in their Human Interface Guidelines. Because of the secrecy surrounding Apple’s product releases, developers often don’t know there is a new platform to develop for until very shortly before it is released to the public. In the iPad’s case, there was only just over two months to build applications between its announcement and its public release. Not only that, but developers had no way of receiving an iPad to test their applications on before the public release date, so anything they built was built “blind”, in other words without being tested on the actual device.For this reason, the recommendation to use real-world interface metaphors in iPad applications was also a precaution by Apple, as it knew all applications would be developed blind. Instead of guessing on new interaction methods that might not function as expected on the real device, it was safer to suggest falling back on the tried-and-true use of metaphor.
While the usefulness of strong interface metaphors may not appeal to interaction designers who see the iPad as a completely novel device requiring novel interface solutions, the usefulness of real-world metaphors should not be overlooked. Apple did not decide haphazardly that interface metaphors were the way to go on the iPad. They did so because the metaphors provide the user with immediate information about how the application is structured and because they create an inviting first encounter. When designing for a completely novel device you can’t expect mass-adoption if you employ what Carroll calls “class-specific” techniques, only understandable by interface elites. Instead, you have to seek to make the experience “accessible by large numbers of untutored audiences” in the same way that movies are. That is exactly what Apple did, and, after a year’s worth of sales, we can look back and see that it worked.
I wrote this essay while taking Dan Cavicchi’s “Audience” class at the Rhode Island School of Design, and thought it was worth republishing here.