It’s been a while since I had the time to write in this blog, but the recent trend in interface design compells me to share my thoughts on a subject that is very dear to me.
I love interface design. A good interface design is as compelling to me as a renascence painting might be to other people. It is no surprise then that I fell in love with the Mac GUI ever since I first saw it in the late 80s. Since then, I continued to examine closely all major interface design trends, from the first Aqua interface in Mac OS X beta to the current ‘Metro’ style interface of Windows 8.
Looking back over the last two decades, I feel that interface design is heading for a period of regression. To illustrate my point, let’s examine the major milestones in interface design between Windows and Mac OS.
Here’s an approximation of the look of Windows and Mac OS user interface in late 80s:
Back then, computers where extremely limited to the graphics they could produce. Thus the user interface was primarily monochrome and the graphics (such as they where) very simplistic. Still, Apple tried to approximate actual typographical elements, and was the first to use rounded corners on objects such as menus, windows and buttons. Windows at the time still depended on ‘character mode’ graphics which severely limited the level of detail they could put on the interface.
As computer graphics became more sophisticated, the interface design evolved to include colours and other visual effects such as drop shadows and transparencies became commonplace. Microsoft tried to copy Apple’s approach to interface design, and Windows 95 used round corners and many typographical elements, just list Mac OS did. To counter this, Apple created a completely new design: Aqua, which was introduced as the main interface of Mac OS X.
The problem with the Aqua interface design was that is was garish in the extreme. Although well executed, it was too showy to be practical. So over the next decade, Apple would gradually tone it down to the point that by Mac OS X 10.7, the only trace of Aqua in the interface where the window close-minimize-expand buttons. At the same time that Apple was distancing itself from Aqua, Microsoft (typically) tried to copy Apple’s original Aqua interface design for the next Windows version, Windows Vista (and later Windows 7).
By this time, the Mac OS X main interface design characteristic was a subtle lighting effect plus drop shadows and plastic-looking light gray tones. One would expect the trend to continue with Microsoft copying Apple, but that did not happen.
With the release of Windows 8, Microsoft made a bold (or stupid – depending on your point of view) departure from the normal Windows UI. The new ‘Metro’ style interface was designed especially for touch screens on tablet PCs, so it had two main considerations: everything had to be big enough to tap with a human finger, and graphical effects should be kept to a minimum, because tablets do not have the speed of typical desktop PCs.
The problem was that in order to make the ‘Metro’ design consistent, Microsoft also had to impose it on the normal desktop Windows interface, which unfortunately made it look a lot like the Windows 7 Starter Edition interface.
For some reason, Apple decided to copy this interface design in iOS7, with results that in my opinion are just short of disastrous.
This new interface design in both Windows and iOS is a very bad direction to take. Not only it is really ugly to look at (which can be just a matter of taste) but it makes both text and objects such as buttons more difficult to see. Also it is far more tiresome to use, because the subtle effects that gave the computer screen a sense of depth are now gone. There are no drop shadows behind the text to increase the contrast and make it more legible. There’s no easy way to tell which window is in the foreground. And there’s no easy way to differentiate between an active button (which used to be textured) from an inactive button or any other interface element (which used to be flat).
Both Microsoft’s ‘Metro’ and Apple’s iOS7 interface designs were based on the concept of a typical magazine layout, which is not a bad concept for a tablet which is held and used like a magazine. The problem is, magazine content is not interactive. The user does not have to press on a specific spot on the magazine page to turn it. Also PCs are not held or used like magazines. That which conceptually makes sense on a tablet is completely non-sensical on a PC.
Why skeuomorphic design is essential for Apple.
According to the Oxford online dictionary, Skeuomorphic means an element of a graphical user interface which mimics a physical object.
So, why is this important? because the entire concept of a graphical user interface design is based on the idea that computer information should be presented to the user as representations of familiar real-world physical objects. This is why today we have documents, folders, buttons, menus and windows instead of plain text lists and printouts.
A good user interface design should never abandon skeuomorphism. Does everything on screen need to be a close imitation of a real-life physical object? No. But it does need to be presented in a way that the human mind finds familiar and logical. Windows and other objects that ‘float’ should cast shadows to the background, because that’s what the human brain expects to see. Buttons should resemble physical objects and extrude from the surface of the UI, because the user has to push them, even virtually.
The whole design philosophy behind the graphical user interface is that it is human-centric, i.e. computers have to adapt to human needs and concepts. By abandoning skeuomorphism, we actually abandon the very essence of the graphical user interface: human-centric design. Which happens to be the reason the Apple Mac changed the way we use computers.