The User Experience Blog
Dialogue around issues and ideas that impact user experience

UI Guidelines for Skeuomorphic Multi-Touch Interfaces

Gestural, multi-touch user interfaces have made using a computer interesting again. This is good and bad. But two big names in usability, Jakob Nielsen and Don Norman, are concerned that it’s canadian pharmacy cialis

_a_step_backwards_in_usability_6.html”>more bad than good. I am concerned that their response to the situation, a call for new guidelines, is a reactionary backlash that could hinder innovation and beauty in interaction design.

After scoffing at the idea at first, I sat down to think about whether it was possible to develop guidelines that are open enough to allow for innovation, playfulness, and beauty but strong enough to keep usability high. I think it might be, and these are my first thoughts about it. What follows is a series of conversation-starters, potential guidelines that need to be tested and vetted before they can be solid. For now, the discussion will be limited to skeuomorphic interfaces, but additional guidelines are necessary for multi-touch UI in general and novel UIs specifically.

Skeuomorphic” refers to a design that retains the functional elements of

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a predecessor but only in an aesthetic capacity. The new design might no longer require these elements for the object to perform its function, but they might carry with them some desirable aesthetic quality. For example, common elements of music production software include metal faceplates,


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screws, and heat vents that recall the aesthetic of physical gear although they are absolutely unnecessary in digital systems.

Propellerhead's Reason virtual studio showing skeuomorphic design elements

Propellerhead's Reason virtual studio showing skeuomorphic design elements

Potential Guidelines

While reducing physically functional elements to digital aesthetics is fairly harmless in the context of a keyboard-and-mouse UI, it can be extremely frustrating in the context of a multi-touch UI where the barrier between content and interface has been broken down and anything can be a control. The screws could allow a user to switch out devices and peering into the heat vent at how bright the tubes are glowing could provide visual feedback about the level of overdrive. This leads to my first recommended guideline:

If it is functional in the physical version, it should be functional in the multi-touch digital version.

The definition of “functional” is deliberately vague. Something should happen when a user attempts to manipulate a physically functional element in a skeuomorphic design. What that something is is less important than that something happens at all. It is when this guideline is violated that skeuomorphic interfaces are the most frustrating. The iPad’s Calendar and Contacts applications are perfect bad examples. While they retain the visual form of books, they do not allow you to turn pages by swiping. What’s worse, they often respond to swipes by scrolling a list on what appears to be a page, severely conflicting with the user’s mental model of a book.

Apple's ill-concieved Contacts application.

Apple's ill-concieved Contacts application.

On the other hand, when this guideline is followed it can make a skeuomorphic interface particularly delightful. For example, turning a page slowly in the iBooks app displays the text on the next page just like a real book does.

Apple's extreme attention to physical and interactive detail in iBooks leads to a delightful experience.

Apple's extreme attention to physical and interactive detail in iBooks leads to a delightful experience.

In Korg’s iMS-20 app (which faithfully recreates their classic MS-20 synthesizer), attempting to turn any knob or connect any two jacks in the patch panel works as any musician would expect it to. They’ve even made the modulation wheel and momentary switch to the left of the keyboard fully functional although their importance is diminished during performance with the app versus performance with the actual synthesizer.

Korg's iMS-20 iPad application

Korg's iMS-20 iPad application. Note the modulation wheel and tiny button to the left of the keyboard.

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If you’ve never seen or used a real MS-20 before this application might look cool, but it will require significant learning time to be able to use properly. What’s more, if you don’t understand the principles of analog synthesis, control voltage, or sequencing you’ll be unable to do much other than scroll through the presets and twiddle a few knobs. But you know what? That’s okay! This is the genesis of my second recommended guideline:

Do not be afraid to alienate users without the appropriate domain knowledge to operate the physical object a skeuomorphic multi-touch interface is based on.

I expect to catch a lot of flak for this guideline, but there’s no better conversation starter than violent disagreement! My justification is that by faithfully recreating a physical device you create a phenomenal experience for a limited subset of users who then become passionate about what you’ve built. Besides, digitizing a physical object democratizes it by definition. My real MS-20 cost me $800, is nearly as old as I am, and is composed of a variety of components that have been discontinued since I was in junior high. The app costs $15, will never need repair, and throws in an analog sequencer, two Kaoss Pads (control mechanisms), and sound memory to boot. So even if all you do with it is twiddle some knobs and make some weird sounds, you still get your money’s worth of fun and you get to experience one of the most unique synthesizers ever built. And this brings me to my third recommended guideline:

When it is possible to add features that will make a heavily domain knowledge dependent design more accessible

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without negatively impacting the experience for expert users, do so.

The Kaoss Pads that Korg added to the iMS-20 app are a good example of this guideline. These two pads allow a user to make interesting noise with the app simply by holding their fingers down. As an expert user, they stay out of my way. But I’ve found myself having a lot of fun with them. They’ve actually positively impacted my experience.

The two touchpads at the bottom of the screen allow novice users to enjoy this expert-level application.

The two touchpads at the bottom of the screen allow novice users to enjoy this expert-level application and experts to have a little fun.

My fourth recommended guideline is aimed at just this, improving upon the experience of the original:

Go one better, but keep the experience of the original object intact.

Transferring an experience from a physical object to a digital device often brings advantages at the expense of tradeoffs. However, multi-touch UIs reduce those tradeoffs significantly by bringing the experience of the digital version much closer to that of the physical object. So if you have the opportunity to improve on the experience of the original, for example adding sound storage to the MS-20, and you can do so unobtrusively, do it!

Finally, there could be times when, despite the best efforts of the designers, a physically functional element of a skeuomorphic design simply might have no reasonable analog within the digital domain. The problem is that users won’t know that and will try

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to interact with the element anyway. This leads to my second recommended guideline:

If it is functional in the physical version but cannot be functional in the multi-touch digital version,

provide feedback about how to perform that function.

Designers should anticipate that users will try to interact with these non-functional elements and do their best to either explain that it they are not functional or direct users toward the controls that will allow them to accomplish their tasks. Instapaper, while not skeuomorphic, handles this well. It has two scrolling modes, pagination (swipe for next page) and scrolling. When you turn pagination on and attempt to scroll, it presents you with a message explaining that you’re in

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pagination mode and offering to turn it off for you.

Instapaper's developer anticipated that users might forget whether pagination was on and designed a way to provide feedback about the situation and how to address it.

Instapaper's developer anticipated that users might forget whether pagination was on and designed a way to provide feedback about the situation and how to address it.

A Rebuttal Against Apple

In addition to the above new guidelines, I propose modifying one of the guidelines in Apple’s iPad Human Interface Guidelines: “Add physicality and heightened realism” (p. 23). The detail text for this guideline makes two statements that I strongly disagree with.

First, “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.” (CITATION) It then offers up Contacts as its example! Contacts, and to a lesser extent Calendars, strongly suggest that skeuomorphic interfaces are not appropriate for productivity applications. A book is a limiting format for contacts, so there’s no reason to carry those limitations on into the digital realm. Instead look at an app like Things, a purely digital to-do app that keeps the UI out of the user’s way. Or look at apps like Mail and Evernote that contain skeuomorphic elements (deleted messages and notebooks as piles of paper) but are not shackled to their physical

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inspirations (mail boxes, bound notebooks). I propose that this guideline be altered to include a special admonition against using skeuomorphic UIs for productivity applications.

More detail text states, “As you work on adding realistic touches to your application, don’t feel that you must strive for scrupulous accuracy. Often, an amplified or enhanced portrayal of something can seem more real, and convey more meaning, than a faithful likeness.” It’s guidelines like this that lead to apps like Contacts. To go back to my first guideline, I propose that Apple’s guideline be modified to indicate that the level of visual detail designed should match the level of functional detail that is built. For example, in iBooks it would be nice to see different amounts of pages on either side of the book to give users a visual indication of how far they’ve read without having to turn the UI chrome on.

As I said at the beginning, these guidelines (and suggested revisions) are really meant to be conversation starters. What do you think of them? Are they on the right track? Or are there situations they don’t cover? I look forward to the discussion!

Update: Apple has replaced the iPad and iPhone HIGs with a single iOS HIG. The language around physicality and realism has been significantly dialed down. The guideline now states, “Consider adding physicality and realism.” The detail text says, “When appropriate, add a realistic, physical dimension to your application.” This is exactly the sort of modification I was proposing. However, they still use Contacts as their example.


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