Authentic Auschmentic

As the digital world goes more and more Swiss in style, I am beginning to have sympathy for the brief rant on the future of interaction design (although I previously disagreed with it). But my sympathy is not specifically about using all my digits and arms as much as it is a sense of malaise with the overwhelming sameness that is behind the Swiss style.

The problem? Well, the claim is that we want to be “authentically digital” and eschew “false reproductions of physical analogs”  (a.k.a., “skeuomorphism”). But if we’re true to our media, then everything is/will be plain old pictures under glass.  And not only that, it will be an über minimalist style that supposedly “emphasizes content” at the cost of “unnecessary design elements” such as “chrome.”  In short, it is squares, images, and text, and that’s it.


At least this one has some suggestion of “button-ness” on the “more” links, but not much.

Before long, this is all you see, no matter where you go. A suffocating sameness. Squares. Images. Text.  Squares. Images. Text.  Oh look! Squares. Images. Text.  So deliciously digitally authentic, though, right?

Now, on the other hand, take a tour of your neighborhood houses.  Go inside and see the décor. Assuming your neighbors can afford some level of choice, do you see functional minimalism?  Unless your neighbor is a metrosexual designer, probably not.  Probably what you’ll find are lots of “unnecessary” decorations. In fact, I’d bet on it.

It’s popular right now in the digital design community to rail against skeuomorphism, partially because you sound all hoity-toity just using the term.  “Did you see that skeuomorphic design?” asks one designer.  Other designer, laughing nervously because he can’t quite recall what the word means, “ehehe.. yeah, it was ridonkulous!”  (Mutual knowing chuckling ensues..)

iCal is even the example on the Wikipedia article on skeuomorphism.Designers love to pull up the iPad’s calendar as the supreme offender in this category. (Any chance we can show we’re not total Apple fanbois while still seeming designerly we’ll take.)  “Uh.. I mean.. just look at the torn paper edges!”

Or pull up the guitar or piano app on iPad.  How about iBooks, where you can literally drag and see the page turn.  “How unnecessary and unauthentic!”  Don’t look at me like you’ve never heard a designer say something like these examples.

The funny thing is, though, if you show these same things to your mother-in-law, she’ll exclaim about how nice it is.  Your father-in-law will just shake his head quietly in amazement.  The riff raff seem to really like this unauthentic design.  And frankly, so do I.

Does that mean I always want to have to drag the page to turn it?  Of course not, but it is nice all the same.  Do I care at all that there are torn paper edges on the calendar?  No. In fact, I like it. It adds “realism” and depth.  It makes this slab of metal and glass just a tad less metally and a skosh less glassy.  When I go from app to app, I can tell I’m going from app to app and not experiencing one continuous, monotonous sameness, especially with the apps where the designers go out of their way to add un-digitally-authentic flair.  Yes, I will strum those strings, thank you!

I had enough “digitally authentic” design back in the bad old days, when there were 80 characters across the screen and just text.  Talk about focusing on the content!  Yeah!  And then the bricky windows of the early GUIs.  The minimal chrome that was very functional.  Nice rectangular buttons with no decoration; just the authentic word or two. Back when all the apps were the innocuous, comforting gray or white and predictable bars with telling titles nestling atop.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating for a return to Flash Web site intros, or their ilk in HTML5. But this latest bender on Swiss/Metro/minimalist/”authentic” digital design is a bit much and needs to be tempered with other aesthetic and, dare I say, populist considerations.  We need to remember that most users aren’t so “refined” as we are in our tastes.  Sure, there are those who will follow the fads of fashion wherever it forays, but most of us seem to like our curvy and knobbly, comfy and cozy inauthentic extravagances.  We need to find a happy medium between the two extremes.

(And yes, I know this is ironic given my current blog theme. I’m just trying to fit in. 😉 )

What’s Up with UX Design Patterns?

Over there on on the User Experience group on LinkedIn, there is a loong thread cataloguing existing UX/UI design pattern repositories.  Recently, a few folks have been asking, “so what’s up with these UX design patterns, anyways?”

Given that I’ve had a lot of experience with design patterns, both in software architecture and, more extensively, with UX/UI design patterns in my work on Infragistics’ free UX/UI design pattern explorer and design tool, Quince, I thought I’d offer some food for thought.  I put most of the following as a comment there, but I figured making it more top-level in this post would help.  Hope it helps you out. Feel free to ask questions/comment if you want! 🙂

Design Patterns have a very well-defined, long-lived meaning. As Steven H (another commenter) noted, we inherited the formal denotation first from physical-world architecture via Christopher Alexander and, indirectly, through software architecture. They are not just a new word for an old thing…

Using a pattern does not mean you are copying someone’s work. Design patterns are not algorithms, templates, or rote repeatable solutions. Design patterns rely on context heavily, both to validate that they are applicable and to inform the concrete design. That’s why it’s important to understand not just the problem that they solve and not just the solution (and certainly not to simply copy examples of it), but also the context and rationale behind them.

Like many things, design patterns are a tool, and they are not always applicable or even helpful. To effectively leverage them, you first need to understand what they are and when they are applicable.

In the end, design patterns are there, and you use them whether or not you acknowledge them formally. Every time you use a textbox in a UI, you’re using a pattern. Every time you use a drop down, you’re using a pattern. When you put a search box in the top right area of your app, you’re using a pattern. The list goes on and on and on (check out Quince for more examples, or any of the other design pattern repositories).

Where it can help to formally recognize them is to make you a more informed and cognizant designer, so you can better choose when to leverage which patterns. They can also help to form a common vocabulary to enhance team communication, and they can be building blocks for any particular design language. Personally, I think they are indispensable in a designers’ toolkit. At the very least, they make you more aware of and able to articulate the rationale behind your designs, which is crucial in arriving at the best possible design.