The Comfort of Familiarity

My buddy Alex has taken issue with the skeuomorphic design that Apple is presenting in its apps these days, and I think the crux of his argument is completely off base. (He has since clarified his opinions over Twitter, saying he finds the designs lazy and uninspiring, but I’m arguing against this blog post). In the past he’s complained about the cold, rigid aluminum and glass design of their hardware, and also that everything they make is too similar. So why get offended when Apple does something unique with the software of their machines in an attempt to make their users more comfortable? He thinks they’re clinging to outdated metaphors in an attempt to bring us a false sense of familiarity.

Alex’s main argument seems to be that all of these accoutrements are weighing down the usability of the OSes, but I simply don’t find that to be the case. It’s just window dressing. Fashion. Just like brushed metal was all the rage within Apple 6 years ago, mimicking real life counterparts is all the rage now, but the usability tradeoffs that Alex complains about haven’t materialized. iCal took a step back in Lion when it went to the new design, but Apple saw that they overreached and brought the things that make sense back into Mountain Lion.

He goes on to say:

Now, within Apple’s own software, intuitive gestures are being replaced with static buttons that reference outdated technology

but offers no examples, because there aren’t any to offer. In fact, the opposite is true. As the years have gone on, Apple has only added more gestures to their OSes. Every kind of 2-4 finger swipe you can imagine on OS X, 4-finger swipes on the iPad, and even adding pull-to-refresh in Mail while getting rid of the static, outdated refresh button.

I think what Apple is doing here isn’t just merely making people comfortable. They’re trying to inject these cold black slabs of glass with some heart. Without the software an iPhone is boring, lifeless, and unfeeling. Stuffing the thing with rich corinthian leather and stitching brings with it a little bit of familiarity that we otherwise wouldn’t have. They’re trying to put a little delight into their software. In the end, I think that’s what it’s all about. Delight. People simply aren’t delighted by monolithic industrial design.

Is there something more intuitive and personal about a reel-to-reel machine that the iPhone’s super versatile touch display is missing?

Intuitive, no, but I’d definitely argue that there’s something more personal about it. The pull of nostalgia can be a powerful thing. There’s a reason why we put these objects in museums and make documentaries about them. Just because has the design of a Braun reel-to-reel tape deck doesn’t mean it acts like one. You don’t have to wind up a new spool of tape to listen to a podcast, or fear demagnetizing what you want to hear. They hide the reels behind the artwork and you don’t interact with them in any way. But I was delighted when I saw those little reels spinning, far more than the first time I started a podcast in Instacast. And all it is, is ornamentation.

I also don’t think Apple is in this game to constantly make innovative new UI’s that blow us away. They’ve already done the hard work; creating an entirely touch-driven experience that was unlike any that came before it, and got people to actually want to use it. Now Apple needs to make products that are familiar and consistent, not reinvent the wheel just because a designer gets bored. The App Store (and other platforms) are doing great with experimentation in this space.

I know Alex is excited to live in his THX 1138 future where real-life objects are tossed away never to be looked at again, but I enjoy having a modicum of familiarity when using stuff. No one is making him pull out a quill pen to write into his desk blotter, or having him pull out a drawer of files to interact with his desktop, and that’s not where Apple is headed. If he wants to make the argument that these things are unfashionable or ugly, well that’s an opinion I can understand, but saying they’re unusable is one I can’t. I think Alex is just getting distracted by the curtains around the window.