The Treachery of Skeuomorphs

Skeuomorph: An object or feature copying the design of a similar artefact in another material.

—Oxford English Dictionary

Skeuomorphs are so common in design that we likely don’t even realise when we’re seeing them. They’re the now non-functional rivets on our jeans, the faux shutter-click on our digital cameras, and, most recently, the spinning spools of tape and the magnetic reader head of Apple’s new Podcasts app. While the reaction to the app has been mixed, with a number of legitimate complaints with regards to the app’s implementation, I think it’s safe to say that overall it’s a thing of beauty, and that with luck the glitches and shortcomings will be worked out in the near future, leaving us with a highly functional and aesthetically beautiful app.

Podcasts App Interface
The interface of Apple’s new Podcasts app.

Much of the beauty of the app stems from the careful attention to detail. The design is based on the Braun TG 60 Tape Recorder, and the designers at Apple have taken great pains to adapt the functionality of the old analogue device to suit the digital app. To this end, Apple has integrated a number of skeuomorphic UI elements, ranging from the button-like controls to the spooling tape (that matches the actual length of the podcast itself) to the magnetic read/write head. Each of these parts appears to function much as it would in the actual physical machine. The tape, for example, bounces gently when the podcasts start or stop playing, and the magnetic head engages and disengages at the press of the play/pause button just the way that it would on the real machine.

There are, of course, moments where this metaphor breaks down. The play/pause button, for example, switches symbols, so the play arrow appears when the podcast is paused, whereas the pause sign appears when the podcast is playing. This would be impossible on the real device, as the buttons are physical, and cannot change their painted-on markings, despite the fact that this is entirely unproblematic for a digital interface. This break from a strict fidelity to the original analogue counterpart is typical of skeuomorphs, where once-functional features increasingly become “merely” aesthetic features with the passage of time. For the most part, no use will question the swapping symbols on the play/pause button, as it is a minor change, and does little to disrupt the way in which the app functions.

Some changes, however, can produce somewhat more startling effects, especially in a user who has a great deal of experience with the original object from which the skeuomorph is borrowed. The play-speed dial, for example (the one with the turtle and hare on it, right under the magnetic play head on the app) appears to be an analogue dial that will accelerate and decelerate the spinning of the tape spools, which in turn changes the speed at which the tape moves past the magnetic head, and, in an analogue unit, would cause the pitch of the audio to decrease or increase as the playing speed decreases or increases, respectively. But this isn’t what happens in the app: the dial, for starters, only offers three positions—slow, normal, and fast—turning it into more of a trinary switch than a true dial. The instead of pitch shifting app uses granular synthesis to time-stretch the podcast. Whereas the analogue device stretches or compresses the waveform (which results in the shifting of pitch we recognise from analogue machines), this app breaks the waveform down into discrete units and then manipulates the rate at which those units are played, resulting in a stuttering quality typical of granular time-stretching.

This is still a minor difference, but it’s one that’s significantly more disruptive than the play/pause button. Whereas the play/pause button breaks with the materiality of the analogue unit, it still functions according to the same basic principles, wherein pressing the play or pause button will cause the audio to to just that. The play-speed dial, however, initiates a very different effect from its analogue counterpart, and despite the fact that we can see the motion of the “tape” slow down as it passes the “magnetic play head,” the resultant changes to the audio are quite different from what the UI elements would suggest. Those of us who grew up with analogue tape decks will find this behaviour quite surprising, even though we will quickly adapt to the digital model.

The hiccups in the Podcasts app’s UI are symptomatic of greater issues (the word “problem” is probably too strong) in digital design in general. In SpecLab, Johanna Drucker writes of ebooks that

There has been too much emphasis on formal replication of layout, graphic, and physical features and too little analysis of how those features affect the book’s function. Rather than thinking about simulating the way a book looks, then, designers might do well to consider extending the ways a book works.

This seems a fair criticism, one that applies to the Podcasts app just as easily as ebooks. Apple, it seems, has paid a lot more attention to the way the app looks than how it actually works (something the Ars Technica review notes). More effort has been put into ensuring visual fidelity of UI elements than questioning the functionality of those same elements. Both the tape reels and the little red progress needle tell us how far we are through the podcast, but only the needle actually allows us to scrub back and forth through the podcast—we cannot change the motion of the reels by touching them. Likewise, both the position of the magnetic head and the play/pause button tell us whether or not the podcast is playing, but only the play/pause button allows us to influence this fact. Both the tape reels and magnetic head are redundant ornamentations, serving aesthetic purposes, but offering no additional utility. Indeed, on a limited screen like that of my iPhone, they actually exclude other potential functions by taking up about a quarter of the screen real estate—a not-insignificant space, while doing little more than replicating existing functions.

Now, these complaints may seem joyless and utilitarian, nothing more than the complaints of an old man who just doesn’t understand kids these days (I’m reminded of David Sedaris’s dad complaining about his son’s appropriation of the fashion of his youth: ‘”It doesn’t make sense,” I remember him saying. “That hat with those pants, worn with the damn platform shoes…” His speech temporarily left him, and he found himself waving his hands, no doubt wishing that they held magic wands. “You’re just… a mess is what you are.”‘). It’s not that, though. I fully appreciate Apple’s exploration of beautiful analogue designs, and I appreciate the skeuomorphs that they’ve integrated into their app. I think that they draw attention to some compelling elements of the analogue device on which the app was based, while at the same time integrating a great deal of functionality that wasn’t present in the original (such as the sleep button, or the +30s and -10s jump buttons). I do wish, however, much as Johanna Drucker does, that they’d considered how the tape player works, and found better ways to take advantage of the skeuomorphs they introduced into their app. Apple is big on heuristics and discoverability, and as such I’m surprised that they skipped over this opportunity to introduce new functionality into the app by piggy-backing it in on their visual metaphors. By no means do I think that they’re committing a crime by failing to do so, but at the end of the day it really feels like a sloppy move by a company known for its polish. Ceci n’est pas une Braun TG 60..

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