Why "flat design" is having impact

Skeuomorph. An ugly word for a pretty simple idea: Create representations of real physical objects as design elements in a software application.  A set of books is represented in a visual that resembles a bookcase.

The trend (fueled by the stark design of Windows phone and the rumors of a shift in style upcoming for the next release of iOS) is toward a "flat design."  I happen to like flat design - it reflects a clearer connection between what I sense and how I know to act.  It reduces in most cases cognitive load. Even in immersive interfaces, it doesn't make false reifications.  And that is a clue to understanding the mistakes that designers make in pushing skeuomorphism too far.

When I think about skeuomorphism I think about metaphor: understanding and experiencing one thing as something transferred from another domain.  The cognitive basis for metaphor varies.  Some dimensions are obvious:

  • Literal (iOS bookcases) vs. conceptual ("time is money")
  • Spatial and orientational ("points that are central to an argument", "more is up")
  • Ontological (objects and substances that can be categorized, grouped, ordered, counted and often ascribed properties associated with people or emotions)

The characterization of metaphor opens some deep questions that I will avoid here. But I think that designers often have latched onto the idea of metaphor and applied it to elements within user interfaces without a proper understanding of reducing cognitive load through both coherence and essentiality.  To pick on the bookcase representation again, the visual seems to have strong coherence with a physical bookcase. The bookcase visual on my iPad looks like a bookcase - wood framing and all. Or does it?

The iPad bookcase doesn't really hold books (or magazines) like any bookcase I have ever had.  It seems a bit more like a display case, but only as a stretch.  Does it help me organize my eBooks?  Not really - it shows too little or too much information for almost anything that I am trying to do.  Does it help me to recognize that the elements stored are books or magazines? Also not really.

The fact is that the books, magazines, and other documents that I have on my iPad are very different information objects from physical books. Consider the sentence: "That book on programming did not sell."  The sentence can be interpreted in dramatically different ways according to context.  One might be "That book didn't sell because it was poorly written."  Another might be "That book didn't sell because its cover was ripped and a few pages are missing."  The two very different interpretations correspond to a book as an information object or as a physical object.  An eBook is more or less the same information object as a physical book but the physical nature is completely different.  So the cognitive coherence between physical and electronic books is at least subject to question.

In an alternative universe, electronic books have been created before physical books. We might enjoy a number of ways to organize our electronic books - tables, trees, whatever.  How might these inventions inform how the physical instantiations of books and their aggregations be informed?  I look at my work space (back in this universe) and see a lot of stacks of books and wish I could levitate them somehow. So it seems to me that the bookcase design element does not capture anything essential about my collection of iPad books.

So I think that the bookcase design element does nothing to reduce cognitive load.  Its basically a lot of useless chrome. But is it harmful?  This is up for debate.  I suspect that experiments could be conducted that would test peripheral vision and attentional blindness effects that would show a slight degrading in the ability to find a sought book with the bookcase design.

Flat design is an attempt to rid user interfaces of superfluous and even harmful skeuomorphisms.  My hope is that the focus on design will be on finding methods that effectively manage cognitive load, both when a user is new to an application and when a user is experienced.