Marco Arment on overdoing the interface metaphor:

We’re often told that we should design our websites and software to mimic real-life objects. The iPhone strengthened this idiom, and Apple has been driving this home hard for the iPad.

Marco is a thoughtful programmer and writer, but I feel that he’s simplifying the case a bit.

Part 1: As Apple Says

As I am not allowed to quote from the iPad Human Interface Guidelines, you will have to take my word and summary (or check your copy of the HIG): Apple makes a single, vague, cautious recommendation to add a layer of realism to your app. This is different from mimicking a real-life object.

An example: Mac OS X’s scrollbars. There’s a realistic quality to them. They feel tangible and dimensional; they obey certain laws of physics. They are rounded (or sometimes fully cylindrical) slabs in a well; you slide them up and down the well until they hit the matching rounded ends. On one side of the well sit two buttons which can be pressed down to move the slab.

This design is physical enough to be familiar, satisfying, and fun. And yet there is no object quite like this in the real world - no TV, oven, or car has a value-range control that looks like a scrollbar.

Part 2: As Apple Does

The HIG isn’t The Constitution, and Apple steers developers and designers as strongly, if not stronger, by the design of their own apps.

As far as I can see, four of Apple’s apps for the iPad truly “mimic real-life objects”. They are: Notes, Calendar, Contacts, and iBooks. Notes has been lambasted for its use of the Marker Felt font since it appeared on the iPhone (I don’t mind it); Calendar and Contacts appear to me to be perfectly usable apps with pretty, textured veneers.

iBooks is controversial. While it remains to be seen how well any iPad app works in daily use, iBooks is surely going to be one of the most criticized and critiqued parts of the whole experience.

On first look, its design also appears familiar, satisfying and fun. Now, what is the flipside of that? It may turn out that this metaphor is limiting, illegible, and awkward. Please note: I said may. I don’t know and won’t know until I’ve used an iPad for a while. For now, let’s assume the worst.

It may well be that showing your ebooks as big, colorful covers on a wood shelf means you’re losing an opportunity to do a lot more. You can’t sort. There’s no list view, so once your library hits 50+, it may become hard to browse. No book descriptions, ratings, publisher names, etc.

When it comes to reading, it may be that the “frame” your text is in - the rendered page with fully-justified text - is less legible than virginal black on white. Maybe swiping isn’t the ideal page-flipping action. Maybe the whole thing will feel hokey to people who expect their $500 gadget to feel more Minority Report than Gutenberg.

This is the bad part. Now let’s compare the pros and cons:

Familiar + satisfying + fun vs. limiting + illegible + awkward

The left side giveth value, and the right side taketh away. Neither one delivers a deadly blow.

A Digression

Marco’s example of an app that benefits from not trying to be realistic is Soulver, a calculator which abandons the key-pecking confusion of every calculator ever for a scratchpad concept; just type math and see your results line by line. (I use an even simpler calculator: Spotlight.)

This works not because it’s straying from a real-world object, but because it’s straying from a poorly designed object. Calculators have always been bizarre devices with cryptic, uninviting buttons and weird mechanics (“Wait, what did I just clear?”)

Back to iBooks

It sort of doesn’t matter how inviting a calculator is; those who need to calculate learn to use a calculator, whatever its UI. Books aren’t like this. Apple has to make you want to use iBooks. Note one of the chief complaints about the likes of the Kindle: “but I like real books.”

After you’ve read your twelfth ebook, you don’t need the candy anymore. Ideally, the candy isn’t so distracting that you hate it, and what was once cute (swiping to flip the page!) turns into sheer utility (tapping to turn the page, which I have to believe will also be possible in iBooks.)

But that flip matters because it gets you going. And it gets going everyone who sees you reading your twelfth book in iBooks. How will you demo it to them? Will you tap or will you slowly turn the page? If your booklist was also available as a boring (and useful) black-and-white table, would that be the screen you’d show your friends?

And let me make it clear: this isn’t about “techies” versus “regular people”. Every techie I know is impressed by some bit of visual candy, no matter how hard they try to “see through” it. It’s only human to respond to colors and textures and animations and physical-looking objects.

In almost all cases, Apple recommends (and does, and you should do too) tasteful touches which make the interface warmer and more human. In the case of the iPad, they have to do quite a bit of selling to new users, and selling on new ideas.

Familiar + satisfying + fun > limiting + illegible + awkward

During that stage, it’s more important to amp up the benefits than it is to tackle deficiencies. Most iBooks users won’t have a lot of books for a while. Most of them won’t read a lot of text until a few months in. The corniness of the book/shelf metaphor will only strike a few; most will respond to it as a good translation of a thing they’re already familiar with.

Remember Mac OS X v10.0?

It was to be a significant departure from the flat, dull look of the OS’s of the time. It overdid that: the buttons cast comically large shadows; the pinstripe texture is crazy opaque; everything is far too shiny. Today, Mac OS X is flatter, with tasteful touches of depth and volume. To get here, they had to start there.

Until books are completely re-imagined as objects (and I’m not holding my breath) people will expect them to look like facing pages, double-sided, picked from a shelf. Five hundred years of tradition mandates this. We start there, and we go more elaborate (as books add video, interactivity, etc.) and less so (as no-longer-necessary conventions get dropped.)

In Conclusion

  1. Apps should mimic the warmth of real-world objects, not their literal design;
  2. iBooks is a bit of a special case since it’s the first step in the long evolution of a product that refuses to evolve;
  3. Fight limitations, correct illegibility, and refuse awkwardness…
  4. But not by simply throwing away familiarity, satisfying actions, and pure old fun.