For years, software has automated tasks we already do. Once upon a time, people taped together sheets of paper with rows and columns to help organize numbers. Today, we know it as the spreadsheet, and we don’t think twice about opening up a program that not only runs calculations, but creates charts and graphs so we can get a sense of the figures. Chat windows replace or augment phone calls. Email does the same for snail mail. All of these programs recreate something we already do, making it a little different and a bit easier (hence the term Skeuomorphism).

But hold on a moment. The globally connected supercomputers in our pockets and on our desktops are capable of more. We are improving upon something that was done more manually, but what about doing things we haven’t even begun to consider?

We can create applications that do things that are not yet possible. Instead of replacing, we can create new tasks.

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Continuing the System

The problem is that when we first built computers to do things, we transferred over our ways of doing things on paper. This made some sense at the time; we brought over the familiar. Such interfaces often helped new users understand a program’s function. You used to take notes on a piece of paper, so why not make a notepad application look a bit like a notebook?

Today, though, people don’t start knowing about notebooks. Children have never used a Franklin Covey planner. Why not design a calendar/planner that looks different based on the fact that you’re looking at it on a screen? The Brooks Review made this point eloquently:

“Despite there being better options out there, better ways of displaying the data, designers stick with the known representation of the tool.”

You may have heard the term skeuomorphism, which is “an element of design or structure that serves little or no purpose in the artifact fashioned from the new material, but was essential to the object made from the original material,” per Wikipedia. It’s making a sticky note program on your Mac because we used to use paper sticky notes.

sticky note on mac

A Horse of a Different Color
This discussion came up a few years ago when Apple fired one of its executives who was a fan of skeuomorphism. But here we are, still talking about it. Why? Because it’s hard to break the mold.

Creating new tasks and new ways of doing things is like trying to imagine a new color. Where do you begin?

Imagination. As one TEDx speaker pointed out, if you take away the usual mobile phone interface with which we’ve become familiar, how are you interacting with things? How would you make something that worked? That you found useful? He shared stories of people creating things that they wanted using open-source information. One person built a two-cat food bowl out of cardboard, tape, and an old CD drive so that he could control which food dish his cats used. One cat was ill and needed medicine, so this device prevented the non-sick cat from eating the wrong food. The idea isn’t necessarily to build a product for market; he just wanted to solve a problem in his own life.

But breaking out of the mold of how we used to do things is the challenge. Why do we have knobs and buttons on devices? We are slowly gravitating away from that and will continue to do so because between a touch screen and voice commands, why would you need a button?

  • What if you could attach your mood to your phone so that all of the applications change their behavior accordingly?
  • What if you could control things with a thought or a hand gesture? (Though some argue gestures are just not practical.)

Today, people are figuring out how to make augmented reality (AR) the next thing. But AR and even VR still mimic the real world. While we are “only human,” the true achievements in our society have come from those who pushed past our human limitations, imagining a world where we could land on Mars, climb Mount Everest, and interact with our devices in ways we’ve not begun to dream.

When designing your next program, how can you create something that doesn’t mimic what we do, but takes into account the way we now interact with devices? Talk to us about breaking the mold.


Pete Peranzo

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