Skeuomorphs, modernism and other red herrings

Few events flood my Twitter stream as quickly as the launch of a high-profile skeuomorphic or starkly minimal interface design (especially a redesign). The last week of June, we got both: Apple’s new Podcasts app for iOS, and a minimalist makeover of Rdio (their previous redesign only three months young at the time).

On the surface, these apps have almost nothing in common. I wouldn’t call either poorly designed. Theoretically, those bemoaning Apple’s Braun fetish or Rdio’s lack of contrast should love if their respective styles were swapped. Of course, you and I both know that wouldn’t please anyone.

Why not? Because no one’s really upset that one designer waxed nostalgic while another wiped the slate clean. What we all really hate is when our needs feel marginalized by designer zealotry.

Here’s a quote from Iljitsch van Beijnum’s Podcasts review for Ars Technica:

The application is surprisingly immature, however. It crashed on me half a dozen times in just two days, performance is glacial, and there are numerous bugs. (And I’m not the only one who feels this way.) Most prominently, the app seems like the roach motel of podcasting: podcast episodes check in, but they don’t check out.

Despite its comparative simplicity, Rdio’s stripped-down redesign did not spare it from criticism. Take this response from Twitter’s Justin Chen:

And one of many tweets from Ember.js maintainer Tom Dale:

These aren’t just examples of change aversion or a personal dislike of an app’s “look and feel” (though either may exacerbate the frustration). These users expected clarity, functionality and stability, but saw those elements deprioritized in favor of sweeping minimalism or patent eye candy.

Don’t get me wrong, eye candy is mighty tasty. It can help reinforce emotional connections and usability. But in the absence of solid execution, eye candy is a siren call for the designer, a scapegoat for the user.

In truth, neither skeuomorphism nor minimalism fit our medium snugly. The former embraces the lessons of industrial design while ignoring the two-dimensionality of the screen, the latter eschews a rich history of real-world interactions while elevating print’s lasting principles of typography and composition. In a few months’ time, many of us will wonder how we ever thought these trends made sense in the first place.

So by all means, see how much complexity you can strip away from your interface. Or if you just read As Little Design as Possible and want to fashion the experience in tribute, go for it. Let your work be a conduit for your passions and personality.

But be wary of regressions that accompany your exploration. Your design is like a messenger for the rest of your app. Users will not hesitate to shoot on sight.

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