It's not about HTML5 or skeuomorphism, it's about usability

There were a couple of interesting comments on usability, interface, and experience today, one coming from Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, who acknowledged they bet wrong on HTML5, and the other from unnamed sources who suggest Apple is deeply split along Scot Forstall vs Jonathan Ive lines when it comes to skeuomorphic vs more digitally authentic design.

Zuckerberg made his mea culpa on stage at TechCrunch Disrupt, according to Drew Olanoff of TechCrunch he said:

Mark Zuckerberg revealed that Facebook’s mobile strategy relied too much on HTML5, rather than native applications. Not only was this a big mistake with mobile, but Zuckerberg says that its biggest mistake period was the focus on HTML5. This is the first time that the Facebook CEO has openly admitted this, but things are looking good for the new iOS native app. According to Zuckerberg, people are consuming twice as many feed stories since the update to the new iOS app, which is great.

HTML5, which is a catch-all term for the languages used to show content and enable interactivity on the modern web (including HTML markup, CSS stylings, and JavaScript programming), has many advantages. It's abstracted. It's updatable outside the software review process. It's widely known. It's robust. But it's still doesn't perform well enough to provide a great user experience. Native code combined with web-fed data has proven time and again to provide both great performance and great content. Apple learned this when they dumped widgets for built-in apps in iOS 1.0 in 2007, dumped web apps for the App Store in iOS 2.0 in 2008, and have been following that path ever since. It took Facebook until 2012.

Austin Carr at Fast Company, meanwhile, asks, "Will Apple’s Tacky Software-Design Philosophy Cause A Revolt?". He's referring to skeuomorphism, which means taking design or ornamentation from the real world and transposing it to the digital world in an attempt to make a more familiar, relatable, fancy, or fun interface. For example, making a reading app look and work like a real world book.

Inside Apple, tension has brewed for years over the issue. Apple iOS SVP Scott Forstall is said to push for skeuomorphic design, while industrial designer Jony Ive and other Apple higher-ups are said to oppose the direction. "You could tell who did the product based on how much glitz was in the UI," says one source intimately familiar with Apple’s design process.

Despite the provocative headline, however, there are some problems with the core assumptions. For example, not all fancy, elaborate, even ostentatious designs are skeuomorphic or vice versa. Wrapping something in leather doesn't make it skeuomorphic, and making something skeuomorphic doesn't mean it has to involve radio knobs or needle pointers. Even if we restrict it to actual skeuomorphism, there's very little argument on either side of the issue. Does skeuomorphism add to the experience or take away? Add to the information density or or the noise? Does it lower user stress or increase it? Does it make the app more accessible or less accessible? More visually interesting or more distracting?

The question isn't whether skeuomorphism is good or bad, but is Apple currently using it effectively in iOS and OS X? In some cases, I think so. In others, I think they've missed the mark. But design is a process not a end point. It's looping iterations.

(Speaking of which, for really great takes on skeuomorphism from some of the people most directly involved and invested, check out the guests we've had on our Iterate podcast, especially de With, Mantia, Maheux, Brichter, Jardine, and Wiskus.)

Whatever your thoughts on HTML5 and skeumorphism, though, the most influential companies in the world caring deeply about usability, interface, and experience is an insanely great thing.

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

  • iBooks page flip = good skeumorphism
    Find my friends leather stitching = bad skeumorphism The page flip adds something to the reading experience, a faux tactility. The ugly stitched leather in find my friends adds no benefit and is out of place.
  • I'd prefer if the amount of faux-pages you saw on either side gave a rough approximation of how many pages were actually there in either direction. Find my Friends was supposed to add fun and flare to what otherwise would be a database on a map...
  • Awesome. Thanks for listening!
  • Agreed. Like if the reel-to-reel in the podcast app was just a reel-to-reel without visual representation of time remaining. Apple should do that with iBooks too. I have not revolted against skeumorphi as so many have, I just think there is a useful way and a gratuitous way.
  • There's a huge difference between skueomorphism and skinning. iBooks to some extent absolutely is skeuomorphism, and it worked to the product's success. iBooks not only looks like a paged book, but behaves like one too. Pages curl and turn. There's nothing skeuomorphic about Find My Friends. It's a skin over very standardized iOS design conventions. Nav bar, tab bar, buttons, segmented controls. In no way does Find My Friends exhibit any actual functionality reminiscent of a leather desk accessory... thing. That's not skeuomorphism. That's skinning.
  • Two things: first, this article would be immensely better if there was a definition of skeuomorphism included at the beginning. I'm no noob, but still had to jump to MacRumors for an accurate definition. Second, like skeuomorphism or not, it would be hard/more complicated/ruffle more feathers IMO to remove something like the leather stitching in Find My Friends than to simply keep what has already been developed. New updates of course are on the table for consideration if the added aesthetic diminished the performance of the device.
  • Added! Thanks!
  • I'll go with Johnny Ives opinion when it comes to design.
  • Jony Ive is a great industrial designer, but I don't believe he has much (any?) software design experience. These are two very different things. People often confuse Jony Ive for "SVP of Design" but there's no single lead designer at the company. Jony is the SVP of Industrial Design, the physical look and construction of their hardware products. Nothing to do with software. That's not to say he's not entitled to his opinion or in some cases might be valid, but he's not experienced with creating software.
  • +1
  • I like the page turn effects in iBooks, but I think Contact is a bit overboard on the addressbook UI.
  • "But it's still to far ahead of the performance curve and doesn't provide a great user experience." Did you mean "behind" the performance curve or am I reading that line wrong. Seems to me HTML is behind the performance curve. In any event, I agree with the stance on HTML5. We tend to steer our clients away from HTML5 apps when they ask our opinion for some of the same reasons (but there are a few times when HTML5 is actually the better choice).
  • It requires performance that isn't there yet. Poorly worded on my part. Fixing. Thanks!
  • Ok, I got you now. More like "it's ahead of it's time" sort of thing. Got it.
  • The faux tape recorder in the iOS podcast app is an example of bad skeuomorphism
  • I disagree 100%. The podcast app suffers nothing from it's skeuomorphism. And it's used very little. Most of the app is very standard controls with skinned elements. The only skeuomorphic element in the app is the reel to reel, which is understandable because there is no visual for an audio podcast besides the artwork. The button controls beneath the reel-to-reel are common podcast scrubbing elements and are not intrusive, out of place, or unrecognizable because of the realistic reel-to-reel above it. Not in the slightest.
  • I agree 100% that the tape reel look in the podcasts app is bordering on bad skeuomorphism. At first, I thought the tape reel look for audio podcasts was very cool looking and clever. But then I thought "why am I 'watching' an 'audio' podcast? If anything, I'm using more battery power to look at a fake reel spin and it gives no additional value to the podcast listening experience." What's next? Adding fake theatre screen curtains to video podcasts, and have the curtains open dramatically before playing the 'movie' (video) like the pre-1980s theatres? At the very least, the curtains go away as soon as the video starts, vs a constantly running tape reel that only eats processor clock and batt power.
  • As a user, I'll always take native apps over HTML5. As a developer, I can understand not wanting to deal with all of the platform issues. As far as the skeuomorphism goes, I guess I'm on the fence. For the most part, I think it is kind of tacky, although it never really bothers me. It would only bother me if it came at the expense of more interesting features and functionality.
  • I push HTML5 to my clients all the time. Otherwise, I have to charge them for 2 or 3 times to write the same app on a different platform. Some clients want a native app, regardless. But the majority like a consistent look and feel across all platforms, even if it means performance will suffer a bit.
  • We use things like Appcelerator's Titanium to keep the cost of cross-platform native development down. Still one code base, native apps on Android and iOS. They support HTML5 as well, but they suck at it so far. There are other tools that help with cross-platfrom native apps as well.
  • That makes a lot of sense. With native apps, you get a bit more performance and access to more functionality, but if you don't need either of those, HTML5 is a good way to go. However, for a $50 billion company like Facebook, it seems like they should have known better. With an installed base of 100 million plus, they should be ale to afford to put in the extra effort to create native apps.
  • if it isn't native, it's a compromise. html5 is the compromise required by companies that don't really get the whole mobile thing. they would very much like to redefine mobile devices as portable browsers, which means reduced staffing costs, since web trained developers are cheap and in abundant supply. the compromise for cost and convenience is really a betrayal of the true promise of the mobile device as a tool for the elevation of software to a human level, which is what is really meant when we speak of 'exceptional experiences'. it's gratifying to see some companies (FB, Twitter) begin to realize that the compromise is just that, that everyone knows fake crabmeat when they see it, and that choosing the better experience for their customers is good business.
  • Skeuomorphism - it's subjective and not objective. If you like it it's fine and if you don't it's fine too.
  • If applied correctly & beautifully, I think skeuomorphism beats every time.
  • As much as some of the skeumorphism can be an eyesore, I think Steve Jobs pushed for it because it fit in with the same goal as the minimalist hardware i.e. to make the machine disappear. You don't see the physical hardware or the buttons and there are no USB ports, etc to intimidate novice users. Likewise the rich textures (skinning) and the interactive concepts (Skeumorphic) provide a distraction away from the 'technical computer plastic and metal bits' and ease the learning curve for the masses who are new to computing. I think the aim with the iPad is not to provide a great tablet for existing computer users, but more-so to bring the advantages of computing to the uninitiated masses. And 30 years of selling hardware and software have provided enough examples as to what intimidates most users. So ultimately I think the skeumorphic and skinning concepts are brilliant, just not executed very elegantly. And thats where the refinement needs to happen.