It's not about HTML or skeumorphism, 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.

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