Digital simulacra and the iPad human interface guidelines

17 June 2010

This was originally posted as a comment to an article in UX Magazine about the iPad human interface guidelines. I was reminded by it today by this blogpost by about the forthcoming Windows Phone 7 UI design. While I haven’t seen a WP7 in the flesh it looks as if it may come closer to the spirit of innovative digital design I invoke below. It remains to be seen and as always, god is in the details.

This conversation would be funny if it weren’t so depressing.

So here we have what is supposedly one of the world’s leading technology companies launching what it calls a “magical and revolutionary” product. And what does it do? It goes and encourages developers to build twee simulacra of physical objects. How unmagical. How unrevolutionary. How dull. Apple have seriously employed top-flight designers and developers to build digital representations of address books and books and goodness knows what else that computers are designed to get rid of. And by “get rid of” I mean “eliminate as a concept” not “replace with a digital lookalike”. Now they want everyone else to do the same. No thanks. This is 2010 not 1910.

This approach is an enormous dead end that’s wrong on so many levels and plays itself out in various ways, some quite obvious, others more subtle and insidious. In a pragmatic sense, it just doesn’t work on its own terms. Digital metaphors of physical objects are full of leaky abstractions, being both capable of things that their physical counterparts are not and (surprise!) not capable of things their physical counterparts are. No-one seriously designs these metaphors to be perfect – it’s impossible. With computers being mainstream for at least twenty years I’m wondering why anyone’s still bothering at all. The desktop metaphor for graphical user interfaces was a smart-ish idea compared with the alternatives in 1984. With every year that passes it gets shot through with more and more holes. And the iPad is supposedly the device that moves on from all that. It certainly has the potential as a piece of hardware, as an OS, as a platform. So why try to limit designers' approaches to something so decidedly retrospective?

But the real problem is much worse than some of the cheesy UI elements like page curls, as excruciating as they may be. What’s wrong with this scenario?

I go to the (virtual) bookshop and browse through the (virtual) books. I find one I like and I pay real money for it. The (virtual) book gets transferred to me and placed on my (virtual) bookshelf alongside the other (virtual) books I’ve bought and that I now have to store and organise.

Hey! It’s just like the real world!

Quite. With most of its limitations, inefficiencies and exclusions comfortingly intact. Business as usual.

Page curl and page turning is a cartoon of something that’s an artifact of pagination which is a consequence of the former necessity for long-form texts to be printed and bound and distributed as such in the physical world. So are bookshops. So is the concept of owning a book. So are bookshelves and private collections of books. And yes, I notice that the age-old tradition of handing over real money for the non-exclusive opportunity to access a particular small and pre-defined chunk of content is still going strong.

Designers: You can think of better ways of doing it than this. Numerous better ways. You could get the genius lovechild of Edward Tufte and John Pawson to redesign iBooks' UI and it’d still be a bad idea. We don’t need iBooks any more than we need books. We still need ideas. We still need texts. But where they start and where they end and how we represent them and how we can explore them – that’s all up for grabs. Can we do this on the iPad? Probably. Should we try? Definitely. Does Apple want us to? Frankly, probably not.

Someone mentioned beauty. Supposedly there are 80% of people that like “functional” stuff and 20% that like “beautiful” stuff. That 20% are supposedly Apple’s customers. and the rest still use slide rules, telephone directories and Windows Mobile. I’m not going to pick apart how right or wrong that may be right now. But I’ll say this:

If beauty is making digital simulacra then we need a new aesthetic. If beauty is perpetuating not just the appearances but the cruel limitations of things past, it’s time to move on. We need a digital aesthetic that’s more than skin deep. One based on possibilities and power that continue to delight us as we use our new digital tools rather than briefly amusing us when we first encounter them. And yes, given that these are new things they should look like new things too. Get the message? If you’re not experiencing Google Search on an aesthetic level you’re not paying enough attention. I’m not talking about how it looks. I’m talking about what it can do for you. We need more of that. A whole lot more. In the short term, it’s about companies paying their bills, thriving, profiting. In the long run it’s about the entire field of computing progressing or stagnating, not the fortunes of any particular company. It’s about having an information society rather than an information technology society. You want to have something worthy of an upgrade in 2020? Step away from those horseless carriages. Don’t look back.

In short, if you love notebooks, buy a Moleskine. If you want to be a cartoonist, go and work for Pixar. If you’re confused about which way time’s running, go cyberpunk or trawl eBay for a Newton. And if you want to make a genuinely “magical and revolutionary” break with the past on the iPad platform – and I think you should – then forget about physicality and virtuality and retro computing and go and make something that not only doesn’t exist in the physical world but doesn’t exist in the digital one either. After two decades of mainstream computing we’re more than ready for something genuinely digitally native. We can stand the shock of the new. I hope that someone at Apple still understands that sometimes you’ve just got to break the rules – including your own.