Don’t Mimic Real-World Interfaces

There have always been those few apps that insist on looking like their physical, real world, equivalent. Calculator apps, date books, calendars, note taking apps, “stickies” — you know what I am talking about. Despite there being better options out there, better ways of displaying the data, designers stick with the known representation of the tool.

Now, though, Apple is taking it too far.

If you have seen any of the screenshots linked across the web about the new iCal interface you know what I am talking about. If you haven’t seen those, iCal is looking a lot like it does on the iPad right now in Lion’s developer preview. It’s ugly, and we should be way past this style by now.

I have proposed a better calendaring solution and Marco Arment has talked about what he would like to see as well. The problem right now is that we have the graphics processing power and the design acumen to make realistic looking interfaces, and designers think they should make them look realistic.

Who wants that?

In theory, and perhaps in movies, this is a great look — in fact from an eye candy perspective it looks amazing. The problem is that these apps that mimic a real world interface make for pretty terrible computing interfaces. Real interfaces, those printed on paper for calendars, or molded out of plastic for calculators are static — computing interfaces are dynamic. The difference is that to make a sheet of paper show 7 days worth of appointments means that you have to print all seven days. Once it is past the first day it would be impossible to dynamically shift the content so that it keeps the seven forward looking days view. On the computer though this is easily done, yet no one does it — why?

I guess it is because that is not how paper calendars work, and that is just a silly convention to stick with.

In the early days of computing modeling interfaces, such as a calculator, after an actual calculator was very user friendly because users had a base understanding of how to work a calculator already. This lowered the bar for the prerequisite knowledge to use early applications. Ditto apps like calendars, datebooks and address books.

Now, I would guess that most “new” computer users actually don’t know that these things are mimicking their physical counterparts — well they know in the sense that it looks like a physical good, but I doubt they every think: “I used to have a calculator just like this one”.

How many teenagers today are likely to have ever owned or used a DayRunner? Mimicking these interfaces is not about creating a more usable interface, or about giving the consumer what they know — it is about creating eye candy, while the usability and productivity of the app suffers. Eye candy can aid a design and the usability — as it did with the first computer applications — more often though is forces the app to look and behave in a manner that is not very helpful to the user.

Ask any person who has used Soulver for Mac or iOS if they think Soulver was difficult to figure out — it is leaps and bounds better than any other calculator app, yet it doesn’t look like any other calculator app. It took me all of two minutes to figure out how to work the app and to realize just how much better it is. What Soulver did was not try to replicate the beloved HP 12c, instead they rethought what a calculator app was to be — and how it should be designed if it is only made for use on a computer, from day one.

It is what calculators would have been if they were invented at the same time computers were, instead of what we have with most calculator apps.

Little Bits of Paper

Brent Simmons calls it Torn Paper Derangement Syndrome (TPDS) and I most certainly have it:

If this rumored new UI for iCal is real and not just a mockup by a misanthropic Photoshop sadist, then I’m going to be distracted forever by the bits of torn paper under the toolbar.

When I used paper notepads in school I would take an Exacto knife to remove those bits of paper weekly — can’t stand it. It is a sign of a flawed product — one that is designed to tear with ease and perfection at the top, but that never lives up to its expectation, much like checks (remember tearing those out). Why remind everyone of the imperfect days of yore by bring that bit of imperfection across. That is akin to Microsoft deciding that Excel should stop calculating pi after 3.14 — stupid and pointless given the tools at hand today.

Nobody misses those bits of paper. Nobody wants iCal to look like their Franklin Covey — people want it to work like that, but not look like that. That is: people love the feel of pen and paper and scratching stuff off, but that feeling is not best replicated through showing static, arbitrary, bits of torn paper. People love how organized they became with these old school paper tools, yet instead of taking that organization to the next level with computing we just get the same thing we had in paper form (less the paper cuts and waste).

The way to get people to love a calendar app is not to make it look like what they used 10 years ago, but to make it better than what they used 10 years ago. So far the only feature we have that consistently works is alarms that sound 15 minutes prior to meetings. Not even invites work on a regular, consistent basis across all devices.

Feels Nice

The best part about how these interfaces work is how they feel — can’t you feel the texture of the paper grain as you move your mouse pointer over it? Wait, all I feel is the glass desk below my mouse and subtle twinge of annoyance as I pass by the intended resting spot for my mouse pointer. We can’t feel the textures drawn on the screen.

Real life interfaces are made to be pressed with the wide human finger, to be grasped in your hand and held in your briefcase. That’s why buttons can never be too small and why writing zones are large and the physical size is critically important. That’s also why a lot of these interfaces transfer nicely to touch based devices like the iPad or iPhone. That’s also why they suck so much on a ‘regular’ computer — a mouse pointer is tiny and doesn’t need huge click zones. Fonts are legible at small sizes and don’t need huge areas to fill. Screen sizes are anything but static and the interface needs to work well on all of them.

There is a separation between the needs of the real world and the needs of the computer world. Making direct porting of interfaces a poor decision.

Looks Great, Sucks to Use

I can’t tell you how many apps there are that I could say the above about. Then there’s the small subset of apps that seem to really get how people actually want to, and do use, their apps — those are the apps that just leave you saying: wow.

These are the apps we need and crave.

It’s great that you spent 16 hours making that wood grain and stainless steel look exactly like the real thing — looks nice — but does your app work? Does your app make sense?

Calvetica isn’t good because it works like a DayRunner — it’s good because it works well with my fat fingers tapping at a slick, backlit, glass screen. It works because when I turn in to landscape the information changes, it works because they thought about how people use the product (yet, they have not solved Marco’s complaint, nor most of mine.) The subtle texture of the Reeder background doesn’t make me love the app more, the navigation and presentation of only what is important makes me love the app. I don’t think OmniFocus on the iPad is better than it is on the Mac because it looks more like a paper check list — I know it is better because it shows me only what I really need to see at any given time.

Some of the apps that are coming out for mixing boards and DJ scratching — they all look really cool, but they suck to use. You can’t physically turn a knob on the iPad screen — so why make knobs an essential part of your interface?

Why haven’t people figured this out yet?

Originally posted for members on: April 13, 2011
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