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A Prism for Interface Design [Theory]

costumed

title

There appear to be a few paths and trends appearing within the interface designs for mobile devices like the iPhone, and I would like to open a discussion amongst those of us in a position to help steer, or at the very least influence the course of progress in this field. For the sake of this argument, I have identified three broad categories into which most interfaces can fall:

UNIVERSAL

Any interface built entirely with the provided assets and components common to the platform.  In the case of the iPhone, these are all of the elements from within the Interface Builder framework.

COSTUMED

Any interface that attempts to recreate a non-digital experience or environment with photo-realistic graphics and controls that mimic actions and movements not physically possible in a 2-dimensional screen interface.

NAKED

Any interface that is tailored to its purpose and medium without attempting to mimic another purpose, reality or dimension.

Universal interfaces are by far the most common–they make up the bulk of the more than 35,000 (and growing) apps on the Apple App Store, and for good reason.  Part of the spirit behind the Apple SDK was an openness to individuals and teams who might otherwise not have been unable to design, develop and produce an application, let alone an appropriate interface.  In doing so, Apple provided a framework for most of the basic actions and interactions so that ideas could be brought to market with less friction.  It’s no surprise that this “standard” interface is consistent with Apple’s overall interface style which dates back to the introduction of Aqua with OS X.  Although highly evolved since Aqua, the iPhone interface still embraces a pseudo-3D environment characterized by stylized/realistic icons plus buttons and bars with implied depth set within a “studio” environment lit by the perfect imaginary light-box.  All together, the Universal Apple iPhone interface is wonderfully designed and intuitive to use.  However it, and almost all other system interfaces like it, suffers from it’s own ubiquity.  By striving to work in every situation for every type of interaction, a Universal interface almost always lacks the nuance and depth needed to adapt to situations where the interface can and should be more than a tool.

universal

In contrast with the Universal interfaces, Costumed ones take their adapting and customization to an entirely different level.  These specially designed interfaces hold nothing back when attempting to recreate an existing physicality or fabricate a hypothetical one based on elements of reality. What a Universal interface lacks in personality, a Costumed one gushes forth without apology.  With the level of realism possible in 3D rendering and the fine resolution of modern display technology, it is possible to recreate the precision machining of an industrial control pad or the subtle nuance of a wood carved toy.  In either situation, however, the user is expected (required) to suspend reality to imagine the touch and feel of actions and movements that are supposedly taking place behind or within–while the screen acts as some sort of planar barrier between the reality outside and the implied reality within. Done correctly, a Costumed interface can honestly draw in the user such that the mind may willingly suspend the disbelief to allow the pleasure of interacting with this other world to overtake wholly.  Executed poorly, an interface attempting to set a new reality stage often presents only a caricature of that space not unlike a high school stage production–no one is fooled and the entire production suffers because of it.

costumed

Thirdly, the area of interface design that I believe has the most untapped potential and an important role in the ongoing evolution of digital interactions: Naked interfaces.  Simply put, a Naked interface succeeds through its pure honesty and unadorned nature.  It is an interface that pretends to be nothing other than itself and offers an unencumbered connection between the user and the device or application.  The strength of this approach lies in the immediacy of the communication.  Naked interfaces do away with most of the ancillary decoration and symbology common in other styles and cut to the chase.  Where other interfaces might illustrate a link to the home screen with the common image of a pitched roof house, a Naked interface eliminates the interpretation step needed for a user to read a graphic, mentally translated it and then understand it.  Simply using the word HOME offers the shortest connection to the intended message.

One can argue that the symbology common to modern interfaces (gears icons for “settings”, a filmstrip icon for “movies”, etc.) offer a more universal or internationally accessible connection, but I think we should question this.  In most cases, these icons are accompanied by a label (Settings, Movies) which somewhat defeat their purpose or at the very least acknowledge their limitation.  Furthermore, the presumptive nature of the icon is in no way universal (How many people in India or Japan live in a home similar to the common peaked roof icon?) or antiquated (Has a modern teenager ever seen a piece of 8mm film with sprocket holes in real life?) to the point where they become caricatures of the idea in much the same way the politically (in?)correct man and woman stick figures of restroom signs represent the safest solution vs. the most clear or interesting one.

At the end of the day, my own preference for Naked interface designs comes back to a central idea that too often gets lost in the process of design: the interface is there primarily to serve the function and content, and should therefore not draw attention to itself.  In my own work, I generally strive for a minimum ratio of 100:1 in favor of the content (the content should be at least 100 x the scale or impact of the navigation and controls necessary to access it.)  This may not always be possible, but it is a good rule of thumb to guide design decisions.

MECHANISM SCREENS 1

Returning to the iPhone specifically, another benefit that the Naked interfaces seem to have is the ability to get the attention of users through their sheer unexpected simplicity.  When an App strays from the norm of the Universal Apple iPhone interface, it immediately takes on a personality that distinguishes it from being just another off-the-shelf app.  In my own apps (KERN, EYE vs. EYE and PRESS CHECK, all designed specifically for creatives) one of my personal mandates was to avoid the use of any Universal components.  Other titles like Eliss and Edge have been even more successful at leveraging their unique minimalist and Naked interfaces to focus the entire experience on the gameplay itself, a true accomplishment.  While these may be eccentric titles in the sea of Universal and Costumed apps on the market, we shouldn’t forget that a truly engaging game does not need any adornment to be deeply enjoyable.  Think for a moment about the Rubik’s cube, Sudoko, or a a game of chess, and it becomes clear that anything other than a Naked interface for these classics only works against their ability to engage.

I believe that Naked interfaces can and will continue to capture the imagination of users as more and more “designed” apps reach out to the design-centric niches.  As these interfaces make their way into larger markets and larger audiences, we will have the ability to expose more users to their strengths and ultimately steer the design language toward a more highly refined nature of thought and purpose.

Jason Franzen is a founding partner of FORMation, a multi-disciplined design firm based in Dallas, Texas.

  • http://www.dorianmoore.com/ Dorian Moore

    Jason,

    That’s an interesting article, and certainly one I can get behind in some instances : I’m all for not-over abstracting an interface experience when the quest is knowledge rather than experience, but you’r example of a naked interface isn’t very, um, naked to my mind:

    HOME is an abstraction, that takes a lot of mental processing to get to it’s meaning. Just like your examples of the house with a peaked roof not being appropriate to someone in India, the word obviously wouldn’t translate to their language. Or, as a laboured example, to an all-to-rare-these-days Nomadic Tribesperson.

    HOME is a very complex concept, and I would argue one which has been forced to have a recongnition in peoples minds – a place to orientate yourself within the current world – but not one which is even consistent: Home on your website is very different to home on my website… who’s home is it anyway.

    This is a bit of a tangent from your point, but I think a valid one that needs to be countered in interface design. We should not think of words as having a precise meaning, and as those who design using words frequently know, their meaning is loaded and chosen carefully can make a great difference in how someone interacts.

  • http://www.dorianmoore.com Dorian Moore

    Jason,

    That’s an interesting article, and certainly one I can get behind in some instances : I’m all for not-over abstracting an interface experience when the quest is knowledge rather than experience, but you’r example of a naked interface isn’t very, um, naked to my mind:

    HOME is an abstraction, that takes a lot of mental processing to get to it’s meaning. Just like your examples of the house with a peaked roof not being appropriate to someone in India, the word obviously wouldn’t translate to their language. Or, as a laboured example, to an all-to-rare-these-days Nomadic Tribesperson.

    HOME is a very complex concept, and I would argue one which has been forced to have a recongnition in peoples minds – a place to orientate yourself within the current world – but not one which is even consistent: Home on your website is very different to home on my website… who’s home is it anyway.

    This is a bit of a tangent from your point, but I think a valid one that needs to be countered in interface design. We should not think of words as having a precise meaning, and as those who design using words frequently know, their meaning is loaded and chosen carefully can make a great difference in how someone interacts.

  • http://atta-boy.tumblr.com/ @dominiqueleca

    Really nice article.

    Even if I don’t agree with Jason’s conclusion. I think that naked interface will remain the exception on the AppStore and that succeeding in making a real hit app with a naked interface is really tricky.
    Smule’s Ocarina which is not mentionned is a perfect example of a mix of naked interface (the ocarina itself) with a ‘costumed’ one.

    I think that the future of apps interface (on iPhone) lays in between the naked and costumes ones. You’ll have to be as simple as possible in term of Interface but provide sufficient materials to create an atmosphere for your app.
    Earth Secrets (http://itunes.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewSoftware?id=307356331&mt=8) from the company I work for (Visuamobile) is an attempt to reach this mix of naked and costumed interface.

  • http://atta-boy.tumblr.com @dominiqueleca

    Really nice article.

    Even if I don’t agree with Jason’s conclusion. I think that naked interface will remain the exception on the AppStore and that succeeding in making a real hit app with a naked interface is really tricky.
    Smule’s Ocarina which is not mentionned is a perfect example of a mix of naked interface (the ocarina itself) with a ‘costumed’ one.

    I think that the future of apps interface (on iPhone) lays in between the naked and costumes ones. You’ll have to be as simple as possible in term of Interface but provide sufficient materials to create an atmosphere for your app.
    Earth Secrets (http://itunes.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewSoftware?id=307356331&mt=8) from the company I work for (Visuamobile) is an attempt to reach this mix of naked and costumed interface.

  • http://www.FORMationAlliance.com/ Jason Franzen

    Regarding the HOME terminology – I completely agree that words like these have special meanings and should not be taken lightly or assumed to be general enough for all situations These are the very questions I hope we can all ask when approaching a design. I think if we (designers) can offer better examples and new alternatives we stand a better chance at raising the standard for all interfaces to one where purpose and clear communication are the highest priorities.

    As an aside, consider this example: I work with a lot of architecture and real estate projects, and to this day, I still see bedrooms in new homes labeled as Master Bedroom. There are multiple connotations ot Master, and not all of them are positive. When I have propose changing these to Primary Bedrooms, I am typically told that people expect to see Master and we don’t want to retrain them to new terminology. Not very progressive.

  • http://www.FORMationAlliance.com Jason Franzen

    Regarding the HOME terminology – I completely agree that words like these have special meanings and should not be taken lightly or assumed to be general enough for all situations These are the very questions I hope we can all ask when approaching a design. I think if we (designers) can offer better examples and new alternatives we stand a better chance at raising the standard for all interfaces to one where purpose and clear communication are the highest priorities.

    As an aside, consider this example: I work with a lot of architecture and real estate projects, and to this day, I still see bedrooms in new homes labeled as Master Bedroom. There are multiple connotations ot Master, and not all of them are positive. When I have propose changing these to Primary Bedrooms, I am typically told that people expect to see Master and we don’t want to retrain them to new terminology. Not very progressive.

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