Apple's 'skeuomorphic' design philosophy draws fire

Inman News

The recent management shakeups at Apple got me thinking about the traditional design elements incorporated in many real estate industry apps, and the need to create designs around the user experience. I'm more convinced than ever that less is more.

On Oct. 29, Apple announced some significant leadership changes. A handful of executives, including lead designer Jony Ive, were given additional responsibilities. The moves were aimed at streamlining departments (hardware, software and services) and increasing collaboration.

However, the big news was that Scott Forstall was leaving Apple. Forstall was the senior vice president of iOS, the company's mobile operating system. Like others, I was reminded of the Fast Company piece published a couple of months earlier entitled, "Will Apple's Tacky Software-Design Philosophy Cause A Revolt?" written by Austin Carr.

"Despite consistently glowing reviews from critics and consumers alike, iOS and OS X, Apple's operating systems which tie Macs and iPads and iPhones together, have rubbed some the wrong way in recent years with their design directions," Carr said at the time.

The article went on to examine skeuomorphism, a design technique practiced by Apple. Skeuomorphism is a design element that emulates features that were once crucial but are no longer necessary to the functionality.

"If you've ever used an Apple product, you've experienced digital skeuomorphic design: calendars with faux leather-stitching, bookshelves with wood veneers, fake glass and paper and brushed chrome," Carr observed.

"In iOS 6, the latest version of Apple's mobile operating system, Forstall recently demoed an animated paper shredder, which will be used to delete e-tickets and coupons. How many iPhone users have ever actually seen a paper shredder in real life? Is it necessary?"

After reading the article, I immediately thought of the web and the traditional design elements incorporated in the real estate industry.

I browsed dozens of industry websites that incorporated antiquated visual metaphors. I saw glossy printer icons used to indicate a printable flyer. There were uninviting camera icons for photo galleries. Calendar icons to request a showing. Are these and other similar design elements truly necessary today, or have consumers outgrown this practice?

Apple isn't the only tech titan to be accused of implementing less-than-stellar design attributes. When usability guru Jakob Nielsen put Windows 8 through the wringer, he was not impressed with the design and usability of Microsoft's new operating system.

"With the recent launch of Windows 8 and the Surface tablets, Microsoft has reversed its user interface strategy," Nielsen said. "From a traditional Gates-driven GUI style that emphasized powerful commands to the point of featuritis, Microsoft has gone soft and now smothers usability with big colorful tiles while hiding needed features."

As I wrote in a recent Inman News column, "Real estate should embrace the visual Web," responsive design and the visual Web are two trends that are gaining traction. They are vastly different approaches, but both of these styles are having an effect on our desktop and mobile strategies.

Despite their differences, both approaches are characterized by a clean user interface and a thoughtful layout. Mobile has had a significant impact on the real estate industry. Popular apps remove clutter and confusion from the design. There isn't a need for fancy, over-the-top design elements, particularly with icons and interface features.

Austin Carr sums things up by noting that " not all visual metaphors are bad. Rather, it's the excessive UI adornments of these visual metaphors that many insiders I've spoken with find distasteful and inherently confusing."

This is certainly good advice. When designing your desktop website or mobile app, less is always more and creating the design around the user experience is key.

Tom Flanagan is the director of information technology at Residential Properties Ltd. in Providence, R.I. You can contact him at tflanagan@residentialproperties.com or @tflan on Twitter.

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