With so much attention paid to Apple's new mobile software, iOS 7, it's worth noting the extent to which Microsoft spearheaded flat design. The refreshing UI of Windows 8 and Windows Phone sparked a debate around the pros and cons of skeuomorphism, helping to usher in an era where gaudy textures, visual metaphors, and decorative, oft 3-D elements became frowned upon in the digital world. Apple has removed most of these design flourishes in the software running its new iPhone 5s and 5c; even Google has trended toward flatter aesthetics.
Thanks largely to the kamikaze design efforts of Microsoft, we now live in the post-skeuomorphic world. So what does that design have to offer beyond software that's flat? Everyone seems to agree, the new trend will be software that's more physically integrated with hardware.
This week, as Microsoft prepared to launch its Surface 2 tablet, I took the opportunity to find out how the company's designers felt about leading this industry-wide design transformation. Apple's new OS, for example, leans strongly toward being what Microsoft calls "authentically digital," eschewing its legacy of skeuomorphic interface design shrouded in real-life visual metaphors. Yet, when I ask Microsoft Creative Director Ralf Groene whether it's validating that so many companies are now taking cues from Microsoft, he takes a long pause and is careful not to boast. "Um ... no," he says. "I mean, it's flattering when someone takes your idea. But what's more interesting to me is that [we have moved beyond] getting people used to PCs by using a desktop metaphor from the physical world."
"We don't need all these frames and ... I almost said wood veneers, but that wouldn't be fair," he continues, apparently holding back a subtle jab at Apple's iBooks app. "We don't need all these references to the old world. People have grown up with this technology—we can now move into next level."
What exactly that "next level" is beyond flat and veneer-less remains uncertain. Groene spends time talking up the importance of creating intuitive metaphors for wonky concepts like the cloud; he also stresses the importance of developing services that can seamlessly transition from consumption to productivity environments. But when asked what the next step after visual skeuomorphism is, Groene does indicate that it could "go more into interaction design."
It's a sentiment we've started to hear from other designers. Apple's real-world visual metaphors, for one, have arguably been replaced by interaction metaphors, which work to sync the digital and physical worlds (or industrial design with interface design). With iOS 7's Parallax feature, which imbues the system with life-like motion effects, users can physically manipulate the phone to alter its digital appearance. On the home screen, for example, as you tilt the phone back and forth, the background wallpaper will look as if it's shifting accordingly, with its icons floating on top as if on a different plane. "The way they’re reimplementing the UI framework with physics—it just feels natural," former Apple designer Loren Brichter recently told Fast Company. "They’re mimicking the real world. So in a way, the skeuomorphism, which was previously going into visual design, is now going into interaction design."
For Microsoft, we can see early hints of this transition in its Touch Cover, the pressure-sensitive keyboard attachment for its Surface tablet that measures not only what you press, but how hard you press it. As the company showed off this week, the Touch Cover is creating new opportunities for interactions between the physical and digital world—one designer yesterday referred to programs built on top of this platform as "app[s] that I can [physically] touch."
Drew Condon, an interaction designer at fitness startup RunKeeper, is optimistic about this trend, especially considering that Apple's new iPhone comes equipped with an M7 motion coprocessor, which continuously tracks motion data via the device's accelerometer, gyroscope, and compass, without comprising battery life. Condon argues that the "motion effects, dynamics, and core physics engine" of Apple's new iPhone "should make it much easier for applications to define innovative new interaction models." He smartly summarizes the pros and cons of this design direction, wondering whether mimicking real-life gravity in the digital world is another form of skeuomorphism:
There’s chatter that the layering and depth in iOS 7 is actually more skeuomorphic than before. All the screens-on-screens and glass and physics make the design more—not less—dependent on literal metaphors from the real world. It’s true; software allows us to create things independent of constraints of physical reality (there is no gravity in the matrix), but that doesn’t mean we need to reject the fact that the operators happen to live in a familiar, learned, unavoidable physical reality. There is an actual difference between ornamenting a design with stitched leather and simply admitting that light, inertia, and matter exist as fundamental forces of physics in the universe we live in. Using transparency, blurring, laying, motion, or making objects bounce off one another is not artificial, it’s natural. There is a fine line between natural and ornamentation, and that line is usually made of stitched yarn.
In other words, traditional visual metaphors, such as Apple's stitched leather and fake wood veneers, are not only unnatural, but they also impede the experience. Inversely, the experience feels both more intuitive and more natural when it includes physical interaction metaphors. It helps to bridge the gap between industrial design and software beyond simple color cues we see tying together iOS 7 and the iPhone 5c, and Windows Phone and devices like the Nokia Lumia. As Jony Ive recently explained of Apple's new iPhone, "[The] experience is defined by hardware and software working harmoniously together ... We continue to refine that experience by blurring the boundaries between the two."