This is not a fork.
If it’s not a fork, what is it? When is a fork not just a fork? What could it be?
Creative professionals are obsessed with the nature of objects. When working within an established convention or design pattern, our goal is to make an object behave as users expect. Other times we’re creating something fresh – a new object that has little or no precedent.
Surrealism and the Representation of Objects
René Magritte was a major figure of Surrealism, an artistic and philosophical movement that challenged our notions of what objects could be. In his most famous work, La trahison des images (The Treachery of Images) Magritte created Surrealism’s most literal statement by captioning a painting of a pipe with the caption “This is not a pipe.
The paradox of La trahison des images raises all kinds of issues about the nature of representation. If it’s not a pipe, then, what is it? Can we trust our perception? Can we trust the artist? If it’s not a pipe, then what could it be?
In Magritte’s aesthetic environment, representation itself was the subject matter. As designers, we must also account for utility. Objects have utility that’s embodied in their affordances. The handle of a fork affords holding. The spikes of a fork afford capturing pieces of food. These two affordances together make a fork an ideal object for getting food from one place to another, for instance from a plate to your mouth.
Today, designers operate in increasingly digital environments, where layers of mediation between objects and our perception are unavoidable. We are, in a certain sense, accidental surrealists.
Digital objects are represented visually on a screen. They may be manipulated via touch interfaces or a cursor (a digital object that is itself a representation of a pointing device) but the screen persists.
And due to the treachery of images, the screen lies - to designer and user alike. The chasm of indirect manipulation cannot be fully overcome. No matter how much a digital fork might look like a physical fork, it will never put physical food into your physical mouth.
Donald Norman, one of the founding thinkers of the UX discipline, describes this as “the gulfs of execution and evaluation.” The gulf of execution is the difference between user intentions and the behavior afforded by an object. The gulf of evaluation is the difference between the signals an object provides and user interpretations of these signals.
Designers who want both of these gulfs to be as small as possible, might employ a Skueomorph – a fancy term for the class of objects that attempt to faithfully represent their real-world counterparts. Skueomorphs signify by means of design cues – visually represented affordances or visual ornaments. The net result is one of the oldest UX design best practices around – make something look like what it is or does.
But are there situations when skueomorphism is not an appropriate design solution? Yes. A notable recent example is Apple’s OS X Lion Calendar application:
As John Siracusa of Ars Technica points out in his review of Lion, the skueomorphic affordances of the Calendar app (the leather binding, the “torn off page” appearance,) create an expectation of direct manipulation but the actual interface doesn’t support it.
Just as we can’t evaluate digital objects simply on the realism of their representation, we can’t evaluate digital designs simply on their usability. Usability is vitally important, but so is the visceral connection users have with a digital object.
The most profound effect of the touch era is that it has closed the gulfs of execution and evaluation. Today’s users are being conditioned to expect a visceral connection to digital objects much more than they used to.
Crossing the chasm
So as designers, how do we respond to these new user expectations? How do we solve the problem of representation? How do we overcome the twin gulfs of execution and evaluation?
To begin with, we must have empathy in abundance. It’s a given that we must empathize with our users, but we must also empathize with objects. We must elevate our concern for the visceral quality of objects to the same level of reverence we have for the usability of objects. It’s no longer enough for an object to just be merely usable, it must also feel good to use it.
Of course, one way of accomplishing this is by creating original digital environments, populated with original objects, with their own digital affordances and characteristics. But that’s a rare opportunity.
Usually a digital environment will have some mix of the novel and the representational. For guidance here, designers can turn to another founder of the UX discipline, Bruce “Tog” Tognazzini who offers some guiding principles for creating objects, both physical and digital.
To set up these guidelines, here are a few observations Tog has made about the physical world:
• “Possibilities are limited, making the world predictable.”
• “The world is populated with consistent, predictable objects.”
• “Objects can be easily perceived, discriminated and manipulated.”
It makes a lot of sense. As humans, we’re conditioned to the physical world from birth and we are adept at perceiving patterns, making the natural environment we live in a pretty stable, predictable place.
But in human-constructed environments we’re making up the rules as we go along. This holds true for architecture, art, craft, and media and this problem is especially acute in digital environments.
That brings us to the digital component of Tog’s framework:
• “Reflect the illusion of the interface, not the realities of the hardware.”
This is why touch-screen interfaces are so revolutionary – they offer a much richer palette for representation and near-direct manipulation than other input methods, and the hardware fades into the conceptual backplane. If the conceit, or metaphor of an interface is skueomorphic, make visual and behavioral attributes of the UI consistent with the analogous object in the physical world.
• “When possible, evolve objects, rather than starting from scratch.”
Often, skueomorphs are a good design choice because they have affordances users have been conditioned to from birth. If they can be cross-applied to digital representation without breaking down, they have an advantage in usability and comfort.
• “Build on an existing visual/behavioral language.”
If a visual/behavioral language is already established, why disrupt it when you can (ahem) leverage it. Designs that do this will feel authentic.
• “Invent new objects, with new appearances, for new user behaviors, and for resulting behaviors.”
If there is no physical world analog for a desired behavior, don’t force fit a skueomorph when one doesn’t exist. This is your chance! Create something wholly new!
• Multiplex meanings.
This concept is borrowed from architecture. We aren’t only good pattern recognizers, we’re very good at ordering and classifying objects according to patterns. Among the thousands of makes and models of cars, planes and boats, we immediately recognize that a car is not a plane or a boat. This gives us the creative freedom we need to thrive as designers. We needn’t (and often shouldn’t) make something look precisely like other objects of its class, or a physical world analog. We can create a digital object that improves on the physical one!
Now back to our fork. Can a fork be something more than what we’ve always believed it to be (and still be a fork)? I say yes! And I, for one, can’t wait to see what new “fork” some undiscovered but brilliant designer invents.