Skeuomorphic design is dead, long live skeuomorphism

I know, I know — a blog post on skeuomorphism ? What is it, 2012?

I’m not talking about Skeuomorphic design (where digital things look like real-world things e.g. your bin icon looking like a ... well… bin), I’m talking about skeuomorphism in the way users think about your product in relation to other products in the marketplace.

Skeuomorphic design

In the beginnings of human computer interaction (HCI) we helped users along by employing visual metaphors via skeuomorphism to aid comprehension, some of which may be alien to younger readers:

  • Ah, a folderfor me to put filesin, like in my filing cabinet

  • Oh, this is a desktop so it’s where I put things I would have on the top of my desk

  • This spreadsheet looks like my ledger, so I know how to use it

  • If I hit this floppy disk picture, the file will be saved to my floppy disk

Sometimes these went a little bit too far, Microsoft Bob anybody?, but for the most part they served their purpose well.

Microsoft’s Bob — Click the clock on the wall to set the system time  Source

Microsoft’s Bob — Click the clock on the wall to set the system time Source

Now that users, for the most part, understand computer interaction paradigms we can flatten our designs, use fewer sign-posting icons and images and simplify language e.g. to ‘close’ rather than “use your mouse to click the x button”. Less skeuomorphic design.

Skeuomorphism lives

But, skeuomorphism still lives in the metaphors we use to help understand unfamiliar products, or perhaps more aptly analogies to existing products.

There are so many news articles claiming the latest tech start up is “Uber, but for {noun}” or “The Tinder of {noun}”. If you’ve been involved with pitching, you’ve probably even heard some founders use these phrases themselves.

“Oh, it’s like Uber for…”

Whenever I’m travelling outside of Oceania and tell someone I work for SEEK, they understandably have no idea what it is (best guess is a dating app — seek and you shall find… a mate?). When I describe us they will ultimately confirm their comprehension with a phrase “Oh, like {insert local employment site}?”.

Using skeumorphisms to your advantage

Use it to explain how something works, but don’t use a competitor. Whenever someone complains about the content of a job ad, and blames us, I explain to them “we are a marketplace, like eBay — eBay isn’t selling anything. They are just a platform to connect sellers (hirers) with buyers (candidates). You don’t yell at eBay for selling a bad product, you report the seller — do the same here”. Without this analogy, people still struggle to understand what we mean by ‘marketplace’ and think we are just deflecting blame that we should be owning.

These can be used internally when getting stakeholders on board with your idea — either informally in conversations or perhaps formally in a Solution Position Statement:

“For [target audience] who [need / opportunity] the [product / feature name] is a solution that [key benefit]. Unlike [key competitor] our products [primary differentiation].”

e.g. when SEEK started- For employers who need to hire staffSEEK is an online marketplace where they can advertise positions. Unlike newspapersjobs can be posted at any time, for less money, and reach more candidates.

Skeuomorphism will be used in the market to help users understand your product. Even if you don’t explicitly use it yourself in advertising (as this can be a risky proposition to remind your audience of your competitors) — users are going to use these when explaining your product to others, or say it back to your brand on social media and even in research.

I’ve heard this first hand in face to face research sessions when exploring a — at the time- new product at SEEK — SEEK Company Reviews.

“Oh, like Glassdoor?”

Be prepared how you are going to handle this in research. If you say ‘yes’ you are biasing the participant with expectations of how the product will work, and potentially priming their answers. You can:

  • Ignore it and move by

  • Ask “why do you say that?”

  • Use it to explore their use of the competitor. “Tell me about {mentioned competitor}. What do you use them for? When do you use them?”

Also, consider how you are going to handle this statement in market, and make sure everyone knows the company line:

  • Ignore it

  • Hark back to your Solution Position Statement (“yes, but unlike {competitor} we {primary differentiation}”)

  • Address it with stats (Yes, but we actually have more {reviews} than them)

Then, every person, from Social Media to being asked over a beverage at a BBQ on the weekend, behaves in the same way in responding to these comparisons.

Read more about Solution Position Statements here