Skeuomorphs in Software: Making Sense of our Applications Through Matter

by Maranke Wieringa

Our interfaces are more often than not visualized through skeuomorphs and/or interface metaphors.  Skeuomorphs are often regarded as redundant ornaments which used to serve a purpose in the original medium, but are purposeless in their remediated form. Interface metaphors, on the other hand, aim to provide a model for the user on the basis of partial similarity. This article follows Gessler  who argues that skeuomorphs are material metaphors. This allows us to regard skeuomorphs not as redundant interface elements, but as expressive and meaningful portions of the interface. Moreover, it becomes possible to take into account Katherine Hayles’ notion of the material metaphor which regards the traffic between the representation and the artifact at stake. In this essay, I loosely base myself on Marianne van den Boomen’s (2014) method. Like Van den Boomen, I will draw upon various disciplines like semiotics, HCI, ANT and material culture studies to form my mixed methodology, and/or research perspective.

I provide an exploratory approach to skeuomorphs and interface metaphors, from an interdisciplinary standpoint of material culture studies and software studies. By doing so, new insight in the importance of matter for applications and software is obtained. I take one element of the skeuominimalist Business Calendar 2 application as an illustration: the year calendar.

(Material) metaphors, myths and legitimacy

Gessler (1998) argues that skeuomorphs can function as material metaphors. It is important to note that his conception of a material metaphor might not the same as Hayles’ (2002). While Hayles uses the term to refer to “the traffic between words and physical artifacts, it is unclear whether Gessler uses it in an anthropological sense, or whether he refers to them as conventional metaphors alluding to matter. I believe that both may well be possible and will expand on both options below.

If we are to regard skeuomorphs as conventional metaphors which happen to allude to matter, it is because the skeuomorphs argue that they are matter-like. Such metaphors help the user create certain (mental) models of the system (Erickson, 1992, pp. 66–67; Norman, 1998, p. 17). This is, according to Erickson (1992, p. 68), the purpose of interface metaphors: to help the user understand how the system works. There may, however, be much more to them than the facilitation of the mental model. According to Van Driel (2001, pp. 30–31) the introduction of new media follows the ARIA-pattern. A new medium first amazes its audience, then resistance to the medium might arise, after which it will imitate other, already legitimated, media and then it will be accepted as an authentic medium. Skeuomorphs then, might not only serve as mental models, but as a legitimizing, imitational move to accrue acceptance for the medium, by ‘remediating’ other media/objects (Bolter & Grusin, 2002).

If we are to regard skeuomorphs – like the year view - as material metaphors (in Hayles’ (2002) conception of the term), however, then we are to emphasize the transfer between a word/concept/symbol and a physical artifact. The material metaphor places its emphasis on the act of transference itself, instead of its aftereffect (as a regular metaphor would), without disregarding this aftereffect entirely (Hayles, 2002; Van den Boomen, 2014, pp. 50–51). The aftereffect of the transference between the interface element and a physical artifact that is inherent to Hayles’ material metaphor and the conventional metaphor, can be approached through Barthes’ conception of the myth. Gross et al. (2014, p. 59) note that “[t]he use of the skeuomorph, then, is a reference to these actual properties, attempting to transfer these properties to the newer material.” In order to make this transfer, there is a mythological move, in which the digital phenomenon is first emptied out of meaning, and then imbued with a mythological concept, to form a second-order sign. Here again, we see skeuomorphs employed as a legitimizing move.

A case-study: the Business Calendar 2’s year view

I will briefly display how the above can be discerned in one skeuomorphic feature of the Business Calendar 2 application: its year view (fig. 1). This view clearly references the traditional, paper, year calendar. While this view allows the user to click on a month name to go to month view, or allows them to expose the appointments of a particular day by clicking on that date, these affordances are hard to act upon: especially the date numbers are so small, it is virtually impossible to correctly click on the desired date at first try. Thus, the year view’s main raison d'être is expressive, not functional.

The year view of the Business Calendar 2 application thus is emptied out of its meaning (‘year view’ of the calendar) and is imbued with a concept, in a Barthesian way. This concept relates to the remediative strategy: it aims to legitimize the Business Calendar 2 as a proper medium, by having it imitate its predecessors. In other words, the concept with which the second order sign is imbued is that of ‘a real calendar’ or something along these lines. Its rhetoric arguing that we are familiar with year calendars, so if we include a year view in the calendar – even if it is not a very functional one – than it is a ‘real calendar.’

Conclusion

It was found that while skeuomorphs are redundant or superfluous, as they are non-functional, their materiality does have a particular agenda. On the one hand they may serve as mental models for their users, and on the other they play a role in a particular legitimating strategy of the application/medium. Either way, it becomes clear that we need a measure of (imitated) materiality in order to make sense of our interfaces. There is, then, a purpose to purposelessness of digital ornamentation.

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Maranke Wieringa is an MA student of the media & performance program at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, and a junior researcher at Utrecht Data School. She specializes in software studies and data analysis. Maranke holds a BA in cultural studies from Radboud University, and participated in the Radboud Honours Academy.

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