Okay, here’s a new vocabulary word for you: skeuomorphism.

And believe it or not, it’s a Thing.

Skeuomorphism has several definitions. Basically it's something archaic and unneeded in a design. Our culture is full of them. It’s like how architect Howard Roark describes the Parthenon in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead: “copies in steel and concrete of copies in plaster of copies in marble of copies in wood.”

So what does that have to do with IT?

When people first started using computers — particularly PCs — skeuomorphism was used deliberately to get people familiarized with these new devices. Excel looked like a classic spreadsheet. Calendars looked like Daytimers. Contact files looked like Rolodexes. See how simple it is? You know how to use these things! Don’t be afraid!

However, as time went on, computers got more processing power and better resolution. But instead of using these new capabilities to develop better, more powerful applications, people started using them to design even more realistic interfaces for the applications, with shadows, appropriate glare and other lighting effects, even more detailed imagery for icons, appropriate sound effects like the clicking of cameras and of keys, and on and on.

Moreover, some of these design choices were actually starting to get in the way of using the application. Sure, when PCs first came out, it made sense to click on the picture of the floppy disk to save a “file” (which is, itself, a skeuomorphism). But nowadays, you’ve got employees who’ve never seen a floppy disk, and the symbol is no longer intuitive for them, meaning it needs to be explained — which sort of defeats the purpose of having a skeuomorphic interface in the first place. (Incidentally, did you know that 5 1/4'” floppy disks are that size because they were first conceived of in a bar and they were the size of the cocktail napkins? Really!)

This became even more of a problem when mobile devices came along, bringing all those same tired old limitations with them, in the name of “usability.” Those incredibly detailed icons got really hard to see on a teeny-weeny phone screen. And in an age where people are communicating with each other using two thumbs, we’re still using a keyboard layout where it’s said (true or not) that it was originally designed to slow people down because the mechanical stalks of a typewriter got tangled up if people typed too fast.

Ironically, one of the biggest offenders in this whole skeuomorphism thing has been Apple, which has used detailed textures and backgrounds for many of its apps, and has even come under criticism for it. In fact, believe it or not, there was a big schism in the company over skeuomorphism, and it recently decided it was going to move away from its skeuomorphistic past and into a more flat future — following Microsoft’s lead with user interfaces such as Metro. Yes, you read right — Microsoft is now considered to be doing more cutting-edge design than Apple.

So now the design aesthetic is going the other way — toward simple. (Which we like.) Eliminate the extraneous clutter that looks nice but takes up space and processing time and doesn’t scale well to different form factors. Beautiful, detailed, photorealism is making way for elegant, simple, and flat. (In fact, Vanity Fair makes a pretty good case that app design is about the only design change we’ve seen in the past twenty years.)

And this is where you come in. When you’re designing something, whether it’s a form, an application, a process — think about why you’re doing something the way you are. Are you putting in lines for people to write on? Are you assuming an 8 ½ x 11 piece of paper? Is there a way that the information people are entering can be repurposed to another application without them having to retype it? Are you assuming a two-day response window because that’s how long interoffice mail took in the day of yellow envelopes with all the names crossed out on the front?

“The work environment of 1997 is not the work environment of 2013. Social, mobile, web and cloud have unleashed a tidal wave of digital communication — potential business records — that the skeuomorphic experience of many RM tools simply cannot address. The majority of information workers are no longer n00bs when it comes to engaging with electronic content. Yet many vendors continue to impose the mental construct of paper on a digital-first workforce,” writes Forrester analyst Cheryl McKinnon. “How can enterprises and their solution providers fully embrace the opportunities for innovation with automated classification or categorization when the user experience is still wired for folders, trucks and trash bins?”

There’s a story about a young bride who wanted to learn to cook a roast, so she asked her mom, who told her, you cut the ends off the roast, put the roast in the pan, and cook it for so long at such-and-such a temperature. And she asked her mom why she cut the ends off, and her mom said she didn’t know, but that was how her mom had taught her. So they went to Grandma, and asked her, and she said she didn’t know, but that was how her mom had taught her. So they went to Great-Grandma, and she said, oh, because we had a small oven and a whole roast wouldn’t fit.

Make sure that in your design, you’re not cutting the ends off the roast.

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