One of the more recent trends in UI design has been the attempt to make the digital appear analog. It arguably started with the NeXT OS, which had photorealistic icons and used clever grayscale techniques to give three-dimensional depth to windows, scroll bars and other elements. Today, Apple's iPhone compass app looks like it might be more at home on an 18th-century clipper ship, and the voice recorder app looks at home in a recording studio somewhere around 1950 -- tap on the "microphone" and the VU meter will react much as it would in real life. Google's added subtle 3D effects to Android's app scrolling. I haven't thought that much about this trend until I recently spent some time using Windows Phone 7.
It's perhaps a minor issue but one of the things I like about WP7 is that it's not a digital UI pretending to be analog. The user interface is flat. There are no photorealistic depictions of real world items, no shading, and no 3D effects. Everything is conveyed through the use of fonts, shapes and color. It's digital and it's proud. Overall, I like it, and the more I use it, the more I prefer it. Returning to a more digital approach means Microsoft was able to rethink the nature of applications and services and create the concept of hubs, where like functions meet similar functions without the need for separate applications. It takes some getting used to, but the more I use it, the more natural it feels.
There's a basic cleverness to replicating analog functions in digital form, but I fear we're going to bring more and more limits of the analog into the digital world as we attempt to recreate atoms with bits. While aesthetics are often personal, replicating the analog often means interfaces lose key benefits of being digital. For example, most desktop interfaces still use hierarchical file folders that mimic analog filing cabinets, right down to the cute file folder metaphor. It's a clever representation, but being digital means I shouldn't actually have to file anything, ever -- I just need the ability to retrieve documents. Perhaps it's nostalgic to see writing applications that mimic paper with loose-leaf holes and light blue lines, but I prefer a paper white screen with crisp black text. Gratuitous UI elements actually detract from the experience by taking up space -- which makes the writing process harder.
While the analog look is both welcoming and familiar, it's a trend I hope doesn't continue.
Don't get me wrong, there's a fine line between experiences that are uniquely digital and those that so overdo the digital motif they look like they came directly from the Starship Enterprise. Implementing a digital user experience well requires time to figure out what makes sense and how form and function should complement each other.
While the analog look is both welcoming and familiar, it's a trend I hope doesn't continue. If I want to use a moleskine notebook, a yellow legal pad or an ornate wooden compass, I will. Let's let digital be digital and keep the analog stuff where it belongs -- outside in the physical world.
Michael Gartenberg is a partner at Altimeter Group. His weblog can be found at gartenblog.net. Contact him at gartenberg AT gmail DOT com. Views expressed here are his own.