Should UI Designers Simulate Real Life?

Should UI Designers Simulate Real Life?

Mike Tyson
Apr 1, 2011

As we were looking through screenshots of Apple's upcoming Lion release, there was a particular image that seemed to stand beyond the rest. It was Apple's redesigned iCal app. Gone was the sleek interface interface which seemed to hold the information perfectly. In its place, Apple created a notebook-like interface which references a physical object, rather than creating an abstract form from scratch. An interesting debate arose whether or not referencing/simulating real life scenarios was an appropriate way to approach a user interface design.

We once attended a lecture featuring psychologist Slavko Milekic who spoke of the advent of new technologies and the user interfaces which accompany them. He discovered a highly curious trend that continued to come up. When a new technology was invented, (for example, the Adobe Flash platform) even if its capabilities were very sophisticated, the user interfaces always tended to reference the past. It was as if we were afraid to completely push through into an uncharted territory and were consequently restricting the initial capabilities of the technology. He gave an interesting example of an early design of the Guggenheim Museum's website. They spent an enormous amount of time and money in photographing the museum so when users navigated the website, it was as if they were walking through the museum in real life. Sounds great right? Not really. The site limited you entirely to the actions you would be able to perform if you were there in the physical environment. You couldn't walk through walls, you could jump up floors, etc... Which begs the question why bother creating it at all? An improved version of this might be Google's new Art Project which allows users to jump all over a museum in "street view" while zooming very closely into artworks.

But lets jump back to Apple's current dilemma (which may or may not be a result of Jobs' leave of absence). Why would we need our digital calendar to replicate that of a physical one? The potential for a digital calendar is nearly limitless while a physical approach is much more confining. A similar example could be seen in various iPad/iPhone apps such as Notes which even replicates the physical Pad, down to the handwritten font. Apple has done some phenomenal UI work before which is why it leaves us so puzzled that they revert back to these physical forms.

What is your opinion on the matter? Do you prefer the simulated designs because it makes you more comfortable to use? Or would you prefer a more abstracted interface which is built to best display and structure the information?

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