Skeuomorphism, e-editions, and tablets
I remember the first time I saw one of those Flash-based "page turning" interfaces. I was sitting in a conference room in Minneapolis and an excited sales guy was pitching his company's tool, which could take newspaper pages and put them online as a print replica, saving us from all that messy Web stuff. He was so earnest and proud.
I was horrified. The Web isn't print. The Internet is a new medium with unique strengths. The whole idea was just ... sacrilege.
I've changed my point of view somewhat over the years, for several reasons:
- There's more than one way to do it. Single-product thinking is an old habit from the last century that we really need to get over. There is no requirement that publishers choose between Web, e-edition, print-derived tablet versions, and something that looks like it should be hosted by Alex Trebek. When possible, let the users choose for themselves, individually.
- People like skeuomorphic design in general. It's why desktop computers have "desktops" of their own. And trash cans. And folders. It makes the product feel comforting and familiar, and can contribute to ease of use. Personally, I blew away my Kindle Fire's wood-grained "bookshelf" launch screen in favor of an Android launcher, but others have different preferences.
- Some people like print. Its limitations can feel like features. It's fixed in time. It's linear. You can flip through it and feel like you've had an overview. It has a beginning and an end. It's not like the Web, where you just keep going until you're exhausted. And there is value in the editorial judgment that is reflected in page design. We don't all live on first-in/first-out real-time queues, breathlessly following the latest news.
- I don't feel threatened by print. I understand that others do, but I'm fortunate to work at a company where that battle is over.
One thing that helped me change my mind is what happened when we built Bluffton Today in 2005 as a website focused entirely on community conversation. We didn't plan to put news online at all (the paper was daily and free at the time). When we ran into some delivery barriers in a couple of gated communities, we added a PDF-derived E-edition. I was quite surprised by the intensity of use and the positive community feedback. Users liked the E-edition and the website, and used them for different purposes.
So I haven't changed my point of view that the Web isn't print and the Internet is a new medium with unique strengths.
In fact, I think adaptive HTML5 Web layouts on the "everything just works" principle ultimately will eclipse smartphone and tablet apps. But eclipse doesn't mean replace. And so long as we're producing a print product and making a digital replica is cheap and easy, I think it makes perfect sense to offer it as a product and let the consumer choose.
We're not currently offering any Flipboard-like interfaces on our websites. It's not a matter of design, but of simple economics. While we have all the necessary data to drive an algorithmically defined interface, we have an awful lot of plates spinning already, and one more set of potentially incompatible advertising delivery challenges just isn't something we need to take on right now. Maybe later. For the moment, I'd rather focus on making HTML5 Web pages adaptive and finger-friendly for touch interfaces.