App Design is Industrial Design

Few weeks ago, while discussing design and user experience for new major version of our flagship product — a tablet/mobile app — we run into the following question: what is the competence for such a thing designer? So far, in search for the right one we routinely inquire various “Web & the rest” design studios.

But suddenly, much to my own surprise, I said — well, I almost cried — we need an industrial designer! A person, I explained hastily to my surprised colleagues, who, you know, works with real, physical matter and designs things like FM radio front panels or old car fascia, with clicking knobs and squeaking sliders.

The “industrial designer” idea was “fast thinking,” intuitive answer. But is there a rationale behind this suggestion?

I think that it is, and that it is pretty solid.

App Design is not Web Design

The fact that most app designers (and many app programmers) come from the Web world is hardly surprising. After all, many apps are just continuation of Web by other means. However, when Web designers bring their Web interface paradigm to the apps realm with them, the results are rarely convincing. Because, and this is where the “post PC world” is perhaps most misunderstood, the rise of touch interfaces does not mean straightforward exchanging mouse clicks for finger-tips taps.

What is Touch User Interface Like

Touch interface is required dynamic in its immediate response to user inputs, and to feature properly applied animations that orient user in apps and system internal organisation. Dragging and swiping make you feel you manipulate true physical objects, even though the space they live in can exhibit a bit unnatural physics. Indeed, the lack so far of any tactile feedback also makes this experience feel somehow rudimentary.

Comparing to Virtual Reality

However, as in the case of computer games, virtual reality or artificial senses, humans’ (and mice’s) minds are quite capable to control these fake but consistent artificial worlds.

Comparing to Web User Interface

While touch-environment apps navigation and experience are naturally dynamic, Web pages use different user interface paradigm. Web pages, or their parts, do not feature dynamic transitions from one to another — instead, new static presentation simply replaces the old one with no transitional effect. This is coherent with the fact that Web sites navigation is controlled by clicks — actions with no time span — and not by gestures — dynamic actions with duration. Animations in Web pages are rarely anything more then annoying eye-candies.

As different the navigation patterns are, the same way differs competencies of the respective designers. Industrial design leaning ones for app designer, typography oriented for Web one.

Genre, Not Technology

When we compare apps vs. Web pages design approaches here, we must keep in mind that it is genre, not technology, that is investigated. Modern Web technologies of HTML5 family (HTML5, CSS3, javascript, more widely SVG &c.) provide all necessary means for creating touch-environment apps in the way these apps are explicated in this blog. Thus when Web design is mentioned, it means Web sites design, not the underlying technology.

A Step Too Far: Skeuomorphic Design Misuse

A word must also be said on a possible step too far: on misuse of the dreaded skeuomorphic design. Industrial design and physical world metaphors must not be taken literally to photocopying natural surfaces or material patterns into app design — they have their use, but not in sheepish verbatim, or pixel perfect, replicas of physical objects and their behaviour all over user interface.

Some Conclusions

“Virtual reality light,” not “like Web” or “real world photocopy” is, I believe, the right formula for touch environment app design. And, Industrial Designer is the right competence for a person to model it.

Fast backward to our original discussion: how did we decide? We decided to proceed with the design ourselves, to better understand — using our wide experience with using and creating apps — what exactly we want from the new app design. Once we reach beyond our design imagination, we will start inquiring professional designers again, equipped with better, deeper questions based in much clearer understanding of our needs.

PS: Some also believe that the recent changes in Apple top management (Scott Forstall leaving, and Jonathan Ive promoted) were, among other reasons, a result of a conflict over proper industrial design use (that includes skeuomorphism overuse). Industrial design lies in Apple success foundations and making the industrial-designer-in-chief responsible for the overall user interface and experience makes deep sense then… especially in the Post-PC world.

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