One UX design trend we see popping up again and again is the mimicking of real world objects on the web. Also known as skeuomorphic design, from the greek "skéuos" meaning container or tool and "morph" meaning shape. In the online world this refers to a web object (or functionality) that retains the design, look or functional characteristics of the original.
Encourage better understanding through real-world ssociation
Used to create a visual metaphor, the main purpose of this design is to increase the familiarity and the association between the product and its real world counterpart. Visitors can thus quickly tap into shared cultural understandings from the world of real objects and things. This helps UX designers to convey complex meanings in a more straightforward manner.
Gambling sites: a practical web example
A good example of the skeuomorphic design trend can be found in gambling sites, most of which attempt to mimic real-life casinos.
To start with, there is the sound of coins; then a somewhat dark design to emulate a real casino atmosphere. Sometimes loud music puts players in the right gambling mood; and finally a 'gambler of the day' provides a constant reminder to the presence of other players in the game.
All of these casino-like elements are designed to portray the social air of a real bricks and mortar casino. However - the underlying assumption here is that online gamblers are all "transplanted" live gamblers. Is this assumption really true, then?
Do online needs differ from real world needs?
Research conducted by Cotte & Latour (2008) found that online players can be clearly distinguished from real-live casino players and have different needs.
To test their theory they conducted thirty interviews comparing Las Vegas gamblers with online gamblers.
The results were quite astonishing:
- Casino gamblers showed negative emotions towards online gambling, primarily because online gambling lacks the desired social interactions of the real-world casino.
- Conversely, online gamblers also perceived this lack of social connectedness in virtual gambling - but for them it was a positive characteristic, and one of the crucial reasons why they were happy with their choice to gamble from the comfort of their home.
It was that lack of social connectedness that led them to choose the online environment in the first place.
Observation: social connection is positive for real gamblers. but negative for online gamblers
This intense and ongoing cycle of social interaction is what helps physical casino gamblers reignite their desire to gamble. In contrast, online gamblers do not go through the same stages of emotional preparation when they play online.
If we take our example back to UX design then, we arrive at the understanding that some web visitors intentionally choose the digital media in order to escape from real world engagement. So, casino-like, skeuomorphic design elements on a website could actually harm the visitors' experience, as they are looking for a way to escape from social interactions and from the inherent emotional intensity of the real casino.
Conclusion: research your audience before investing in skeuomorphic design
Because digital media is sometimes used to provides a route of escape from social connection, it may not be so important to re-create "interactive qualities" for some types of websites.
In short, it is extremely important to learn who your visitors are and what they need or want. Are they social beasts or loners? Do they look for real flesh-and-blood social contact or prefer to just tap the screen? Users must be given the opportunity to disconnect if they want to, as interactions often demand cognitive resources that some people may not be ready to invest!
Cotte, J., & Latour, K. A. (2009). Blackjack in the kitchen: Understanding online versus casino gambling. Journal of Consumer Research, 35(5), 742-758.
Sanfey, Alan G., et al. "The neural basis of economic decision-making in the ultimatum game." Science 300.5626 (2003): 1755-1758.
Premack, D., & Woodruff, G. (1978). Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? Behavioral and brain sciences, 1(04), 515-526.