Death of a skeuomorph – or will the floppy disk outlast us all?

10 May

by brendan-nelson 10.05.12

Skeuomorphs are all around us. But don’t panic! Although a “skeuomorph” might sound like a malicious sci-fi alien, it’s far less terrifying.

A skeuomorph is a part of an object’s design that explicitly echoes an older equivalent of that object, but without serving any real functional role. When iPhones take photos they make a shutter sound that, on older cameras, was produced by an unavoidable functional mechanism. iPhones don’t have to make that noise though – they can take photos silently, so the shutter sound is an intentional design choice rather than a functional necessity. This makes it an example of skeuomorphic design.

People like skeuomorphs because they connect the new and unfamiliar with the old, well-known and comfortable. And because so much is new and unfamiliar in the world of software, skeuomorphs are particularly common in software design. One especially notorious skeuomorph in software design is the “save” icon, which is based on an old 3.5″ floppy disc:

This icon, like all skeuomorphs, started life as a functional necessity. Saving a file used to mean getting a floppy disk that looked like this and sticking it into your computer. But hardly anyone does this now, and many younger computer users will probably never see a floppy disk. It no longer plays a functional role, but lives on as a skeuomorphic icon.

For most people this isn’t a huge problem. They know the icon means “save” although it’s based on a now-obsolete object.

Yet there are others who believe that this skeuomorph must be replaced by an icon that’s more meaningful to modern people. They face a big obstacle however – what would you replace it with?

It’s not easy to come up with an answer to this question, but some have tried. Photographer David Friedman, who runs the blog Ironic Sans, proposed an alternative solution inspired by baseball:

“…instead of thinking of a file as being saved, think of your file as being in one of two states: it’s in danger, or it’s safe. And I can’t think of any icon to better represent being safe than home plate… If the latest version of your file is saved locally, it points down. If the latest version of your file is saved on a server somewhere, it points up.”

It’s not a bad idea, but it has one fatal flaw: the baseball metaphor would be completely lost on anyone living outside of north America or Japan (and even our baseball-loving British MD doesn’t think it makes much sense). Back to the drawing board!

Another recent attempt to kill off this aging skeuomorph came from open source Office alternative LibreOffice, which decided in its latest v3.5 release to do away with the floppy disk and replace it with something completely different:

How long did it take you to figure out which of these icons is “save”? Were you able to figure it out at all? If not, it’s the third one from the left – a green pointing down to a grey bar. Was that intuitive? Many people on the LibreOffice support forums didn’t think so, with lots of users trying to find out if it can be changed:

“The save icon is very unintuitive, and I just can’t get used to it. I’m constantly hovering my cursor over it to find out which icon to click on. Is there any way to change it?” – psaulm119 on the OOOsupport forum

“I don’t want to troll but whose idea was replacing the icon. The diskette icon is some kind of rule…” – Marinko Tarlać on the OpenOffice mailing list

“Our one gripe is the Save icon: we’re all for finding a replacement for the retro floppy disk, but it isn’t immediately obvious what LibreOffice’s tiny rectangle with a green arrow on top is meant to indicate…” – David Bayon in PC Pro Magazine

Once again, it’s an admirable effort – but it still demonstrates how difficult this problem is to solve.

Is the floppy disk a skeuomorph that will never die? Will this become the Fermat’s Last Theorem of UX, with generation after generation of interaction designers trying in vain to come up with a viable alternative?

But imagine we do see the death of the floppy disk in the near future. If that happens, what will replace it?

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Tags: icons skeuomorphism ux

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