Evangelizing Mainframe
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What’s Skeuomorphism and Why Should I Care?

As all real mainframers know, screens should be green and interfaces should be text based!
OK, that’s probably a huge exaggeration, but it should have got your attention! What I’m implying is that user interfaces have changed, and are changing even faster these days as younger people take an interest in mainframes and expect user interfaces similar to what they have on their laptops, tablets and smartphones.

A second driver is the need to provide end users with access to applications through a browser. They need to be able to see fairly quickly what’s going on and, in order to do that, they need a recognizable interface.

For browsers, we’re probably familiar with using Asynchronous JavaScript and XML (AJAX) as a way of sending only changed data on a page, rather than completely refreshing the whole page—and so reducing network traffic. You might be less familiar with separating the actual user interface (UI) itself from the business logic behind it. In technical terms, these are known as the view model and the data model. To make this work as effectively as possible, some people are using Model View ViewModel (MVVM), which is a framework or architectural pattern coming originally from Microsoft, but now extended to include JavaScript MVVM. You can get a clearer idea of what can be done from knockoutjs.com. The site describes itself as “simplifying dynamic JavaScript UIs by applying the Model-View-ViewModel (MVVM) pattern.” If you’re interested in that kind of thing, there’s also prototypejs.org, a site describing itself as “a foundation for ambitious Web user interfaces.” They go on to say: “Prototype takes the complexity out of client-side Web programming.”

But I digress. So what is this thing called skeuomorphism? Basically, it’s making one thing look like something else—like making the metal on the side of a ship look like it was made of wood, so the new ship looks like a much older type of ship. So what’s that got to do with computers? Well, it’s a way of making the digital interface look like a paper one, for example. You often see it with calendar applications that look like desktop paper calendars. The GUI emulates real physical objects that the user will be familiar with. Your phone’s camera probably appears to have a shutter that opens and closes and makes a clicking sound when a photo is taken. There’s no need for it, but this is another example of skeuomorphism—making your phone seem more like an older (and familiar) style camera.
So, including skeuomorphism in a UI design is a good idea because it makes an unfamiliar interface look like something familiar—and, therefore, its use becomes more intuitive.

The arguments against its use is that people with other cultural heritages might not be familiar with the object, so they won’t find the interface easy to use. Or, perhaps, the device being emulated is so old-fashioned that the user has never used one. Plus they use up a lot of screen space. And, well, they’re just old-fashioned! On a PC, we’re familiar the diskette icon being used for the Save command.
However, many younger users have never seen or used a diskette. The same can happen with other skeuomorph metaphors.

So, if you’re designing new UIs, using well-chosen skeuomorphs can be a good idea. And it can often be a quick and easy way of ensuring user familiarity with what the interface is designed to do, and get people working with it straight away. Just be aware that the design might need updating from time-to-time to ensure the currency of the interface.

Trevor Eddolls is CEO at iTech-Ed Ltd., an IT consultancy. For many years, he was the editorial director for Xephon’s Update publications and is now contributing editor to the Arcati Mainframe Yearbook. Eddolls has written three specialist IT books, and has had numerous technical articles published. He currently chairs the Virtual IMS and Virtual CICS user groups.

Posted: 2/19/2013 1:01:01 AM by Trevor Eddolls

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