The New Skeuomorphism is in Your Voice Assistant

Google Home and Amazon Echo

Yay, we killed Skeuomorphism!

Not too long ago humanity left behind its skeuomorphic interfaces. We became accustomed to the idea of buttons to tap on screens and swipes that moved content right or left. We learned that content could be out of view but within reach. We graduated to a flatter, more abstract representation that still inherits spatial metaphors and relationships but that are communicated more subtly and implicitly. We stripped our visual interfaces off their ornamentations to allow a more authentic approach to visual aesthetics.

Skeuomorphism means using real world references and metaphors on interfaces to enhance their comprehensibility. A skeuomorphic button looks like a physical switch, a skeuomorphic canvas can have a wood texture.

Killing skeuomorphism made us feel very smart about ourselves. We finally don’t need glossy buttons to understand something is tappable!

Skeuomorphism is not dead

But is skeuomorphism really dead? Well, no. Skeuomorphism is alive and this time it is invisible.

The new skeuomorphism lives inside your voice assistant: Your Amazon Echo, Google Home, your phone. You call it Siri, Alexa, or Cortana.

The human assistant as metaphor

The voice assistant pretends to be a bodiless human. It speaks to us like a person. We call it names. It throws in a joke every once in a while. We attribute emotions and feelings to our voice assistant. It defines itself as female or male. The sound of a voice assistant imitates human sound and intonation.

The articulation of the metaphor of a human assistant and the way voice assistants mimic humans is literal. Just as buttons look literally like button on the skeuomorphic visual interface, the voice assistant that sounds literally like a human is a skeuomorphism.

Voice is the interface

At the heart of Alexa, Siri, and Cortana are AI-enhanced algorithms that perform searches, execute commands, and read out results. Voice is the input and output channel for these algorithms. Voice is the interface going forward with home automation, autonomous vehicles, and smart objects.

With voice as interface the topic of the psychology of robotics becomes relevant. Similar to conversational interfaces, voice can trigger an emotional response by suggesting interaction with another human being. The emotional attachment, the willingness to make the leap of faith into a metaphor is part of the skeuomorphism in the voice assistant.

Machinery as metaphors for visual interfaces

Skeuomorphic visual interfaces use references and metaphors from the physical world. References were typically made to known tactile surfaces. Such surfaces were control panels known from heavy machinery or common domestic switches. Early computer interfaces were quite literal in their use of these references.

As computer became “personal”, metaphors from the office context were introduced. The desktop metaphor is the first instantiation we had to bridge from the abstract to the familiar. When we went to more personal mobile devices with touch screens, we needed more detail in the exact behavior to make objects complete and accessible.

De-skeuomorphizing visual interfaces

People have eventually become familiarized with visual interfaces to a degree that made using literal surface metaphors obsolete. Affordability and avoidances of visual interface components are comprehensible without skeuomorphism. The definition of the word “button” has transitioned from an exclusive physical domain to a virtual one as well.

Even though stripped of skeuomorphism, today’s visual interfaces still use the physical surface as metaphor. A button still makes reference to a physical switch — just without being overly literal.

De-skeuomorphizing voice interfaces

The value of the voice assistant is not determined by its level of realism in mimicking the human. Its value is providing solutions to human problems in its role as personal assistant, knowledge source, controller, and access point to services.

There is nothing wrong with initially applying skeuomorphism in designing voice interfaces. But we will see a trend of de-skeuomorphization of voice interfaces just as we witnessed it for visual interfaces. This will happen as soon as people comprehend voice as a natural way of interfacing with products and services and have developed the corresponding behavioral authenticity. The de-skeuomorphized voice interface will be less literal in mimicking humans and be more focussed on the value it brings to humans.

Biomimicry and skeuomorphism

Skeuomorphism is a surface layer and addresses human interaction with a product or service. The product or service as such provides a solution to a human problem. Understanding the principles behind human needs and desires ultimately results in great products and services.

A reference principle that can be applied in the creation of products is biomimicry. Biomimicry manifests itself at a much deeper level than skeuomorphism and concerns the how and the why a product solves human problems while skeuomorphism is the initial and temporary literalism for human interaction with them.

Skeuomorphism is not bad per se. It is necessary in the early stages of new methods of human interaction with technology. Visual interfaces moved out of the era of skeuomorphism when literal references became obsolete for comprehending interaction. We can expect the same to happen to the invisible skeuomorphism of the voice interface. This is going to be an exciting design challenge. What will the de-skeuomorphized voice interface feel (and sound) like?

Special thanks to Pamela Mead for the extensive contributions