Apple has proudly ditched skeuomorphism in its forthcoming OS X Mavericks and iOS 7. This odd word describes the use of interface elements that look like items in the real world. In OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion, this includes things like the fake leather in Calendar; the green felt table top in Game Center; and the faux hardcover binding in Contacts. iOS has some of these too: Game Center has the same green felt; Voice Memos shows an old-timey microphone; Find Friends has stitched leather. iBooks has a very strong nod to real-world books, even with pages that curl when you turn them. Both OSs have horrid yellow, lined paper in Notes, and other elements of skeuomorphism can be seen here and there as well.
During the keynote at the recent WWDC, several Apple executives noted the loss of skeuomorphic elements, even joking about some of them. Skeuomorphism has long been criticized for making interfaces busy. I simply can’t use Notes because of the annoying yellow paper, and I hate Calendar’s fake leather toolbar with bits of torn off paper beneath it. When I’m working on a computer, I don’t need to be reminded of what atom-based equivalents of the apps I use look like. I know I’m working on a computer, tablet or smartphone, and I don’t want to pretend otherwise.
But there’s another kind of skeuomorphism present in both OS X and iOS: sounds. On iOS, this includes keyboard clicks, lock sounds, and the whoosh you hear when sending emails. There’s even a ringtone that sounds like, well, a telephone; one of the old ones with a bell (though it’s a distinctly American sounding phone; telephones in the UK never had that kind of ring). OS X has a number of “user interface sound effects,” which you can turn off en masse in the Sound preference pane. (On iOS, you can turn them off individually.) I’ve turned off most sounds on my iPhone, other than a ringtone and voice mail and text message alerts, and I only have a system beep on my Macs.
So if Apple’s ditched visual skeuomorphism, why not get rid of the audio version as well? While it’s useful to have some sort of feedback when your email gets sent, does it have to be a “whoosh,” the sound of something flying? And does the iOS camera – or any camera – need to have a shutter sound when you take a photo? Surely a subtle beep would work just as well.
I admit that having audio feedback to let you know when you’ve pressed a key on a virtual keyboard can be helpful when you’re typing, but at least it doesn’t sound like a typewriter. Many of the other sounds could be changed to more neutral beeps and pings, instead of having them pretend to be something they’re not.
The Future of Interface Sounds
I think it’s time to go beyond these quaint, old-fashioned sounds and come up with some new forms of beeps to alert a user when something has happened. Since Apple’s redesigning iOS 7, and parts of OS X, they could go further, and design a new generation of interface sounds. Instead of copying existing sounds, they could find ways to make new sounds that differ enough for use with different apps. We all know we’re using computers; the sounds we hear shouldn’t suggest otherwise.