From floppy disks to smartwatches: a journey through intuitive technology design

From the early days of personal computers to the era of smart watches, esqueumorphism has been a bridge between the past and the digital technology of the present.


Every day, we encounter technological vestiges in our digital lives, disguised as floppy disks or recycling garbage cans, present in every corner of our screens. For many, these symbols are simple relics, but what if I told you that these designs were deliberately conceived as a bridge between the past and the present? The logic behind these designs has a name: esqueumorphism

What is esqueumorphism?  

The product development process, particularly for electronics and software, always requires careful consideration of user experience and intuition. 

One design concept that has played an important role in the creation and development of user interfaces is skéumorphism. The origin of the term comes from the Greek skéuos (σκεῦος), meaning 'vessel or tool', and morphê (μορφή), meaning 'form'. That is, an esqueuomorphic object is one that has been designed in the form or image of the tool whose function it performs.  

Although the term has been used since 1890, this article will explore its evolution as a design technique in the current context of product design and development. 

Esqueumorphism in recent times 

If you think about it, there are many examples of this design style in our daily lives. Some of the most prevalent are: 

  • Save files by clicking on a floppy disk. 
  • Delete files by dragging them to the trash. 
  • Buy items and products online by placing them in the shopping cart. 
  • Listen to the sound of the camera shutter when taking pictures with the cell phone. 

No alt text provided for this image

During its initial heyday, starting in 2010, this design style was the basis of how the iOS system looked. For example, when the iBooks app (now Apple Books) was introduced on the iPad, the book selection screen simulated a wooden library; they even went so far as to animate the pages turning when you moved your finger over the screen. The goal of this was to make the app more comfortable and familiar to users, which would ease the transition from physical to digital. 

However, over time, esqueuomorphic designs led to cluttered desktops, overwhelming users with unnecessary details, something that was a problem especially on mobile devices where the screens were not as large as a monitor. In addition to this, some no longer followed the definition of esqueuomorphism: for example, the save button, which, given the disuse of floppy disks, was just a non-representative reminder of the reality in which it was located. 

As technology advanced and computing became part of everyday life, the need for visual metaphors diminished, paving the way for abandoning this style of design in favor of something simpler, as was the case with the flat design style. However, this would not be the last we would see of esqueumorphism. 

Resurgence in the era of smartwatches 

Starting in 2012, a new product appeared on the market, which depended more than ever on a design that was as intuitive as possible: the smartwatch. 

While traditional devices such as phones and laptops already served functional purposes, smartwatches also sought to make a fashion statement and replace conventional watches. To encourage their easy adoption, manufacturers relied on esqueumorphism and, unbeknownst to them, the popularity of these devices marked a resurgence for this design style. 

An example of this comes again from Apple with the Apple Watch, which in its design included a crown, like any traditional watch, but which functioned as a knob to navigate through the various menus of the system. 

No alt text provided for this image

In an interview, designer Jonathan Ive commented that the crown was purposely not centered, so that it would be familiar to traditional watch wearers, but that in turn this location would give the hint that its function would not be to move the time, as in any other watch. as in any other watch. 

What role does esqueumorphism play in technology adoption? 

As we have seen with these examples, esqueumorphism has played a vital role in introducing users to new technologies.  

As personal computers gained popularity, familiar elements on the screens eased the transition for users. Similarly, when the use of mobile devices skyrocketed, esqueumorphism again played an important role in educating how to interact with these devices. 

These design considerations, fundamental for innovation and new developments, also apply to virtual and augmented reality products. Although we can already find them since 2014, in recent years more and more products with these functions have appeared, from various brands and purposes. 

These products involve, in one way or another, screens that are placed in front of the eyes by devices such as glasses or helmets that must be worn. Following the example of the smartwatch, since these are wearable devices, how intuitive they are is a determining factor in whether people feel comfortable wearing them. 

When users have difficulty distinguishing interactive objects from non-interactive objects, their experience suffers. Therefore, the idea in the design of these products should focus on helping to bridge this gap that exists between the design of user interfaces and their accessibility to the user. 

This is achieved by providing recognizable visual cues, which ensure that users understand and navigate easily, as well as perform tasks naturally and fluently. 

The balance between familiarity and innovation 

Innovative product development in consumer electronics and software development requires a special focus on user experience. Schneumorphism, despite its fluctuating track record as a design technique, has proven to be an effective tool for making new technologies accessible to users and has aided in the smooth adoption of these innovations. 

As technology evolves, finding a balance between familiarity and innovation remains crucial to creating intuitive and easy-to-use products. This has become a priority, especially for virtual and augmented reality products, which in their early days struggled with adoption and accessibility issues.  

Eventually, striking this balance between the intuitive and the innovative is what sets successful products apart from the rest. In the context of creating innovative products, it is this balance that anchors us to the reality of the past that we know to allow us to better understand the future.

Martin Piriz, Research & Development Assistant Quantik Labs.

Martin is an advanced student of Communication Systems Engineering, with a profile focused on signal processing and machine learning. Since 2022 he is part of QuantikLabs assisting in the research and development of projects and products.



Related Entries