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Organic vs. digital experiences

In a recent post on Engadget, Michael Gartenberg advanced a theory that the new “Metro” user interface (UI) design ethos was a refreshing alternative to the trend of trying to make digital experiences look and feel more organic. He claimed that many of the organic analogs in UI were not efficient or effective in the digital space — that in digital, there is more room for innovation due to the inherent lack of physical constraints. He used Microsoft’s forthcoming Windows Phone 7 as an example of going “digital” in the UI and how that the more he engaged in it, the more he liked it.

I’d like to unpack Gartenberg’s analysis a bit, as there are some bits that I agree with, in others where I disagree.

First, where we agree: It’s true that physical metaphors like folders, trash cans, and 3D space are manifestations of the organic world that may be initially needed to create models to enable organic-to-digital transference, but over time, these metaphors do in fact work far better in the real world than on a digital canvas.

Now, where we disagree: I think the organicification of digital experiences is a large portion of what makes Apple’s UIs so compelling and enjoyable for the masses. For instance, if I minimize a window on an Apple PC, I see the window shut down and slide into a docking area. This organicification uses my brain’s natural pattern-matching skills to give me clues as to what happened to my window, and where I might go find it if I need it again. In fact, Apple has made quite an excellent habit of giving their users visual cues for almost any kind of activity. This has led to less jarring and more informational user experiences, as users know where things are coming and going — instead of presuming that a user knows what happens when they minimize a window, slide a screen to the right, or pinch-to-zoom.

As Microsoft’s own Bill Buxton says, “The experience is in the transition between states.” To me, this means mimicking the organic world so that the digital world is more compatible with what our brains are designed to process. In my research, I have found that it’s best to provide natural analogs in the digital world so that we best align experiences with how our minds are designed to perceive our world.

And, with regards to Gartenberg’s increased enjoyment of Windows Phone 7, I am not at all surprised: While WinPho7 eschews many organic metaphors for innovative digital ones (like extensible activity hubs), it maintains a very strong correlation to the organic world in how you interact with the device. When you press an icon, it tilts in (organically), and when you flick a list up, the physics engine mimics real-life physics quite elegantly. And as you slide across, you are given the sense that you’re sliding across a cohesive larger canvas. And, yes, I see the canvas scanning metaphor having its roots in the organic world as well.

What this tells me is that Microsoft has really thought through the UI for their forthcoming mobile OS, by innovatively blending new digital metaphors with traditional, organic representations of our familiar, organic reality. I’m looking forward to seeing if all of this effort in user experience innovation translates into a meaningful consumer product when it launches this fall.

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