On Skeumorphism in the Metaverse

A skeuomorph is a derivative object that retains ornamental design cues (attributes) from structures that were inherent to the original.

People like things that are familiar. Often in the rise of new styles and technologies, there has been a desire to add familiarity in design to make new things feel not so out of place. With the rise of computers and digital things that has become extremely popular, the point of being one of the most dominant ways of applying design thinking to any visual or spatial problem.

For a lot of problems, this is very useful. We’re always trying to build for our grandmother, as well as lessen the risk of trying wholly new interaction methods by leaning of the best of what we’ve seen before across all modalities. If you don’t have a better idea, relating your digital design to something that already exists in the real world is a great way to approach many problems.

Skeumorphism is a bridge. When you are leading people from what is to what will be, giving them objects of familiarity eases the burden of transition. Nobody has done this perhaps as consistently as Apple, understanding that what they were asking of their customers was quite a lot, especially in the early days of their products.

I was trying to type something on my phone the other day and was failing terribly. In spite of ten years of consistently texting, I still cannot use the touch screen keyboard particularly well. I appreciate that it looks like the computer keyboard I’m writing this on, but it’s clear that either typing on a small touch screen is never going to be particularly good, or we’ve leaned so heavily on skeumorphism that it could never be something good.

Changing the keyboard layout on the phone has been tried, and people have demonstrated that better keyboard layouts generally are possible, but even if the upper possible skill limit is much higher, introducing people to something unfamiliar, or worse, frustratingly familiar but different (like Dvorak), is just not reasonable, and would end up yielding more mistakes for many years to come.

The Metaverse is just now unfolding, as a web of different projects, standards and communities. People are selling worlds, avatars, items, clothing and equipment at a level we all knew would happen one day but really couldn’t grasp. The inflection point is upon us, but really we’re just starting to make the transition from viewing all 3D content as essentially game design and “level design”, toward a much more user-centric design for worlds and assets that accounts for ideal camera framing, large numbers of users at distances appropriate for social MMOs, and lots of projects trying to meet the needs of real world events and spaces that have been cancelled due to the ongoing pandemic.

In that, a lot of design patterns are emerging. Every VR Team Meeting and Collaboration Tool has the same well-lit office space environment, the same awkward 3D pen, so on and so forth. People trying to make VR for this use case almost reach entirely for skeumorphism, with no other tools in their toolkit.

And, at least in the VR Team Meeting and Collaboration Tool space, I haven’t seen anything that doesn’t fail. I won’t call out any names, but millions have been spent basically arriving at the same conclusion — unless you drastically change the approach, applying skeumorphic design to VR just leads you to struggling to draw with the 3D pen, struggling to type on the floating keyboard with awkward laser hands, struggling to pull files into the space and drag them around. Everyone building these apps seems convinced that the only way forward is to not move at all.

Outside of the VR Team Team Collaboration Tool space, most Metaverse design tends to borrow it’s skeumorphs from video games. In leading a team of level designers and artists I have noticed that there is a very common inclination to think of something’s relevance aesthetically only, and to consider it almost like a rendered frame, and not the feeling that a user will get out of that experience. In providing feedback I’ve really had to think about exactly what it is that bothers me about level design in so many games.

A couple weeks ago I had a chat with a friend of mine, a former spatial UX designer at a large tech company, about her frustrations with trying to teach in VRChat. It was frustrating for her that she could fall off the side of a walkway and not be able to fly back up, or that getting away from other people in the room to have a conversation meant moving very far way as the audio was too spatial. It was not objectively better than a zoom call for a basic human interaction. The desire for realism had made it a worse experience than if she just had the tools she needed in a place that was designed for use Spatial audio is “immersive” and walking around is realistic, but realism becomes more of an annoyance than anything when you’re trying to run a workshop or hold a meeting.

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Skeumorphism as a design philosophy is about improving user experience through aesthetics, but is not itself a specific aesthetic choice. The idea is to make things more relatable to the people using it. But we are in an interesting time where the people using these things, or who we’re designing for at least, are on these extreme ends of having strong video game expectations or strong real world expectations.

We need to keep people comfortable, but we need to escape the faster horse mentality. The Metaverse can be anything we want it to be, but the metric for measuring how well something works needs to be how enjoyable and efficient it is to use, not how well it parallels an existing real world or video game experience.

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This has lead me to a very basic set of guiding design principals for virtual worlds in the metaverse:

  • Use skeumorphs to indicate functionality and to help a user understand how to use something (doors are useful *and* easy to understand)
  • Buildings are for being lived in and utilized, they are not background scenery.
  • All doors should lead somewhere. All glasses should be breakable. All seats should be a place your avatar can sit. Empty aesthetics create an initial feeling of excitement followed by a pang of disappointment.
  • Design for the cameras and characters you have, not the real world dimensions of real-world spaces. This usually means making things much bigger and more spread out than real life
  • Users stand much further apart in 3D spaces and need to be accommodated
  • If you can teleport, walking is a waste of time and effort, unless you reward walking with discovery of worthwhile content
  • Don’t create Dvorak, but don’t think you’ll polish the QWERTY into something it’s not, ever.
  • Nobody has invented anything even close to a great interface in 3D / XR yet for any social app — some things are a given, but a lot of “common knowledge” needs to be thrown out the window.

The Metaverse today is a janky R&D experiment compared to where it will be in 10 years, even at the Roblox or Fortnite level. It’s still early days. Nobody has all the right answers, although a lot of people have some of them. We need to invent an entirely new design language to accommodate this new wave of user-centric social world design, taking careful study of the rights and wrongs from team collaboration apps, games and our daily lives, but recognizing that to truly cross the bridge to the other side we’ll need to let go of a lot of baggage about how we envision interacting with the ideal physical space.

When building for the Metaverse we need to examine why things are constructed the way they are, and how we can shape our virtual realities to be more useful that our non-virtual reality and not just a facsimile of it. We need to take a step back and look at the other tools in our toolchest, and especially be brave enough to try to completely rethink how we would interact with the world if it was… heaven. I mean, if you could build anything, you could build man’s image of Heaven right there in VR to satisfy every human whim with the best possible user experience, what would that actually look like?

I think designers choose skeumorphism because they value safety and comfort, and they believe their users will as well. But many of the objects that we interact with daily are really just kind of the way they are for reasons that have nothing to do with being ideal for human use. We could make students sharpen their pencils in VR but we’d be trapping them in mundanity, not freeing them from it.

We have a wonderful chance to do it all over. And we can definitely do better than pens and laser pointers.

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