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Beyond Documents, part 1: documents are skeuomorphs

Category design
The aim of this series is to explore why it's instinctive for those of us in the Domino world to conceptualize everything in terms of "documents", as well as to ask what potential benefits might be open to us if we were to move beyond using the notion of a document as our fundamental unit of abstract thought.

Arguably the most obvious answer to the first question is the very name of Domino's client counterpart: Notes. Lotus Notes (now IBM Notes) was originally designed entirely around the notion of an electronic equivalent of a sheet of paper. That's the fundamental unit of Notes: a note.

Early in my career, every application I was asked to create, and every application I inherited from previous developers, served the purpose of making paperless something which had previously been paper. We've all created, or at least used, these types of applications. Vacation requests, purchase requisitions, product inventory... were it not for these apps, there would be a physical document somewhere detailing the same information. And, during this period, there previously had been... at some point, someone had designed a form, perhaps in Microsoft Word or Excel, printed it out, then continued photocopying the original over and over again so that people could fill out new instances as needed by hand and, where required, physically pass the new instance around for signature. Suddenly the organization had a way to not only eliminate the paper byproduct of this process, but also to streamline receipt of signatures. This new way obviously represented a better approach.

As the benefits repeatedly asserted themselves, I began to receive requests for a new breed of application: these types of apps were designed around brand new processes, and, as such, there was no paper yet to replace. So, instead of being handed a physical sheet of paper and asked to produce an electronic equivalent... I was emailed a Word document representing the form they would have created, had they not already been convinced that Notes offered a better way, and asked to produce a Notes equivalent of that Word document. This was a very exciting transition for me, because it signaled that these folks "got it". They had experienced the value of Notes, and their new instinct was to bypass the paper entirely and skip straight to using Notes to streamline their newly conceived process.

But they were still thinking in documents. And so was I. Of course we were... documents are skeuomorphs.

A skeuomorph is "a derivative object that retains ornamental design cues to a structure that were necessary in the original." We encounter skeuomorphs constantly: if you clicked any "Save" icon today, and that icon displayed a picture of a floppy disk, that icon is a skeuomorph. I'm not sure how many years it's now been since I even saw, much less used an actual physical floppy disk. But I have used them in the past. I remember that their entire purpose was storage of files. So when software includes a floppy disk icon, I instinctively assume that the purpose of the icon is for storage of files. This visual cue allows, at a minimum, that specific portion of the software to be intuitive for me, and most other members of my generation.

But what about employees just entering the workforce today? If they're 22, or thereabouts, it's likely that they still remember floppy disks. But it's increasingly probable that they've never even seen one, but have been using computers long enough that they've already forgotten the first time they learned what that icon means... it's just muscle memory now. They know what the picture means, so they know to click it when they want to save a file. But if we had never decided to create icon buttons in software until now, what do you suppose we'd choose to represent "Save"? I'm guessing it might be a microSD card.

So what makes documents skeuomorphic? They're a throwback to an era that might not be entirely gone, but has certainly diminished. When I was in high school, I frequently sent hand-written letters that spanned multiple pages to friends who had already left to attend college. Now all of my "written" communication with friends occurs either via Skype or Facebook Chat... with the occasional email or SMS. The only paper I ever write on by hand is my monthly rent check. Nearly every utility provider or financial institution constantly urges its customers who have not yet gone paperless to do so. We will probably never have a truly paperless world, but compared to my childhood, when paper was used for everything from maps that we had to examine ourselves to determine an ideal route to a desired location (how quaint does that seem now?) to a note informing you that someone tried to call you at your office while you were at lunch (so quaint), paper scarcely exists today except for... well... okay, not gonna go there.

Even in Notes 9, a menu option is available regardless of which application I'm in that allows me to create an electronic equivalent of that last example: Create > Mail > Special > Phone Message. The form this opens contains, of all things, an iconic representation of a cellphone. The presence of that icon means that you cannot create one of these documents without the user interface itself subliminally reminding you of why it's almost, if not entirely, pointless now.

Until next time I'll postpone proposing alternatives to basing our entire conception of the applications we provide our users on the way that we used to live and work. But I'll leave you with one final thought about skeuomorphs:

Twitter is not skeuomorphic of documents. Twitter is skeuomorphic of SMS. Let that sink in, and I'll be back in a while.

Comments

Gravatar Image1 - Why does the indicator in your car click? Emoticon The relay is long gone.

Gravatar Image2 - Documents are skeuomorphs - Yes and No.
Documents are "self contained structured stores of information". The difference between a document and a different unit of storage is it's portability: It can be moved from one system to another without loosing its completeness (at least in theory). So a Note is a document, a word processing file, a twitter message (that's arguable Emoticon), a XML invoice (think Edifact/X) or a JSON structure. A HTML page already less so since it depends on hyperlinked media (CSS, IMG), but a MIME message.

Gravatar Image3 - @Stephan, I won't be proposing that we abandon documents as our primary unit of storage... quite the opposite, in fact. Rather, I'll be examining the implications inherent in evolving beyond documents as our primary unit of interaction; in practical terms, our unit of user interface and business logic.

I no longer use physical documents to communicate with others. I rarely use physical documents (books) to learn new technical skills. If we were to shift to development approaches that allows our users (and our code) to forget about physical documents -- rather than remind them of that medium during every interaction -- would we free them from limitations inherent in the physical medium, baggage that we would otherwise be bringing along with us as a side effect of attempting to preserve familiarity? These are the types of questions I'll be asking.

Gravatar Image4 - Tim, I am struggling with this following code, can you please help me ?

I have 2 date fields one is start date and the other is end date, when I select start date , I want to use start date value for the min constraints for the End Date dojo attributes:

Start Date :

<xe:djDateTextBox id="LDate" value="#{requestData.LDate}">
<xp:eventHandler event="onChange" submit="false" refreshMode="complete"
refreshId="TTP">
<xe:this.script><![CDATA[
**** I want to store value here so that I can access it in the EndDate ( use this value for min constraints for the EndDate )*****
]]></xe:this.script>
</xp:eventHandler>
<xp:this.dojoAttributes>
<xp:dojoAttribute name="constraints">
<xp:this.value><![CDATA[#{javascript:
function pad(n){return n<10 ? '0'+n : n}
var date1 = @Today();
var year = @Year(date1);
var month = @Month(date1);
var day = @Day(date1);
var min = "min:'" + year + "-" + pad(month) + "-" + pad(day) + "'";
return "{" + min + "}";
}]]></xp:this.value>
</xp:dojoAttribute>
</xp:this.dojoAttributes>
</xe:djDateTextBox>



End Date:

<xe:djDateTextBox id="rDate" value="#{requestData.RDate}">
<xp:this.dojoAttributes>
<xp:dojoAttribute name="constraints">
<xp:this.value><![CDATA[#{javascript:
function pad(n){return n<10 ? '0'+n : n}
var startDateID = "#{id:LDate}";
var date1 = new Date (I want to get the LDate field value here but I am not able to get it. I was trying to store value in a scoped variable in onchange event of the Ldate Field )
var year = @Year(date1);
var month = @Month(date1);
var day = @Day(date1);
var min = "min:'" + year + "-" + pad(month) + "-" + pad(day) + "'";
return "{" + min + "}";
}]]></xp:this.value>
</xp:dojoAttribute>
</xp:this.dojoAttributes>

</xe:djDateTextBox>

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