Peak Skeuomorphism: Online Events, Virtual Offices and Tinder

Skeuomorphism is my favorite pet peeve with almost all new ‘digital’ ways of doing things. Everything from collaboration, communication, data storage to crypto suffers from some form of it.

Skeuomorphism takes structural cues from something it's trying to replicate in a new medium that were necessary in the original. For instance, early versions of the iPhone UI had skeuomorphic treatments in which its digital interfaces tried to replicate the characteristics of their analog counterparts.

Eventually Apple’s product designers caught on to the fact that this was a regressive approach and moved to building UI that is optimal for the medium. Skeuomorphism has its roots in projection, familiarity, reducing cognitive dissonance and the human brain's desire to take the shortest path to understanding and creating answers to problems.

In Architecture, Skeuomorphism is generally regarded as amateur work amongst critics and practitioners alike. It signals an architect’s lack of understanding of the context they’re responding to, or intellectual laziness in formulating a response. The best architects tend to push the context they’re working with and enhance it rather than trying to impose a particular view on what it needs to be. 

Below is Frank Lloyd Wright’s ‘Falling Water’, an elegant and sensitive response to building a house on a waterfall, that uses materials from the site and colours that blend-in to create one of 20th century’s greatest architectural masterpieces:

Contrasting that against, say, the HQ of a basket weaving company (pictured below). While the building makes it immediately obvious as to what it is; its structure, windows, materials and potentially even usability were compromised to make this visual analogy work.

What has online events and virtual offices got to do with a basket building? They're similar skeuomorphic solutions. Projecting solution constraints onto a context that requires a considered response, not an imposition.

The constraints of the physical world - mainly space, cognitive restrictions, social considerations and interaction limitations - no longer exist in the digital world. Even the need for people to be at an event all at the same time, is an analog constraint. 

Tinder is the gold standard for how to respond to a product problem in the digital context. It fits its digital context in such a strong way, that an analog Tinder is just impossible. Just in the same way FLWs Falling Water could not be built just anywhere else. You can browse through 100 profiles, know their interests, travels and hobbies in 10 minutes. Tinder also does the work of filtering thousands of profiles down to a manageable set that you might match with, further increasing the effectiveness of your time. This cannot be recreated in the analog world.

A skeuomorphic Tinder would’ve been a virtual avatar walking in a virtual space with other people that you could “go up to and chat”. Tinder did not do that, they reinvented dating for the virtual world that takes into account what is now newly possible.

Virtual Events, complete with “registration desks”, “halls”, “booths”, “lounges” and the likes evoke the same visceral response as the basket weaving HQ.

For a while I thought Clubhouse might be the first true incarnation of a digital events platform. I realise now that a Clubhouse event is a digital dinner table conversation (and is great at it). My evolved point of view is that “virtual events” shouldn't exist at all. You can replace the vast majority of virtual events with a landing page and a keynote video that is marketed to be published at a particular point in time to drive concentrated engagement. Apple does this very well.

The same applies for virtual office solutions. The idea that people can now work together in virtual spaces with ‘digital avatars’ walking around fake rooms is an overlap of the worst things about digital working (always on/reachable) and in-office working (the effect of proximity on information flow/access). 

Most of these are the result of a “solution-first” or a naive “digitisation” approach to product with literal translations of the analog problem statement and requirements.

I’m looking forward to digital-native approaches to events and office platforms that are inevitably going to come or, even better, entirely new paradigms that make them redundant all-together.