No one would mistake me for a technology geek. I like using the latest devices and being connected, but I can go unplugged for a while without breaking out in a rash. Words are another matter. I admit to being a bit obsessive about language.
Sometimes in daily life, technology and language intersect in an intriguing way, like when I run across a new word or concept that comes from the world of computing. It happened recently when I heard the word “skeuomorph” — pronounced like skew-uh-morf.
Basically, a skeuomorph is an object or experience that retains elements that look or behave like past iterations but are no longer functionally necessary. Think about the envelope you click on to get your email, or the symbol of a trash can for deleting computer files. Consider turning the corner of a digital page or the clicking sound your smartphone camera makes when you take a picture.
Among designers, skeuomorphism has become somewhat controversial. One camp believes using elements that resemble universally recognized symbols makes complicated digital devices more intuitive and new products easier and more enjoyable to use.
The other camp says designing new user experiences with visual or auditory artifacts is outmoded and irrelevant in this digital age. They don’t believe traditional metaphors really resonate with modern — read younger — users. Bridging the gap between physical and digital worlds is no longer necessary in today’s tech-savvy, device-saturated culture.
While there’s some validity to both arguments, neither side can deny there’s a certain level of comfort in technological experiences that look or behave like their traditional counterparts. That’s not just true of digital design. The idea of skeuomorphism has implications for every product, service or experience with which we interact — including learning. Familiarity allows us to recognize purpose, differentiate options and navigate new experiences better.
But therein also lies the danger. Sometimes we can get too comfortable.
As Michael Stocking, managing director of London’s Armadillo Systems, told BBC News Online, “Slavishly following real-world examples can often be a lazy solution.” To his point, we frequently continue on a course of action simply because that’s the way we’ve always done it. When our approach is just inherited, we can miss new opportunities to increase impact, be more effective and influence better outcomes.
One man leading the charge for more purposeful learning design is Andre Plaut, education product manager at General Assembly, a collective of innovators offering programs, classes and workshops on the most relevant skills of the 21st century. After building and delivering training for Apple, Plaut worked with the 2012 Obama campaign to redesign and deliver training initiatives for volunteers.
On his website, boxesandarrows.com, he maintains the “process of designing any sort of human experience, regardless of purpose or platform, is centered around reaching a desired outcome, ideally with as little fuss and as much joy as possible.” He believes designing learning experiences must be treated in the same way as designing any sort of user experience, “including the environment in which people are learning and their lives before and after the learning experience.”
Creating immersive and enriching learning doesn’t happen by focusing solely on design, but it does require the application of purposeful, meaningful intention. Finding the balance between what is familiar and what is new and challenging requires learning leaders to recognize when it’s advantageous to stay the course, and when it’s time to be bold and change things up.
Perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate some of your learning initiatives with an eye toward using another familiar skeuomorph — the scissors and clipboard symbols for cutting and pasting. Determining what to keep and what to change can make an enormous difference for learners and positively skew the results for your organization.
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