We’re often told that we should design our websites and software to mimic real-life objects. The iPhone strengthened this idiom, and Apple has been driving this home hard for the iPad. But it’s not absolute, and it’s not always the best idea. My favorite counterexample is the typical calculator app…. My preferred calculator, which I will keep blogging about until it’s ubiquitous, wasn’t designed against any physical objects because there’s no physical equivalent to what it does…. Functionally, it’s almost a calculator. But it’s also almost a spreadsheet and almost a list pad. By not constraining its design to that of a common physical object, it’s able to be and do much more than anything in the physical world ever could. It does a much better job of a number of critical features than the Calculator app, such as multipart calculations, parentheses, editing existing values, and dynamic value references. Even trivial operations are so much nicer that Soulver converts rarely even open Calculator (or use one), preferring instead to keep a Soulver window open somewhere as a scratch pad. The interface paradigm of mimicking real-world objects shouldn’t, therefore, be applied universally.
So last week, when good writers (1 2 3 4) started discussing the merits of emulating page-turning, I took notice. Especially since I added pagination to Instapaper Pro 2.2 and had to make some difficult decisions in the process. There was no question in my mind that it was better for reading than scrolling — even better than my semi-automated, low-effort tilt scrolling. But I didn’t implement it because books have pages and lack scrolling. Books aren’t even the right physical-object equivalent for Instapaper. Not all reading happens in books. Instapaper is more like a magazine than anything else, but I’m not about to try to reproduce the soggy, wrinkled covers from being shoved in the mailbox, the perfume samples, the ten-page “continued on” jumps in the middle of articles, or the subscription cards falling out as you’re trying to read…. I implemented pagination because it improves reading, not because a related physical item separates text into pages…. DVD players don’t make fake whirring noises for five minutes before letting you eject a disc to simulate rewinding. Similarly, nobody should need to perform a full-width swipe gesture and wait two seconds for their fake page to turn in their fake book, and nobody should need to click the fake Clear button and start their calculation over because their fake calculator only has a one-line, non-editable fake LCD.
It’s important to find the balance between real-world reproduction and usability progress. Physical objects often do things in certain ways for good reasons, and we should try to preserve them. But much of the time, they’re done in those ways because of physical, technical, economic, or practical limitations that don’t need to apply anymore.