Documents are skeuomorphic

In the latest versions of their desktop and mobile operating systems, Apple has continued to embellish their applications with design elements which echo the physical world (such as the notorious faux leather in the iOS iCal app). As a result, the discussion of skeuomorphic design, which kicked off last fall, continues to be a hot topic in technology. Many analysts speculated that disagreements over design even contributed to the undoing of long time Jobs confidant and iOS lead Scott Forstall.

I cringe at skeuomorphic facades in physical design: wood framed houses covered in a thin brink veneer, stove pipes made to look like chimneys, and composite materials with textures which replicate their natural counterparts (which are frustratingly difficult for home remodelers to avoid). I don’t believe a product can be improved by mimicking something it is not.

Many contemporary software applications contain relics of computing’s days past, but, nowhere is this more pervasive, yet accepted, than in document creation.

I’m in the process of refinancing my house. To complete the application, I downloaded bank statements, W2 forms, pay stubs, and insurance declarations. None of these documents will ever be printed. Instead they will be transferred via the internet to the mortgage processor who will store them in a document management system.

Although the documents will only be viewed electronically, they are formatted with page breaks, page numbers, line breaks, margins, and fonts for standard US Letter size paper. The user experience is similar to viewing a picture of a printed page on the screen. The documents mimic a physical object which is becoming infrequently used — paper. In other words documents are skeuomorphic.

Some PDF readers attempt to reflow documents from their original page layout when viewing on screen, but this doesn’t work well when the layout (for instance in tables) contains information in itself. Overall the on-screen reading experience of most PDFs is poor. As mobile devices like the iPad become more commonly used as eReaders, this should concern Adobe.

For instance, here is an example of a PDF displayed in iBooks on iPad 2. The layout is not reformatted for the screen of the device.

iBooks Screenshot

Similarly, while Word maybe familiar and convenient for document creators, I find it frustrating to receive an email with an attachment containing a Word document which the author has no expectation that the reader will print. It has the same limitations as the PDF: an awkward on screen viewing experience.

This time is different

The paperless office has been discussed as long as I have worked in software (quickly approaching 20 years), yet, as many are quick to remind me, it has yet to come to pass. But, as stock market pundits love to say, this time is different.

By a technologist's standards, it takes a frustratingly long time for processes to migrate to new technology. Early PCs (when combined with laser printers and fax machines) brought paper based processes to scale, but prior to the PC, Xerox machines made documents a common form of mass communication for corporations. [Side note: Jason Scott (of has an interesting description of the early Xerox meme, “You want it when,” in his talk Before the LOL]. At the dawn of the internet, existing processes simply moved from the physical to digital and it became common to email Word docs and PDFs in lieu of making copies and sending faxes. For decades, office computers have simply been fancy document creation devices.

But there is a new generation of office workers who grew up online, who weren’t in the workforce when paper based workflows were created, I believe they will find little comfort in them. The inertia of paper will be overcome simply by changing expectations and a better understanding of the potential of modern information technology.

Also, and maybe more importantly, display technology has advanced significantly in the past couple years. The resolution of many devices (including my Samsung Note and Mac Book Pro now exceeds 200 DPI, which is approaching print quality. While the PC was a breakthrough in content creation, mobile devices are a breakthrough in content consumption, and the potential only increases with each iteration of display technology. It won’t be long before executives move from meeting to meeting, not with a pile of papers, but a tablet device full of content.

Why does it matter?

While I don't usually think about it this way, most of my career has based on the assumption of paper reporting. The trend away from paper threatens to have a significant effect on my livelihood. But, I believe this trend represents an opportunity as companies retool their reporting processes for mobile. Surprisingly this trend is barely on the radar of the financial reporting business I work in, which points to the uncertainty of how this transition will occur, but I believe the transition is inevitable. As a technologist, you can either shape the future or be shaped by it, and if you work in reporting now is the time to decide what position to take.

Show Comments