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The Challenge of Digital Patina

I challenge designers and developers to start to integrate “digital patina” into their application design and UIs. What is digital patina? Let me give you a few examples:

I did not coin the phrase. In fact, Mark Boulton first blogged about this idea in May 2012, in his article titled, simply, “Digital Patina”. In it, he outlines the basic idea, the need for digital things to impart their own “flavor” on the world. His open-ended article started me down the path of thinking about what digital patina could really be.

We talk about Patina as sheen – a thing that changes appearance over time. That change can be damaging, or it can give an object more value. It does this by demonstrating what it’s been through. In the case of a pair of jeans, it’s the little rip, the pen mark, the small hole that’s been repaired in the pocket. In chinese cooking, a wok is seasoned to make it non-stick. A well seasoned pan will go beyond simply making the pan non-stick. It will impart flavour to the food in what the Chinese call ‘wok hey’, or ‘breath of wok’. You see, to me, Patina is more than surface level sheen, or the aging of something. It’s the flavour. It’s an individual ‘taste’ that can only come from that thing.

Now, the idea of “wok-hey” might be a bit too much to think about right now. Where do we take that idea when we talk about applications? Should our Yahoo account started in 1999 have a different flavor in its messages than someone else’s shiny new Gmail account? Are texts sent from your year-old smartphone imparted with a scratchy old-film quality? That might be taking things too far. What I like is the idea that our actions and the way in which we use an application can leave a mark, a signature, of our use over time.

Why digital patina? Why is it important?

I feel that what is missing in this digital age is the evidence that we are humans using a system, application, whatever… There is no way for us to leave a mark on the object that we use all the time. Sure, the phone itself imparts its own patina, but that’s it. Without patina, there is no history. Without history, there is very little attachment to the thing. It is much easier to throw out the teddy bear that your Aunt got you that you never quite liked and still looks brand new. It is much harder to get rid of the teddy bear that you loved, even if it is missing an eye and has a strange stain on one of its legs. That stain, those worn spots, that is our mark, proof that we have an effect on this world and that our love and constant use of an object takes a little of that object’s perfection away from it, which makes us love it more.

Let me note that this is not a call for more and more skeuomorphism in UI design. The idea of digital patina can be applied to even the slickest, non-faux-anything UI design. What digital patina aims to do, I hope, is give the user a sense that they have left a mark on this digital object. That this object has a life and a history, and that history helps us make an emotional connection to it.

As an argument against skeuomorphism, I think this is a world where the visual cliches will soon be irrelevant. The kids picking up smartphones today don’t remember leather desk calendars, they never used a typewriter, they perhaps don’t even have a favorite, well worn novel. Their world could be full of shiny apps that never age, or degrade into bits to be left behind as a ghost of ones and zeros. They might not feel an attachment to their tools of communication, and therefore have very little need for an emotional attachment to objects. Objects, then, become just as forgettable and disposable as the applications on their home screens.

What I am talking about is surface details, I know. It seems to be the low-hanging fruit at the moment, while we think more about Mark Boulton’s challenge to impart “wok hey”. If we start down this path, though, and explore what it means to impact digital patina, than ways in which an application or digital object can have “wok hey” may become more apparent.

The age of digital objects moves rapidly, I know. Most people hang on to a smartphone or tablet for an average of a year before they upgrade. The maximum age may be around 2 years for most pieces of technology. The time in which individual applications are used may be very short, I also admit that. Admittedly, this “patina” would happen in a relatively short time frame. While this may seem like romanticism, what I trying to concentrate on is the connection between people and the objects they love and use every day. In some ways, digital patina might make people appreciate the “new and shiny” when they upgrade their device.

I for one, would prefer that we design a digital world that replicates the positive things about the real world and translates them in a new way. Leaving your mark, having objects that tell a story and have a history with you, that’s a positive thing.

Originally published on ProjectEvolution.com


Follow up

September 3rd, 2013:

More thinking

A great piece about the emerging “slow web” and how new Apps can take advantage of people’s appreciation for the authentic. Some implications for Digital Patina implied.

Earlier Incarnations of the Idea

A comment on the previous live blog post tipped me off to the fact that a book “Designing Interactions” mentioned the concept back in 2007. Steve Rogers, the author, briefly mentioned the idea even further back during a BBC redesign in 2002. They likened it to the way a pair of Dr Marten’s mold themselves to your foot.

Since then, the site has been redesigned a few times and the latest has abandoned the touchy-feely nature of the original patina idea. I wonder if there is still an idea there that might be even more subtly at work in the background of the site. A little more Googling yielded Power Points, PDFs and blog posts referencing Steve Rogers and “Digital Patina” as late as 2012.

Progressive Reduction

In a similar way, an idea called Progressive Reduction aims to simplify a user experience visually depending on how much an app or tool is used. It is an interesting idea that relates to patina in that it is influenced by a user’s experience but to me it is a more utilitarian idea that works alongside familiarity with a set of tasks.

Similarity, the latest Android system update tracks how many times you dismiss a notification and asks if you would like to cancel future notifications. This is a very useful application of progressive reduction, but still, it is not Patina.