This week, Gmail introduced a set of skins (“themes”) for their web email application. Luckily, there are a few that are quite functional, but there’s also a large number with obtrusive graphics and terrible color schemes. I was quite relieved to find there was a ‘classic’ theme that looks almost exactly like the old familiar gmail interface. Am I the only one not ‘getting’ this skinning thing?
I’ve often wondered why so many people find ‘skinnability’ such an important feature in software. Not being able to change its appearance is a much-heard complaint about Miranda IM, a lightweight multi-protocol messenger for Windows that focuses on low resource usage instead of eye candy. And for that I love it.
When I fist started using WinAMP (which I guess was just about every windows user’s first mp3 player), I remember spending hours looking for a skin that would make it look ‘windows’. There was no way to truly make it blend in with the OS and have it adhere to the same interface conventions. And even though playing mp3 files was a heavy task for computers in those days, WinAMP had a resources consuming skinning engine. In fact, there were thousands of skins available, most of them made by users.
With later versions of WinAMP, the skinning API became more complex and allowed designers to change every aspect of the player’s interface. You could now transform your audio player into an animating egg-shaped metal blob with cryptic alien markings on it, one of which you needed to push to skip to the next track. I remember not being able to control the program on colleagues’ computers because of the interface madness that was their skin.
(Small) Windows only?
The phenomenon appears to be limited mostly to small applications that most users will let live in a corner of their desktop, such as audio players and IM clients. There are programs that change the entire appearance of Windows itself, but those haven’t really caught on. So most users apparently want to choose skins for some of their windows when the rest will look ‘default’.
It also seems that this is mostly a Windows thing. OSX applications usually look clear and elegant and the same goes for most Linux programs. It could be that those operating systems make it far harder to implement application skinning, but I’ve never heard a Mac user complain about not being able to turn their apps into alien artifacts.
Beauty is only skin deep?
It is my guess that applications like WinAMP benefited immensely from the skinning cult that came to surround them. The thousands of skins that were available let user express their personality through an otherwise pretty basic audio player. Competing products offered superior features and even a better sound quality, but that wasn’t the point. The point was to have the coolest looking WinAMP in your office, home or school.
Also, the average 3rd party theme for WinAMP is testament to how you can never overestimate the design sense of your audience. 99% of them is truly terrible. Some of the worst occupy the ‘most popular’ list on the program’s website. I guess that simply to have made a skin elevated your coolness-status to above mere skin users, no matter how poor the result was.