A few weeks ago I read a blog post by Seth Godin and it hit me like a ton of bricks: Records management is a skeuomorph. I confess, I had never heard of the term “skeuomorphism” until just a few months ago. I learned the word via blogs and tech articles discussing design trends in mobile.

What is a skeuomorph? A simple definition (courtesy of academic George Basalla, via Wikipedia) is “an element of design or structure that serves little or no purpose in the artifact fashioned from the new material but was essential to the object made from the original material.”

In other words, every time we pick up an iPad and download our digital “book” on an electronic “shelf” painted with virtual wood stain – we are engaging with a skeuomorph – like this one:


Image Source: Apple.com

Since joining Forrester this year, I’ve had the opportunity to get briefed on the RM offerings of many ECM and information governance vendors, and with just a few exceptions, there are some unmistakable common threads I see across products. Top of that list? A user experience that has lifted the paradigm of paper and plopped it on top of an electronic records repository.

  • We “file” our digitally composed content into virtual containers that have icons shaped like the beige manila folders we once purchased by the carton.
  • We click on miniature silver garbage cans to indicate items are ready for disposal. It’s a bit surreal to consider that clicking a picture of a shiny trash bin kicks off the sophisticated process of digital expunge – obliteration of the document at the file system level to prevent recovery by network admins – along with options to purge metadata or audit trails.
  • We request old items for retrieval from near-line or offline storage devices, by clicking on a little truck to simulate the activity of a courier or service bureau delivering a box or file right to our front door.

It wasn’t until I read this recent Fast Company article about the design changes anticipated for iOS7 that I began to feel a bit more hopeful about the future state of RM technologies. If we look at skeuomorphism as a coach, a visual bridge from old methods to new methods, then the user experience of RM tools makes sense. Or made sense . . . From Fast Company: “Skeuomorphism was a teaching method to make the ambiguous seem obvious and the futuristic feel familiar.”

If we look at the early roots of electronic records management – back in the 1990s – the metaphor of paper made sense. Adoption of email, office productivity suites, desktop scanning was still in early days for most information workers. The volume and diversity of digital communication – potential business records – was substantially smaller than we see today. Early RM vendors (many that started as independent companies, subsequently acquired by larger content management vendors) took their design cues from a literal interpretation of public sector standards, particularly the US Federal DoD 5015.2. “Filing and declaring” individual items by navigating a folder structure or hierarchical lookup list made sense: It’s how we’d do it for a paper record, and the volume of items made it feasible. It made the ambiguous seem obvious and the future feel familiar . . .

But the work environment of 1997 is not the work environment of 2013. Social, mobile, web, and cloud have unleashed a tidal wave of digital communication – potential business records – that the skeuomorphic experience of many RM tools simply cannot address. The majority of information workers are no longer n00bs when it comes to engaging with electronic content. Yet many vendors continue to impose the mental construct of paper on a digital-first workforce.

We’ve been working on keyboards and screens for 20 years now. We don’t need to use visual representations from the paper world to teach information workers how to take care of their documents. The paradigm of physical records that colors our thinking in the electronic world has tipped over from being a help to a hindrance. How can enterprises and their solution providers fully embrace the opportunities for innovation with automated classification or categorization when the user experience is still wired for folders, trucks, and trash bins?

To riff on Fast Company’s commentary on Apple’s iOS . . . skeuomorphism is a solution to a problem that content management no longer has. I’m hoping the next generation of records management products will be able to leave this historical teaching tool behind.