I mused about this on stage at Fronteers 2013, and was reminded of it when reading Stephanie Reiger’s excellent slidedeck The future of media queries?, specifically slide 42 which I reproduce with Stephanie’s permission.
Stephanie suggests a mechanism of telling a user agent to render a navigation list as a native component, so it looks native across a range of devices, because it is native. (We could bikeshed about the markup and whether it should be in the CSS, but that doesn’t matter.)
I get that developers want their sites to appear native on the host device. Presumably users like native feel, too; there’s a reason why users show a huge preference for native apps over web apps, and one of those reasons is that native apps
allow the user to use device-specific hand gestures. Android and iOS are gradually developing different conventions for interaction, and a native app responds the way its user expects. User Experience Stack Exchange
So Stephanie’s idea makes perfect sense to me.
But what puzzles me is the fact that for ages designers and developers have also desperately tried to style away native controls. For example, recently Nicholas Zakas said
Full video game engine with 3D rendering and real-world physics in a browser? Yes. Ability to style <select> dropdowns in a browser? No.
— Nicholas C. Zakas (@slicknet) July 2, 2014
and was retweeted hundreds of times. Nicholas isn’t wrong to want this, and this wish isn’t new; when Safari first came out, designers were close to burning their moleskines because they couldn’t make buttons in corporate orange and heliotrope. When I first started showing HTML5 form controls at conferences, without fail I’d be asked how they can be styled. There are endless articles and scripts that painstakingly take real selects, hide them more or less accessibly, then recreate them so they don’t look native on any device.
But why this urge to re-style page elements that end-users are familiar with? You’ll be shocked to learn that I’m not actually trained as a designer – so what am I failing to understand? Or is it that we love native look and feel, except when we don’t?
UPDATE 21 July 2014: Aaron Gustafson wrote an interesting response to my post: The “Native” vs. “Stylable” Tug of War.