IxD is like.... the use of metaphor in application interface design

21 Sep 2007 - 6:12am
6 years ago
10 replies
1090 reads
SemanticWill
2007

Metaphor is an important concept in computer system design as well as in
language. Metaphor is more than just a literary device used for poetic
effect, it is an integral part of our language and thought. First a book
recommendation to the IxDA list: "Metaphors We Live By," by Lakoff and
Johnson, show the ubiquity of metaphor in our language, often being used
without our even noticing – I recommend reading this book if you are
interested in the explicit exploration of metaphors in your design process –
I have done so a couple of times and find that nailing the right metaphor as
important if not 100x more so than choosing the right font/color/palette,
front end platform. Metaphors provide us a way of understanding the world,
by associating one thing with another. Powerful metaphors inform how we
think of the objects described, revealing hidden aspects of the thing
described. New metaphors for the forces in our lives will suggest new ways
of living. Metaphors interact with technology in several ways: technology
serves as a source of metaphors, new technologies are understood
metaphorically, and our metaphors in life pose problems to be solved
technologically. For devices that work in an abstract language like digital
devices and applications, metaphors provide a way for the user to map their
user's mental model with the conceptual model of the device/app itself. The
classic Mac desktop metaphor (borrowed from PARC) is famous. It provides a
way of understanding the file structure of the machine in terms of a
physical space that most people understand. By developing new metaphors,
interaction designers can suggest new ways of working with applications. If
these metaphors are carefully chosen then they will provide a natural model
which makes adoption and interaction with the app or device more natural –
and more usable.

So the question I ask is this: In early product design brainstorming
sessions – is their explicit time set aside for metaphor brainstorming? I
have a version of the presentation that I have given introducing the use of
metaphor, mental models and conceptual modeling the product design ideation
phase and was wondering who else does this.
--
~ will

-------------------------------------
n: will evans
t: user experience architect
e: wkevans4 at gmail.com

-------------------------------------

On 9/19/07, Jarod Tang <jarod.tang at gmail.com> wrote:
>
> In this article, it tells ".... the face book to Facebook design
> metaphor."
> , it's a natural example for building mental model by metaphor.
>
> Source: The evolution of a
> facebook<
> http://www.adaptivepath.com/blog/2007/09/18/the-evolution-of-a-facebook/>
> Cheers
> -- Jarod
> --
> IxD for better life style.
>
> http://jarodtang.blogspot.com
> ________________________________________________________________
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Comments

21 Sep 2007 - 7:58am
SemanticWill
2007

Okay - I realize I might have just opened up a can of worms with
regards to starting a debate/conversation etc between traditional,
cognitivist (objectivist) approach to interface design with the
alternative experiential interface design but I have noticed that
while many schools of thought still center around Don Norman's
well-known account of interface design based on three kinds of model:
the designer's model (in the head of the designer), the user's model
(in the head of the user) and the system image (as presented in the
designed interface. If we assume this as axiomatic, then of course
the next step as interface designers is to find the "right"
metaphor to encode the system image (like serialization), which is
then passed to the user (in possession of pattern recognition and an
unzip utility - sorry - I had to interject that metaphor here), who
then "unzips," the passed metaphor conveyed by the designer through
user interaction with the system, and is able to map the underlying
system - and therefore understand 'how' to use the system. In short
- a good metaphor is supposed to permit the user to apply knowledge of
the source domain of the metaphor to the unfamiliar target domain of
the interface.
But. But - what if this is a failed technique? How useful, *really*
is metaphor creation? Is it a useful medium of communication allowing
the system designer to communicate with the end user by means of the
interaction designer acting as translator?
Thoughts?

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Posted from the improved ixda.org
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21 Sep 2007 - 8:39am
Dave Malouf
2005

Wow Will, someone woke up on the right side of the bed this morning,
or had some wicked dreams.

[My OCD on semantics requires me to correct your subject line. When
you say "IxD is like ..." you are using a simile and NOT a
metaphor. Both are analogies, but they themselves are different from
each other.]

Ok, to the point of your question.

"what if this is a failed technique? How useful, really is metaphor
creation? Is it a useful medium of communication allowing the system
designer to communicate with the end user by means of the interaction
designer acting as translator?"

Dan, can you point the world to your piece you did at the IA Summit
in 2005 on Metaphor. I always think of that piece when I think of
this discussion.

One thing I constantly remember from it though is that "EVERYTHING
[editorial emphasis] dealing with computers is a metaphor." Now I
don't know if that statement is completely accurate (or properly
quoted) but I think it make a strong point about the necessity of
metaphor in interaction design.

Now, is consciously exploring various metaphors appropriate within
the context of practice? that is slightly different. I think for some
things yes and for others no. If we constantly explore metaphors we
loose the ability to build on existing conventions, but if we rely on
existing conventions we loose the ability to innovate, and more
importantly clarify.

Tabs, dialogs, forms, etc. are all pretty strong metaphors. I think
it is important to explore how well we communicate them, and then
explore alternatives.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Posted from the improved ixda.org
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21 Sep 2007 - 9:00am
SemanticWill
2007

Your right about the subject line - I should have changed that from IxD is
like...., to IxD is (a beerhall, a roundtable, a brothel :-)

>One thing I constantly remember from it though is that "EVERYTHING
[editorial emphasis] dealing with computers is a metaphor." <

This is actually backed up by the Lakoff book to the extent that perhaps all
cognition employs, to one extent or another - metaphor. We use language and
signs to encode metaphors to transfer ideas, images, patterns (sometimes
with context - sometimes, in this medium, for instance - often without
context - hense the propensity for flame-wars and misunderstandings). To the
extent that any interaction with computer systems involves metaphors
(especially 2nd and 3rd order levels of abstraction), then as a community of
practice we should seriously encourage the explicit exploration of metaphors
- if only to make sure that (assuming there are always metaphors), when
doing interaction design, we choose the "right" metaphor - or at least the
one that most closely maps to a user's mental model - no?

I got to thinking this last night and reading more - and reviewing past
practices when I started to wonder about some metaphors and when do they
become a design pattern - and where is the overlap? Tree View + Two pane
layout plus list view is certainly a design pattern in very heavy use (some
call it the "explorer metaphor," which I don't like) - but it seems that as
you move up the latter of abstraction from concrete UI components to design
patterns, I at least, start to think about whether those design patterns
also map to metaphors that can be employed to ease the cognitive load on the
users.

On Fri, 21 Sep 2007 06:39:26, dave malouf <dave at ixda.org> wrote:
>
> Wow Will, someone woke up on the right side of the bed this morning,
> or had some wicked dreams.
>
> [My OCD on semantics requires me to correct your subject line. When
> you say "IxD is like ..." you are using a simile and NOT a
> metaphor. Both are analogies, but they themselves are different from
> each other.]
>
> Ok, to the point of your question.
>
> "what if this is a failed technique? How useful, really is metaphor
> creation? Is it a useful medium of communication allowing the system
> designer to communicate with the end user by means of the interaction
> designer acting as translator?"
>
> Dan, can you point the world to your piece you did at the IA Summit
> in 2005 on Metaphor. I always think of that piece when I think of
> this discussion.
>
> One thing I constantly remember from it though is that "EVERYTHING
> [editorial emphasis] dealing with computers is a metaphor." Now I
> don't know if that statement is completely accurate (or properly
> quoted) but I think it make a strong point about the necessity of
> metaphor in interaction design.
>
> Now, is consciously exploring various metaphors appropriate within
> the context of practice? that is slightly different. I think for some
> things yes and for others no. If we constantly explore metaphors we
> loose the ability to build on existing conventions, but if we rely on
> existing conventions we loose the ability to innovate, and more
> importantly clarify.
>
> Tabs, dialogs, forms, etc. are all pretty strong metaphors. I think
> it is important to explore how well we communicate them, and then
> explore alternatives.
>
>
> . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
> Posted from the improved ixda.org
> http://beta.ixda.org/discuss?post=20723
>
>
> ________________________________________________________________
> Welcome to the Interaction Design Association (IxDA)!
> To post to this list ....... discuss at ixda.org
> List Guidelines ............ http://beta.ixda.org/guidelines
> List Help .................. http://beta.ixda.org/help
> Unsubscribe ................ http://beta.ixda.org/unsubscribe
> Questions .................. list at ixda.org
> Home ....................... http://beta.ixda.org
>

--
~ we

-------------------------------------
n: will evans
t: user experience architect
e: wkevans4 at gmail.com

-------------------------------------

21 Sep 2007 - 10:03am
jrrogan
2005

Keeping it real... Can Metaphor stand relatively alone, and be of such
extreme importance? Metaphor should aide in initial acceptance and task
execution not be some abstract design entity on which applications leave and
breathe.

I agree it is important to choose the "Right Metaphor" or more accurately
not choose the "Wrong Metaphor" - something that adds to confusion. I think
there could be more then one "Right Metaphor" in many cases.

Metaphor seams to be more of an initial aide, which if done well quickly
suits it usefulness and becomes invisible or opaque in the users mind, as
they accurately get their job done.

Sure Mac/Windows have the desk top "look and feel", but this metaphor is an
initial convenience to users in acclimatizing them to a digital work space.
Over a relatively short time, the direct metaphor of "Desk Top" becomes
irrelevant and the reality of a graphic means of accessing and manipulating
data becomes more important, as the metaphor fades away.

I don't agree that Metaphor is necessarily more important than font or
pallet as users have to live with these elements long after the
metaphor fades away.

Having said all of this, for initial impact, I think Metaphor is extremely
important, and keeping up with social change and reflecting this in Metaphor
is a good thing. Fashion deals with Metaphor in a big way, often it seems to
be more of an aide to the designer in defining their path of design.

If you listen to designers/ aarchitects talk about their designs they will
reference seemingly unrelated subject matter and "paint a picture" of what
their art really means, exposed by this reference. Listen to a talk frmo
BMW's lead of design for an example of this, the metaphor described by this
car designer aides his team in influences and inspiration, a buyer may draw
a completely different metaphor from the car, which aides them in valuing
and understanding. This is where metaphor flexibility aides everyone in a
"it's want you make it mentality".

We in software may want to keep metaphor more universally underrstandible,
but must keep ni mind the purpose of metaphor is to aide in understanding
period.

21 Sep 2007 - 10:04am
Becubed
2004

> nailing the right metaphor is as important
> if not 100x more so than choosing the right
> font/color/palette, front end platform.

So true. Here are two examples of this that illustrate the point, from my
experience.

In one example, our initial design concepts for an enterprise web
application were very much about exposing and supporting the *activities*
that people would perform. Think a typical task-based IA. However, after
reflecting upon early user research we realized that a better solution would
be to employ a strong *document* metaphor. Instead of helping people perform
activities, we helped them manage documents. As you might imagine, the UI
looked and behaved rather differently as a result.

Another project involved redesigning software used on a factory floor.
Historically, the UI looked like... well, like software, with typical lists
and checkboxes and radio buttons. It wasn't until we spent a day in the
factory with users that we managed to shake off the past and take on a new
perspective: our insight came from observing users spend 15 minutes
literally swinging a hammer, then strolling up to the computer and being
forced to work with a keyboard and mouse for perhaps 1 minute. It seemed
like such a disconnect, both mentally and physically. After that, we
redesigned around the metaphor of a "toolbox" -- and encouraged ourselves
not to design "software" anymore. Again, as you might imagine, the UI looked
and behaved quite differently as a result.

--
Robert Barlow-Busch
www.chopsticker.com

21 Sep 2007 - 10:14am
Dan Saffer
2003

On Sep 21, 2007, at 6:39 AM, dave malouf wrote:

> Dan, can you point the world to your piece you did at the IA Summit
> in 2005 on Metaphor. I always think of that piece when I think of
> this discussion.

This is what I did my master's thesis on.

The IA Summit presentation is here:
<http://www.odannyboy.com/id/metaphor&IxD.pdf> (2.5mb pdf)

But I more recommend my thesis paper if you are interested in this
topic:

<http://www.odannyboy.com/portfolio/thesis/saffer_thesis_paper.pdf>
(340k pdf)

> One thing I constantly remember from it though is that "EVERYTHING
> [editorial emphasis] dealing with computers is a metaphor." Now I
> don't know if that statement is completely accurate (or properly
> quoted) but I think it make a strong point about the necessity of
> metaphor in interaction design.

That's exactly right. Everything we talk about and reference with a
computer is a metaphor, from the "desktop" to "writing" to the hard
disk. I don't "point" to "links" with my "mouse", etc. etc. All
digital devices are just stacks and stacks of metaphors because they
are so complex we cannot think of them in any other way.

Interaction designers can manipulate those metaphors in interesting
ways, by creating new ones, altering or expanding old ones, or
throwing out ones that no longer reflect the way people think about
the device.

Dan

21 Sep 2007 - 10:23am
SemanticWill
2007

For those of you interested - I absolutely recommend checking out both
Dan Saffer's fantastic presentation about Metaphor at IA Summit, as
well as read his master's thesis (not sure if it's still online) -
both of which will really get your cognitive juices flowing like a
river - and when your pump has been primed - then read the Lakoff and
Johnson book.

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21 Sep 2007 - 10:25am
SemanticWill
2007

wow - looks like I was typing this and Dan his post before I did -
which is why I am wondering if his thesis is still online and in the
previous post he gives the URL.
Funny.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
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21 Sep 2007 - 10:32am
SemanticWill
2007

So - And this really gets back to my original post this morning:
1. Assuming you all have read Dan's thesis, seen his presentation
and read the book;
2. Assuming that within your organization, you appropriately and
somewhat regularly engage in metaphor brainstorming sessions using
mind mapper, white boards, big-ass stickies to think about how you
can take the user research you have done about user's mental models,
assumptions, attitudes, behaviors, etc....
3. Assuming you arrive at 1 or 2 or 3 metaphors that you think are
close.... then two questions:
Was it worth it? Is Don Norman's 3 mode model still hold water
(designer/system/user), and do you, as interaction designers find
yourselves in the role of interpreter between system and user by
means of metaphor?
And 2: if not, are there other methods, processes, or even just ways
of thinking about these problems that are more suitable for designing
great software today?

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
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21 Sep 2007 - 1:38pm
ldebett
2004

I think Will is still on a high from last night's IxDA Boston event. :-)
(summary to follow!)

~Lisa

On Fri, 21 Sep 2007 06:39:26, dave malouf <dave at ixda.org> wrote:
>
> Wow Will, someone woke up on the right side of the bed this morning,
> or had some wicked dreams.

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