Metaphor (was Re: Five Lenses: Towards a Toolkit for Interaction Design)

22 Mar 2005 - 9:17am
9 years ago
1 reply
403 reads
Dan Saffer
2003

On Mar 22, 2005, at 12:53 AM, Adam Korman wrote:
>
>>> And the reason so much software is so bad is because people approach
>>> designing software as if they are designing artifacts.
>>
>> I think there's a lot of reasons software is bad, but this isn't one
>> of them. Care to explain further?
>
> The evidence of this approach is everywhere. My computer has a
> desktop, folders, and files. I open windows with documents and forms.
> I've got interfaces with tabs, palettes, radio buttons, sliders, etc.
> Whoops, none of that is true. I'm actually just sitting in front of a
> screen with a bunch of pixels on it that could display anything.

I think it's exactly this reason--that digital devices could display
anything--that metaphors get used. We need to give the digital some
sort of form, and metaphors give shape to the abstract (think Time is
Money). This is how humans learn things, by cross-domain mapping:
taking the unfamiliar and mapping it to the familiar. In cognitive
psychology, this is called a schema.

>
> I'm not (just) saying these metaphors are bad, but that this sort of
> focus has come at the expense of paying attention to how software
> behaves and communicates with people.

Software isn't human. It behaves following its own machine logic.
What's important is how its behavior is presented to the user: in the
way it communicates. And that this communication matches the mental
model of how the user thinks the software *should* work. Metaphor can
be a crucial component of that communication. I think a digital folder
should hold files like a physical one does...and voila! it does.

Granted, there are problems with this, My digital folder can do a lot
of things my physical one can't, like be in two places at once and
duplicate itself. But the metaphor is strong enough that this
additional functionality doesn't break it.

While using metaphor has many traps, it's also very powerful. Think of
the massive cognitive leap and subsequent adoption of computers that
happened when the desktop metaphor was introduced.

Dan

Comments

22 Mar 2005 - 10:59am
Adam Korman
2004

On Mar 22, 2005, at 6:17 AM, Dan Saffer wrote:
>
> On Mar 22, 2005, at 12:53 AM, Adam Korman wrote:
>> I'm not (just) saying these metaphors are bad, but that this sort of
>> focus has come at the expense of paying attention to how software
>> behaves and communicates with people.
>
> Software isn't human. It behaves following its own machine logic.

Although software isn't human it engages our human emotions but because
it has complex behavior like humans. So, it's really too bad that it
follows its own machine logic... wouldn't it be nice if sometimes
computers followed human logic? That would be refreshing.

> What's important is how its behavior is presented to the user: in the
> way it communicates. And that this communication matches the mental
> model of how the user thinks the software *should* work.

Yes, but this becomes self-fulfilling. My mental model of how most
software works is really screwy, and most software delivers! Is that
good? If my mental model is (in part) driven by my previous experience
using software, then what is the role of innovation?

> Metaphor can be a crucial component of that communication. I think a
> digital folder should hold files like a physical one does...and voila!
> it does.

But it doesn't, it just pretends to.

> Granted, there are problems with this, My digital folder can do a lot
> of things my physical one can't, like be in two places at once and
> duplicate itself. But the metaphor is strong enough that this
> additional functionality doesn't break it.

That's the positive spin ... but it also DOESN'T do a lot of things
that a physical folder does. When you add up all the differences, it's
amazing little a digital folder is like a physical one, and how fast
the metaphor simply becomes limiting.

> While using metaphor has many traps, it's also very powerful. Think of
> the massive cognitive leap and subsequent adoption of computers that
> happened when the desktop metaphor was introduced.

Yes, this was helpful when people used computers to do calculations and
create documents at work. And think about how useless a metaphor it is
for most of what most people use computers for today: communication and
entertainment.

Regards, Adam

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