The Myth of Metaphor
Software designers often speak of “finding the right metaphor” upon which to base their interface design. They imagine that rendering their user interface in images of familiar objects from the real world will provide a pipeline to automatic learning by their users. So they render their user interface as an office filled with desks, file cabinets, telephones and address books, or as a pad of paper or a street of buildings in the hope of creating a program with breakthrough ease-of-learning. And if you search for that magic metaphor, you will be in august company. Some of the best and brightest designers in the interface world put metaphor selection as one of their first and most important tasks.
But by searching for that magic metaphor you will be making one of the biggest mistakes in user interface design. Searching for that guiding metaphor is like searching for the correct steam engine to power your airplane, or searching for a good dinosaur on which to ride to work.
“Metaphors firmly nail our conceptual feet to the ground, forever limiting the power of our software.”
I think basing a user interface design on a metaphor is not only unhelpful but can often be quite harmful. The idea that good user interface design is based on metaphors is one of the most insidious of the many myths that permeate the software community.
Metaphors offer a tiny boost in learnability to first time users at tremendous cost. The biggest problem is that by representing old technology, metaphors firmly nail our conceptual feet to the ground, forever limiting the power of our software. They have a host of other problems as well, including the simple fact that there aren’t enough metaphors to go around, they don’t scale well, and the ability of users to recognize them is questionable. Confusing the issue is the problem that most of what we consider metaphoric interface isn’t.
I think that there are three dominant paradigms in software user interfaces. I call these three the technology paradigm, the metaphor paradigm, and the idiomatic paradigm. The technology paradigm is based on understanding how things work, a difficult proposition. The metaphor paradigm is based on intuiting how things work, a problematic method. The idiomatic paradigm is based on…