The Importance of Metaphors

It’s really exciting to watch some of the trends that are materializing on the Web. Sites like and Flickr are popularizing tagging and collaborative categorization (also known as folksonomies). RSS is starting to really take hold as well. It’s popularity continues to grow and is now attracting venture money to help bring it to businesses and to the masses.
With all that said, I think these technologies, while compelling, have a ways to go before they graduate to the levels of email and chatting. For these trends to break out of the domain of the technically curious and savvy and into the rest of the world, the experiences around these technologies need to feel right and natural.

I was chatting with a friend yesterday. He was telling me about his dad jumping onto Gmail, Google’s popular email service. From the looks of things, his dad is your typical computer user in his 50’s or 60’s. He was explaining how he took the time to label all his messages under categories that made sense to him. Once he was done, was dumbfounded to find out that all his messages were still in his Inbox. “If I did all this work to move them, why are they still there? And now why are they in two places?”
I think there’s a critical lesson to be learned here. One of the ways interaction designers are able to introduce complex or abstract concepts to less technically savvy users is through the use of metaphors. Metaphors allow designers to leverage an assumed prerequisite understanding of how things in the real world work: Folders. Trash cans. Envelopes Pieces of paper.
Today, we go to great lengths to lean on what people already understand about the real world. We all know full well that email systems don’t actually have inboxes and outboxes. Yet we introducing them to users by correlating them with their real world siblings. The result is less “figuring out” on the user’s part. You move a document from Folder A to Folder B. Simple enough.
The challenge for interaction designers is to think creatively about (a) what can we leverage from the real world that will make these new technologies easier to digest and understand and (b) how to apply these metaphors effectively.
RSS is an amazing new technology that most people simply don’t bother with. The RSS experience today is so badly disjointed and confusing that it’s nowhere near capable of breaching the “AOL” type of experience that so many are accustomed to. Orange icons that lead to gibberish in your browser; confusion over what we should call RSS; the requirement to go download a client before you can even leverage it. This is all assuming that people want to even embark on this joy ride.
One of the biggest challenges for RSS is even explaining what it is. Look at the BBC’s attempt at explaining RSS. Bless their hearts, they’re really going the extra mile here. Now put yourself into the curious, yet ignorant user’s head. You figure “Ok, let me see what this is about…” You end up on an essay about the virtues and inner-workings of RSS. The most likely outcome: you’ll do a quick scan and move on without reading.
What needs to happen here is, rather than sitting the user down and educating them (i.e. asking the user to come to the technology), we must think creatively about how we can cheat the user into adopting it. How can we camouflage a powerful technology like RSS such that users will correlate to some other understanding and just say “Oh, cool. That makes sense. I’ll try it out.”
The same goes for tagging. Folders are an incredibly powerful, effective metaphor of a very basic real world concept: things can contain other things. Tagging, which is no doubt powerful and has advantages over folders, is quite a bit different. To understand tagging, we have to effectively “unlearn” the well-engrained metaphor of “folders.” My friend’s dad, in his own head, perceived the actual moving of physical papers (emails) to physical folders (the labels). The fact that they remained in his Inbox confounded him.
It’s interesting to hear all the debate going on in reaction to Microsoft calling RSS feeds “Web Feeds” in their upcoming Internet Explorer 7. Dave Winer (the creator of RSS) railed into them pretty hard about it. Microsoft responded to his criticisms and defended their decision to name RSS feeds “Web Feeds.” The debate was over what would confuse users. RSS. XML. Feeds. Web Feeds. I’ve got news for everyone, we’ve got much bigger fish to fry than what we name this stuff.
The real challenge for RSS and other up and coming technologies is how to best package it such that it doesn’t feel like a new technology at all. Instead, it should feel and work like something familiar. The more familiar it feels, the less cognitive friction the user is exposed to. Metaphors are an essential weapon in creating that familiarity.

2 Comments The Importance of Metaphors

  1. Tim

    So what is a possible real-world metaphor for RSS? In the physical world, how do providers keep you informed of changes to or newly-created content? The WSJ, People and SI offer you a subscription and deliver directly to you their fresh content. So perhaps instead of naming a process for the technology (RSS), it should be named for the goal (subscription).

  2. Richard Ziade

    That’s the hard part really – figuring out what we can leverage to make this stuff a bit easier to swallow. The moral of the post was to get people to start thinking in that direction.
    As for RSS? It’s a tough one. What do people understand about subscriptions today – they ask for a publication, at periodic intervals, they get a new issue of a magazine. There’s something there. How to apply that to RSS is a bit trickier.
    I’m going to be posting some stuff on the interaction design of RSS soon…


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