Metaphorical Refrigerators, Design, and Ubiquitous Computing

November 11, 2008

Whirlpool CentralPark Connection

I’ve been meaning to write about Dan Saffer’s Masters Thesis since reading it a couple of years ago. A recent post by Mike Kuniavsky provides an opportunity to do so. Also, it appears that Dan left his position at Adaptive Path to found Kicker Studio, a product design company. In The Role of Metaphor in Interaction Design, Dan noted that metaphors help users/customers understand new products and services by providing cues that orient and personify the experience of the familiar with the new.

In other words, metaphors help us understand one thing in terms of another by highlighting similarities between the two, while at the same time implicitly recognizing differences. Dan also added that metaphors introduced to facilitate adoption of a new product can also limit its innovation in other ways. He specifically pointed to the Workspace is a Desktop metaphor, which conceptualizes the computer as an office tool primarily. I would add that the metaphor contributed to the myth of the paperless office by obscuring the differences between desktops and graphical user interfaces. Specifically, Dan contended that,

it could be argued that the desktop metaphor has hindered the development of ubiquitous computing as much as some hardware factors (p.22).

At the same time, he observed that the desktop metaphor was much more effective in gaining the widespread adoption of computers when compared to the previous metaphor, i.e. computers as programming environments. He recommended that whenever designers use a metaphor in a new product they need to begin with what is new, the subject of the metaphor, rather than what the metaphor refers to. In other words, don’t force functionality into a metaphor. Use the metaphor to support a concept rather than the other way around. The point builds on the design principle of Cooper, Reiman, and Cronin in About Face 3.0 to, “Never bend your interface to fit a metaphor” (p. 279).

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