• The Constraints and Opportunities of Metaphor

    As designers it is often our responsibility to imagine the future possibilities of things. We rarely get to design independent of social and cultural contexts, and we never get to design independent of the perceptual capabilities of our users. You could design a marvelous interface that makes terrific use of “color” outside of the visible spectrum, but it is unlikely that a human would be able to see it. It would be rare indeed to find a visual designer who bemoans the shackles of human perception, which unfairly force her to work entirely within the visible light spectrum.

    Recently, Adam Greenfield took Apple to task regarding the design of some of their iOS apps, including iBooks, Compass, Calendar and Notes. His criticism is that these applications are too skeuomorphic; that they feature visual cues from their real-world analogues that insult the future-facing potential of this new generation of touch screen mobile devices:

    The iPhone and iPad, as I argued on the launch of the original in 2007, are history’s first full-fledged everyware devices — post-PC interface devices of enormous power and grace — and here somebody in Apple’s UX shop has saddled them with the most awful and mawkish and flat-out tacky visual cues. You can credibly accuse Cupertino of any number of sins over the course of the last thirty years, but tackiness has not ordinarily numbered among them.

    Every interface exists within a cultural and perceptual context. Even on touch screen devices, controls are often rendered in a manner that reflects analogues in the physical world. The metaphorical basis of these real-world analogues can be as culturally literal as the bookshelf view in iBooks, or as perceptually abstract as the use of a gradient and drop shadow to communicate three-dimensionality.

    The whole concept of affordance depends on there being a coherence between the function of a particular interaction, and the manner in which it is represented visually. If there isn’t enough coherence between an interactive element and the function it performs, the interface will likely be confusing, ambiguous and frustrating. Designers must decide which metaphors to leverage in the design of their interfaces, within the context of existing interactive patterns and real-world experience.

    Just as a visual designer must work within the “constraints” of human visual perception, interaction designers must work within the constraints of analogous real-world experiences, existing interaction patterns, and cultural knowledge. These are welcome constraints, however, as they provide a wealth of meaning that can be effectively leveraged by an otherwise new interactive model.

    Real-World Experience

    Consider this. Is this button sticking out, or is it pressed in?

    How about this one?

    Technically, there is nothing about either of these images that objectively designates one as concave or the other as convex. However, in the physical world we are used to seeing objects lit from the top rather than from the bottom. As a result we perceive depth in images as though they too are lit from the top.

    This may seem obvious, but it illustrates a very important point: on-screen images have meaning only insofar as we have something to associate them with. We are a ways off yet where our every interaction with the world is mediated by a screen, and so the physical world and its properties of light and shadow hold a trove of meaning that we can leverage as designers to communicate a sense of three-dimensionality. Even in the simple world of gradients, bevels and drop shadows, we are leveraging a metaphorical language steeped in our experience with the physical world.

    Existing Interactive Patterns

    Real-world experiences play a large role in mediating our perception of interfaces, but established patterns for interaction are also incredibly influential. Blue underlined text has no off-screen analogue, but through repetition and familiarization it has become widely recognized as representing a hyperlink. These patterns take time to become established, but when they do they act as a source of meaning that can be leveraged in our interactions.

    Interactive patterns are certainly not limited to visual treatment, and with careful intent can quickly establish themselves. If we trace the evolution of Apple’s two-finger trackpad scrolling, to their multi-touch trackpads, to their multi-touch screens, it is clear they are deliberately training us in a new physical vocabulary. As this gestural language becomes familiar it becomes a resource for design, in turn clearing the way for more sophisticated gestures in the future.

    Cultural Knowledge

    Cultural knowledge and society comprise a final constraint within which we design interactions. Certain artifacts, materials and textures hold cultural significance, which we can leverage in our interfaces to communicate their intended use, or set the stage for a particular experience. A few apps and utilities in iOS, including Calendar, Compass, iBooks, and the ghastly Notes, come under harsh fire from Greenfield for their insultingly literal remediation of cultural ephemera. Compass looks like a brass compass! Your iBooks rest on your wooden iBookshelf! Notes looks like a yellow legal pad! Get it? NOTES?! Like the ones you WRITE?!?!

    Now, I agree with Greenfield that the patronizing appearance of these applications is inexcusable, that the literal representation of their real-world analogues demonstrates a surprising lack of elegance and ambition on the part of Apple. However, I disagree with Greenfield on the assertion that cultural metaphors have no place in a future-facing mobile context.

    I agree that Notes is an abomination, but it is not an abomination because it leverages cultural meanings, or because it attempts to channel a physical analogue in its form. It is a poor interface because it is a clumsy and inelegant implementation that takes the metaphor of a notepad far too literally. A better effort would be to distill the idea of a “note” to its absolute essence, and to extend it with the unique capabilities afforded by a mobile touch screen device.

    The tackiness of these apps is clumsy and insulting, but to claim that screen-based interfaces should exist outside of physical experience, outside of cultural meaning, is nonsense. Real-world analogues are a useful metaphor for structuring the way we think about a possible design, as well as a resource to leverage in shaping how users think about our design. This doesn’t excuse the ham-fisted design of Notes, but it lends some context as to why it fails, and how it could succeed without completely dispensing with metaphor and physicality.

    There are 9 thoughts on this idea

    1. AG

      However, I disagree with Greenfield on the assertion that cultural metaphors have no place in a future-facing mobile context.

      Funny, I don’t recall asserting that, or anything remotely like it. I welcome your disagreeing with my expressed views, or any part of them, even strenuously…but please grant me the favor of not putting words in my mouth.

    2. Dane Petersen

      @AG – Adam, thank you for your comments. Perhaps in the scathing language of your post I took away the wrong message. It’s difficult to interpret your description of the spiral-bound notebook of Calendar as the embodiment of Fear, or your characterization of the page curl in iBooks as “stick in the craw wrong”, as representing anything less than an act of aggression against the use of physically- and culturally-significant material and textural cues in touch screen interfaces. I am certain that your views regarding metaphor in interaction design are more nuanced than this, but the tone of your post doesn’t leave much to the imagination.

      @Marek – Indeed, it’s fascinating to watch the next generation grow up with these touch screen devices. As Peter recently pointed out, toddlers love the iPad, but they also love the tactile sensation of the home button. It’s a curious threshold to navigate, the one between physical in-the-world interactions and screen-mediated interactions, and the right balance is not always obvious.

      @Giles – To be sure, Adam advocates that Notes and Compass should be novel interfaces interfaces that allow novel tasks, and I wholeheartedly agree. The failure is a lack of imagination on the part of Apple, for lacking the ambition of redefining what a “note” or “compass” means in this new context. While their visual language may be crudely literal in implementation, that is not to say there isn’t value in leveraging these existing cultural and interactive languages. Notes and Compass are disappointing for deeper reasons than their visual treatments, but too often it is the visual treatment that is lambasted as being their primary flaw.

    3. Giles Colborne

      Thanks for your reply – and for the original post, which I neglected to mention that I really enjoyed, too.

      Sure, Notes is simple, but it goes beyond paper notes. It’s a searchable, almost infinite jotter that you can email, back up and sync over the air with other devices.

      It’s not radical, but it’s reliable, easy to use and it meets users’ needs. Those are ambitions that a lot of software doesn’t achieve.

      What I liked about your post is that you make the point that cultural references are important in making software comprehensible and approachable.

      Notes is an app that needs to be understood by anyone, instantly, without instruction or experimentation, and under some external stress (such as walking, talking on the phone or in a noisy environment).

      It’s a good example of when a strong visual cue is useful, even if that cue can seem heavy handed to some.

      Thanks again for another thought-provoking, intelligent article and taking the time for the replies above.

    4. Marek Pawlowski

      Thank you for a thought provoking article. It has left me wondering whether we will soon reach a tipping point, where our digital interactions with the world outweigh the physical? If so, will we see an acceleration in the number of interfaces with no physical analogue? Indeed, may we even imagine a time when physical ‘craft’ starts to take it’s cues from digital design? Perhaps we are already seeing the first signs of this in children’s toys, where those which mimic digital products such as mobile phones, are the objects of greatest fascination for kids – not least, I suspect, because as unbiased observers with fresh eyes, they see the importance the adults around them attach to these objects.

    5. Giles Colborne

      ‘Insulting’ and ‘ghastly’ are very strong words to throw at a humble app like Notes.

      If Notes was just a white screen and a flashing cursor would that be a ghastly cliche from 25 years ago?

      Novel interfaces make sense when the task is novel. But the Notes and Compass app don’t need to be novel because the task isn’t.

      It’d be worth getting angry about Bob, which used a metaphor that got in the way of the task. But not Notes where the visual metaphor doesn’t put a net burden on the intended audience.

      I know: we’re on the same side. But be cool. Notes doesn’t over do it. It isn’t worth the angry language.

      (By the way, the comments thread on ‘Remediation’ attached to AG’s original article are spot on, in my opinion.)

    6. Dane Petersen

      @Giles – And thank you for your comments!

      Indeed, I believe Notes in its current incarnation is a fine augmentation of its familiar real-world counterpart. Its visual language grounds its purpose in a familiar physical analogue (if in a heavy-handed manner), and its modest extension of functionality keeps the barrier of entry low while preparing users for future iterations. Maps could afford to be more ambitious because it was a mobile touch-based remediation of Google Maps, which has been influencing our interactive vocabulary for years.

      Instapaper, as Adam points out, is a marvelously ambitious remediation of Notes, but one that is conceptually a bit more difficult to grasp.

    7. AG

      Giles says “Notes is an app that needs to be understood by anyone, instantly,” and I don’t disagree. But — not to beat a dead horse — Notes is manifestly not a yellow pad. You can do things with it that no physical notepad in existence can replicate. Oughtn’t its interface reflect that?

      In all these considerations, I weigh the Loewy notion of “most advanced yet acceptable” very heavily. My disappointment in Apple is just that I trust virtually no other scale producer of consumer electronics to explore the edge of the MAYA envelope. They certainly do formally, and it strikes me as being a courage-of-one’s-own-convictions thing to carry the Most Advanced through into the evocation of user interfaces and experiences.

    8. george

      Excellent article. I could not agree more with the need for technology to interface with people through their ‘conceptual’ and ‘cultural’ spectrum as much as their visual spectrum

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