Design, Technology and Metaphor

I find it useful to think about most creative activities as being centred around the notion of metaphor. In advertising, for instance, a very common metaphor is the equation of success in life, and most particularly success with the opposite sex, with the purchase of the appropriate product. Indeed, branding is all about the metaphorical association of the abstract brand with a desirable character trait, such as Coke = happiness, or Guiness = invention. Brand managers strive to ensure that this metaphor is implemented coherently and consistently across all points of contact between the consumer and the brand – from advertising and promotion, through purchase, the actual moment of consumption itself and how consumers describe the brand thereafter.

Just like above the line activity, interface design and user experience, on the web and elsewhere, is all about constructing and maintaining a consistent metaphor. The most obvious example is the common computer Graphical User Interface (GUI) itself – the desktop, borrowing as it does some elements of the now-antiquated real world office – such as folders, and trash can. Just as you can change your mind about stuff you have thrown away, provided the office cleaner hasn’t emptied the trash, you can change your mind and retrieve items you have thrown away on the computer desktop. In constructing such a metaphor, not all aspects of the office are implemented in the interface – we don’t get a choice of chairs, for instance – though our virtual desktops do get messy, and we frequently put pictures of loved-ones on them. The creation and maintenance of interface metaphors is usually considered to be a design discipline. For successful interfaces, however, design and technology must work seamlessly together – which is often quite tricky to achieve.

Historically there has been quite a big divide between the disciplines of programming and design. This goes back to the days when programming computers involved the laborious writing of lines and lines of code, and using software involved entering some mystic incantations from the keyboard and viewing the resulting lines of text – neither mouse nor pointer to guide the way. In some ways, the creation of code still has something in common with those early days – particularly the focus on the linguistic and algorithmic aspects of code – aspects that can’t be captured easily in a graphical environment. Whilst design aims to look at things from the user’s point of view, the abstract linguistic orientation of code keeps some developers at arm’s length from user’s experience of the interface, whilst alienating many designers from the undoubted benefits of the deep understanding of interaction that can be derived from understanding code. Indeed on of my own preoccupations, both personally and professionally, is overcoming the synthetic divide between design and technology – which was one of the driving forces behind Lime Media being set up in the first place. At Lime we insist that our developers always keep their eye on the experience of using the system, whilst we expect our designers to understand the technical framework being used to implement their designs.

Given the way that software is often purchased these days – online, or on a mobile, at low-cost, for immediate use – it is unreasonable to expect user to delve into the recesses of a help system. When was the last time you used a user-manual, even when one was provided? If you are like me, probably a very, very long time ago. In most cases, except when using specialist or proprietary systems, user do have it relatively easy, finding themselves able to use new interfaces on first exposure, with little or no instruction. Why do they find it so easy – if the agency has done their job it is either because the interface has been designed in accordance with accepted or de-facto norms of behaviour, or, if it the design is quite innovative, they will have clearly indicated the metaphor being set up through visual and interactional cues.

When you innovate, you must provide clear sign-posts about the metaphor you are using. Here is where the bridge can be built most effectively between design and programming. User interface design is all about the visual cues for use, as well as the seamless progression of related actions involved in undertaking common tasks. If done well, the user will hardly notice it has been designed at all. The code implementation, however, is vital to support the consistency of the metaphor – it provides the depth and the behaviour over time that leads the user to trust that the GUI will not suddenly do something unexpected, that it will behave as advertised by the visual cues, that it will intelligently reuse information provided and not, for instance, ask you more than once for your name and address – unless doing a security check.

For the user, the experience of an interface can’t be broken down into component parts. The smoothness of movement on the interface needs to be matched by the information handling and vice-versa. If everything is right, then they will only be thinking about what they are doing – finding information, making purchasing decisions, amending information – instead of the interface. As soon as the metaphor of the interface breaks down – through inconsistency or unexpected behaviours – that is when the interface design, or lack thereof, becomes apparent.

Just like art, design and technology are ways that we reshape the way that we engage with the world – rearranging what is important and how we take our bearings. Art often likes to do this through metaphors that jar and provoke, through drawing the viewer into a world in which confusion and shock are the order of the day. By contrast, interface design is all about making the user feel at home – with design and technology taking a low-key role, keeping users focussed on what they are doing.

In order to create an engaging user-experience, and hence make systems useable and useful,  design and technology must work together to create consistent, coherent and intuitive metaphors for engaging and guiding users in what they really want to do.

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About jonallenby
I'm the co-founder and Technical Director of a new media agency - Lime Media. I would describe myself as having a healthy scepticism about technology - new ways of doing things are always new, but they are not necessarily better. Best to cut through the hype and think about how technology will physically change people's lives, for better or worse. I am also struggling to finish a part-time PhD in language, metaphor and philosophy at Goldsmith's College, University of London. Apart from thinking and reading, I like playing with my children, cross-country running and White Crane Kung-Fu - though usually not all at once.

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