How Does Metaphor Help Me in HCI Design?

Lexie Li
9 min readDec 13, 2018


“Metaphor consists in giving the thing a name that belongs to something else; the transference being either from genus to species, or from species to genus, or from species to species, or on grounds of analogy.”

— Aristotle [1]

Our universe is generally understood as a physical, scientifically governed entity that consists of tangible reality and an absence of vagueness. This physical reality, which we encounter every day, provides us with countless metaphors, which help us to understand and communicate the abstract ideas in our inner worlds. The close relationship between our physical surroundings and our ideas, for designers, suggests that the truth can be positively cultivated into a medium that has the capability to help us better apprehend the phases of a design process, the notion of a design proposal, and how a design product works.

In this blog, I’d like to first overview our existing knowledge on metaphor, both with specific examples I have created and with results from the related paper. This part serves as a personal review of what we’ve learned in class. Following this initial review, I’ll also discuss other studies that share the representation of metaphor in HCI and design in order to elaborate on how metaphor can function as a supplementary tool and a medium in the design process. Lastly, I will present how metaphor can be applied to my own design experience, and how metaphor can be critiqued.


For millennia, metaphor has been used in figurative language, literature, and daily conversation to convey ideas. For example, the voyage and the captain throughout the whole paragraph of Walt Whitman’s poem O Captain! My Captain was interpreted as a metaphor for the US Civil War and Abraham Lincoln. Colors — another inescapable part of most people’s daily lives — have also worked themselves into everyday language; it’s not unusual to describe a novice as a ‘green hand’, comparing his or her lack of experience with the green sprouts of plants when they germinate from the soil.

Metaphor also plays a role that cannot be neglected in HCI research. The concept of “ecology” has been widely identified as something that contributes to lead the analysis and design of either individual artifacts embedded in a complex relationship with other artifacts, or whole technological configurations comprising multiple artifacts.[2] The empirical notion of ecology in HCI was devised by Susanne Bødker in her later experiment and paper Untangling the Mess of Technological Artifacts: Investigating

(Figure 1, Illustrated by the author)

Community Artifact Ecologies. In her project, metaphor makes an impressive impact on the process of research and operates in a seamless relationship with technological artifacts. (As Figure 1 shows).


Metaphor has become well known in the design field in three senses: as a representation and framework to understand what design is fundamentally all about;[3] as a deliberate style for designers to draw upon during the design process; and as a technique and a model for the reinvention or identification of products and services.[4]

In the interaction design process, we are accustomed to detaching tangible objects from input actions as the source of user behavior, and we aim to create interaction design systems that consist of algorithms, logic, and the technical components required for execution. This is actually an implicit model of metaphor based on a design concept. Take Siri as an example of the voice interaction design (based on IOS 12)[10]: iPhone — a physical smart device existing in the real environment — hosts Siri — an interactive function embedded in an artifact that continuously remains in listening mode (provided that you’ve opened the Siri function). Siri can be triggered at any time once it detects a wake-up word, and, upon receiving the command by its user, will send audio input information to the AI computation system behind it. Next, the computing platform decodes the semantic input and sends the outcome as a new command back to Siri, which then processes it again and reacts in a voice mode to the user via iPhone. In this way, analyzing the correspondence between the source and the target domain constitutes a basis for a formal representation within this metaphor model.[3]

“The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another,” say L’Abbate and Hemmje.[8] This leads us to consider the possibility of using metaphor as a tool to understand and conceive of an ambiguous concept which still remains unknown situation when we encounter an existing design object[5] — especially in the joint process of defining problematic situations and ideating insights into design (Design Thinking of d. School Stanford). This empirical idea can potentially be used for the elaboration and representation of an abstract or vague concept. There is no better proof than Infotropism,[6] which explores living and robotic plant life, to demonstrate this process of deduction. In this paper, a group of HCI researchers use the metaphor of a plant and its biological forms and behavior as a framework for perceiving the legibility of an interface as well as users’ bias as observed through their public behavior. In the words of Lakoff and Johnson, “Our conceptual system…is fundamentally metaphoric in nature.” Illustrating this point, the phototaxis and the guiding nature of plants can subtly inform our own “common sense.” Indoor plants always tend to grow in the direction where the light comes from; when lost during a backpacking trip without a compass, the moss of a tree can guide hikers towards the north. Researchers utilize knowledge people can readily understand to reflect a reality that human beings, a kind of social animal, are able to comprehend. From a bionic perspective, phototaxis can also leave a clue for researchers of people’s affinity for various other things. This is an actual manifestation of emotional design suggested by a display of the plant model (see Figure 2).

(Figure 2: Concept sketch of possible manipulations. Illustrated by David Holstius et al.)

Both of these features of praxeology applied to design were identified by a smart physical model (technique) through a metaphor. In the phase of Ideation, this included establishing design concepts and generating specific ideas after gaining insights. Metaphor is about perception — how we view things.[4] Being a designer, I myself have benefitted from this paradigm.


In the words of Kenneth Burke, “To consider A from the point of view of B is, of course, to use B as a perspective upon A.” [8]When my team first started to tackle the project Sustainability: Preserving Life, we chose Water Consumption and Saving Water as our subtopic. We would like to provide a household service that combines visualization and kid-friendly education to afford users to monitor their own water usage at home. After going through basic protocols of predesign and research, we acquired several insights: people tend to avoid using excessive amounts of water since notification and warning may cause stress; people are willing to improve the situation by receiving a positive and encouraging result or using devices/machines featuring water-saving; people may believe that the water consumption of others living around them is “the average.” However, what they can’t see — and what is currently happening on the other side of the world — actually contributes to “the current situation.” Therefore, it is crucial to maintain a global perspective as an “ objective standard” to refer to. After we had gathered these insights, we arrived at a stage in which we became inspired by metaphor: we built a conceptual model from a living world identified as a stimulator to concretize our design — Wateropia. (See Figure 3)

In our product, the volume of water that you’ve consumed affects the fate of Wateropia, a utopian world with no pollution or waste. We conceived Wateropia as a motivation for our users to achieve the goal of saving water without any warnings or direct pressure; instead, we created an interesting way to reflect water consumption. (See Figure 3)

(Figure 3: Conceptual Model by Implementing Metaphor in the Process of Ideation, Illustrated by the author)

This conceptual model actually brings us to a concrete position: gamification. By following the basic structure that Wateropia has suggested, other team members and I finally created a certain blueprint that we will move forward with — A Household Interactive Fish Tank. The tanks serve as an analogy for the ocean, which means the content of the tank that people will see is the condition of the ocean. This can be connected into users’ monthly water bill system and will reflect how much water people have used. The more one consumes, the less water will remain in the tank. When the user saves water or uses less water within the same time period, water will be returned back to the tank, or some other fish species may pop up since our product is meant to be a kid-friendly education service. After a consumption cycle, an individual might also get rewards if he or she is detected as a water saver, such as being able to add some rain effect or nutrition to the ocean. In this way, people will be educated with knowledge about the ocean and its protection.

If this conceptual model may be seen as metaphor exerting its influence on the design process in a larger sense, the figurative significance of metaphor for design products (we consider the blueprint as a quasi-product of design here) lies in representation. We illustrate the water level gauge in the ocean as the volume of water which people will consume; we borrow elements beneficial to the ocean environment to represent the number of water people will save; we also focus on the condition of fish species to suggest the environment has been affected by human waste.


Metaphors are ubiquitous since our social circumstances act as a defining locus for them.[7] However, not every problem we encounter is reasonable to solve or discuss via metaphor. In computing space controlled by AI and advanced technology, the attributes of metaphors are frequently labeled with adjectives like “strong” and “powerful but dangerous.” In our existing physical world, the artifacts that we are prone to draw upon to construct metaphors have already experienced a long-lasting history; however, the real-world limitations of these artifacts — such as physical and financial limitations — will mean that they might fail to serve their intended purpose, particularly when information can often be conveyed in a far more effective manner than physical devices themselves.[5] Beyond that, since computer technology systems are convoluted and organized by sophisticated algorithms, they are always hard to understand by reasoning or borrowing from a single detailed artifact.

Nothing illustrates this point better than Xerox Star. For this product, the whole system is referred to as a metaphor for a real office that one might sit in, including a desktop, files, calendar, calculator, and trash bin. However, it is paradoxical to rely on metaphor excessively to understand the whole picture — no one would actually put a trash bin on their desktop! Of course, scientists and researchers do have a solution for this problem: one proposal advocated by Gerald R. Khoury from IBM is the Elastic Metaphor protocol, an artificial, cognitive construct that can be shaped to reflect the behavior of a wide variety of systems.[5] In other words, given the pervasive nature of metaphor, we need to find a scope for its ultimate exertion and balance its usage in each stage of HCI design.


[1] Aristotle. 1984. The complete works of Aristotle: The revised Oxford translation/ed. by Jonathan Barnes (1st ed. Vol. 2). Princeton (NJ): Princeton University Press.

[2] Eli Blevis, Susanne Bødker, et al. 2015. Workshop Summary: Ecological Perspectives in HCI: Promise, Problems, and Potential. CHI’15 Extended Abstracts. Seoul, Republic of Korea. ACM 978–1–4503–3146–3/15/04.

[3] Antti Pirhonen. 2014. Metaphor as a Focal Concept in Sound Design. Finland: University of Jyväskylä.

[4] Dan Saffer. 2005. The Role of Metaphor in Interaction Design. Pittsburgh(PA): Carnegie Mellon University.

[5] Gerald R. Khoury & Simeon J. Simoff. 2003. Elastic Metaphors: Expanding the Philosophy of Interface Design. IBM Global Services. Australia: University of Technology Sydney.

[6] David Holstius et al. 2004. Infotropism: Living and Robotic Plants as Interactive Displays. Pittsburgh(PA): Carnegie Mellon University.

[7] Hamid Ekbia. 2008. GPS: The Origins of AI. Bloomington(IN): Indiana University Bloomington.

[8] George Lakoff, Mark Johnson. 1983. Review Vol.59. №1. pp. 201–207 Metaphors We Live By . DOI: 10.2307/414069

[9] Kenneth Burke. 1941. The Kenyon Review. Vol .3 №4 . pp. 421–438. Gambier(OH) :Kenyon College.

[10] Blog Reading: