On Metaphors

An often overlooked step in the Web design process is identifying the metaphor that’s right for the client and the customer. A metaphor is defined as “a thing regarded as representative of something else.” It’s easy to forget that there aren’t actually “buttons” on a Web site. That’s just a metaphor from the real world of dashboards and calculators that has developed into a visual explanation of a clickable item. Tabs are another common default metaphor that come from the world of file folders.

Metaphors make the unfamiliar, familiar. They take abstract ideas (yes, linking to another page is an abstract idea) and make them tangible. The right metaphor can help reduce the need for long instructional copy by creating a setting or environment that is familiar to the audience. An astute student of mine in the HOW University class on user experience expressed this concern to me: When a metaphor is used as a way to show cleverness, it can sometimes get in the way of conveying the message.

My response that he was absolutely correct. Metaphors derived from a desier to simply be cool, rather than a thoughtful consideration of the client and the user are, well, useless. Metaphors are meant to enhance the users experience of the content, that might be finding it faster or engaging with it on a deeper level.

Metaphors are meant to enhance the users experience of the content, that might be finding it faster or engaging with it on a deeper level.

It’s very easy to default to an old standard like threedimensional buttons or folder tabs, but is that the ultimate expression for your client, their product or their customer? Design is a process of considering and deciding. Too often designers forget this and don’t realize they’re making decisions.

Metaphors aren’t always just visual, they can be verbal as well, specifically with regard to the labeling of the content of a site. With Web design, and with content labeling in particular, there
has always been a need to strike a balance between unique (nongeneric and ownable by the client) and familiar. Unique because clients need to have a personality, but familiar because you want users to be able to find information on a site almost intuitively.

Ultimately, finding the right experience for your user is what designers strive to do. Creating moodboards, style tiles and developing a visual metaphor are ways in which designers can break out of the standard function of a design and into the experience of a design.