How we’re using metaphors to listen to people’s experiences

Ximena Ampuero
Nov 15, 2018 · 5 min read

by Ximena Ampuero and Ali Fradin

Illustration by Fanny Luor

As researchers, it’s our job to help people best express and explore their ideas. Each person is the expert of their experiences. Asking the right question — or asking it in the right way — can make all the difference.

So how do we create space for empowering conversations? How might we help people share their stories in ways that help them feel seen, respected, and understood? And how might these conversations help us bring product development closer to human experiences?

Introducing metaphors

At Dropbox, we’ve found that metaphors are a powerful tool to help people explore and share their experiences in more creative and meaningful ways.

We use metaphors in research so people can talk about their experiences through a different lens. We can do this simply by inviting people to make a comparison through a single question. Or we can facilitate entire interviews by using tools to symbolize and explore meaning together.

Metaphors 101: Start using metaphors through a single question

One simple way to get started with metaphors in research is by asking a single question to wrap up an interview. We recently tried this during research to understand why certain users had canceled their Dropbox Business accounts.

The breakup

Illustration by Fanny Luor

After questions around product experience and satisfaction, we finished our interviews by asking people to reflect on their cancelation experience through metaphor: “If you’d had a friend break up with Dropbox, what kind of breakup would it have been?”

People smiled and laughed at this idea, but each of them took their answers seriously. Speaking through metaphor gave them an opportunity to tell their story at a more human level than functionality or price.

Identify key details

We heard about many different types of breakups and relationships with Dropbox, ones that ended because of neediness, immaturity, and communication issues.

People’s answers helped us understand which details of their journeys (or relationships) with Dropbox were key in their decisions to cancel. If immaturity emerged as the main culprit in the breakup, which product experiences aligned with that perception? That’s where we should focus our attention.

Synthesize through metaphors

We can also use people’s answers to help us synthesize, because patterns across metaphors serve as vital clues to patterns in non-metaphorical data.

For example, we identified a group of participants whose breakups involved growing apart from Dropbox in some way. One participant likened it to losing touch with friends after college, while another compared it to becoming a parent when your friends are not.

Spotting this group’s shared metaphorical theme prompted us to take a closer look at their interview responses for similarities in their product experiences. Doing so helped us spot a core reason for cancelation early on: the reason behind “growing apart” from Dropbox was a lack of integration with other tools.

Metaphors 201: Frame full interviews through metaphors

We can also use metaphors to frame entire interviews. Instead of asking one or two questions, we structure the conversations to relate an experience to a familiar metaphor: “If your team were a town, how would you map it? If your last project were a movie, what would be in the trailer?”

Visual tools are crucial in these conversations. They’re used to help construct and explore meaning throughout an interview. This also means we get to show up at research sessions with a toolbox full of toys.

Space travel

For a recent study on remote work, our toolbox was full of space toys. We set out to use the metaphor of space travel to understand what it takes to be a successful remote worker.

Illustration by Fanny Luor

After some warm-up questions, we asked participants to map out the components of remote work as a galaxy they were traveling through. People chose toys — Star Wars and Guardians of the Galaxy action figures, planet stickers, and plastic space vehicles — to symbolize locations, people, tools, and processes.

Bring play into the process

Talking about work through the creation of a toy galaxy brought playfulness to our conversations. It empowered people to discuss aspects of work that might seem mundane in more creative ways. For example, representing a VPN as a favorite space villain elicits more emotional context than a conversation about how a VPN slows down work.

A playful lens can also help participants feel more comfortable during interviews. This is especially important when talking about potentially sensitive or complex topics.

Delve into why

When people choose their symbols, it gives us an opportunity to probe into the why of their choices, helping to uncover additional meaning and connections.

During our space travel metaphor, one participant placed a group of colleagues who work in a different location on her planet — while others who work in a closer location were mapped farther away in her galaxy. When we delved into why those coworkers were on the same planet, we were able to understand both why they felt close and the processes they had in place to feel that closeness.

Tips and tricks for trying out metaphors

  • Don’t overlook the introduction. Going straight into metaphors can be jarring — people need a little warm-up! If you’re using metaphor to frame an interview, spend a few minutes asking some general questions before jumping into the exercise. And don’t forget to acknowledge that this activity is fun and different. Let people know you’re about to “ask a funky question” or that it’s time to “bring out the toys.”
  • Choose metaphors carefully. When choosing your metaphors, think about ways to help people explore their ideas in a different — yet similar enough — context. And consider that the best metaphors carry feelings, associations, and connotations. If you’re lost on where to start, try asking people to describe a product or experience as a person.
  • Know your audience. Some people are more comfortable with a playful approach than others. If you’re doing a field visit to a place of work, consider how the environment might affect someone’s readiness to engage. And be prepared to lead the way when necessary. You can help people get started by asking them to pick out a toy that represents them.

Try it!

Ready to try it out? Let us know which metaphors you try and how they work for you. We’re still learning and experimenting, so let us know about your experiences at research@dropbox.com.


Much of the work we’ve been exploring leans on decades of participatory design research and practice. We’re especially inspired and informed thanks to Liz Sanders and Pieter Jan Stappers, and their book Convivial Toolbox.

You can learn more about how Dropbox has used participatory design in Ruth Buchanan’s blog post on co-creative research.

Want more from the Dropbox Design team? Follow our publication, Twitter, and Dribbble. Let’s co-create together: We’re hiring in New York and San Francisco!

Dropbox Design

We believe joy is the engine that powers the best ideas. We’re designing a more enlightened of working, so you can love the way you work. More on dropbox.design.

Thanks to

Ximena Ampuero

Written by

Senior Design Researcher @ Dropbox

Dropbox Design

We believe joy is the engine that powers the best ideas. We’re designing a more enlightened of working, so you can love the way you work. More on dropbox.design.

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