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Notes of [Interface Metaphors … ] by Carroll, Mack, and Kellogg

Key Points

  • One of the dominant themes in studies of human-computer interaction is that of controlling complexity, understanding how to design user interfaces that will be easier to learn and to use;
  • An alternate approach to controlling the complexity of user interfaces is to design interface actions, procedures and concepts to exploit specific prior knowledge that users have of other domains;
  • If a text editor truly appeared and functioned as a typewriter in every detail, it would be a typewriter. The inevitable mismatches of the metaphor and its target are a source of new complexities for users;
  • The mismatches:
    • Function mismatch (e.g., paper forms v.s. spreadsheet);
    • Metaphors apply unevenly (i.e., sometimes it breaks);
    • Metaphors are more composite than integral (i.e., multiple, varied metaphors used in one interface)
  • Learning by analogy might be the only way that humans actually learn.
  • Approaches of metaphor:
    • Operational – focus on demonstrating measurable behavioral effects of employing metaphoric presentations;
    • Structural – address the representation of mappings between metaphor source domains and target domains;
    • Pragmatic.
  • Thus,  metaphors are not just good or bad descriptions of their targets, rather they are stimulating or unstimulating invitations to see a target domain in a new light.
  • Salient dissimilarities – in the context of salient similarities – can stimulate thought.
  • In the pragmatic approach, interface metaphors are seen as tools. They are deliberately invoked in the service of specific user goals. They directly describe aspects of the target domain, but they also fail to describe, or even misdescribe, other aspects. Resolving these failures however entrains a conceptual understanding of the target domain.
  • The framework defines three distinct stages in metaphorical reasoning, each associated with different kinds of cognitive activity: instantiation, elaboration, and consolidation. … the recognition or retrieval of something known (i.e., potential source analog), the generation of inferences about how an instantiated source can be applied … to the target domain, and the consolidation of an elaborated metaphor into a mental model of the target domain itself.
  • A model is a description of a target domain or object that seeks to faithfully represent the actual elements, relations and mechanisms that are constitutive of objects in that domain.
  • The distinction we envision between models and metaphors resides chiefly in the open-endedness, incompleteness, and inconsistent validity of metaphoric comparisons versus the explicitness, comprehensiveness and validity of the models which the successful learner will ultimately obtain.
  • The method of designing with metaphors:
    • Identify candidate metaphors or composite metaphors;
    • Detail metaphor/software matches with respect to representative user scenarios;
    • Identify likely mismatches and their implications;
    • Identify design strategies to help users manage mismatches.
  • Three sources of metaphors:
    • Predecessor tools and systems – users’ experiences with existing systems or situations similar to that under design, may suggest important metaphors;
    • Human properties – metaphors may be generated based on users’ cognitive,, perceptual, and even motivational strengths and weaknesses;
    • Sheer invention – a design guess based on no obvious predecessor tool, or empirical evidence.


  • In forming metaphors, the side-by-side analysis (Table 3) is useful.
  • The goal of using metaphor is not reproducing something identical; but to make the interactive system easier and more pleasant to use.
  • Metaphor-based interface design is multifaceted – one should try to approach it from the three perspectives discussed in this chapter;
  • Applying metaphor is an analytic, rather than arbitrary, process – one should follow the several phases to yield the best possible use of metaphors.

About Xiang 'Anthony' Chen

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