The Magic of Metaphor

By Colleen Jones

Published: October 20, 2008

“An idea is a feat of association, and the height of it is a good metaphor.”—Robert Frost

Metaphor teaches. Metaphor influences. Are you drawing on its power? Perhaps not, because many major works on writing for interactive products make little mention of it. To help encourage better use of metaphor, this column describes both the usefulness of shallow metaphors and the potential of deep metaphors, while offering tips and examples.

What Is a Metaphor?

“Deep metaphor can be useful in mental models as well as content, user experience, and product strategy.”

As Merriam-Webster notes, a metaphor is a rhetorical device “in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them.” You may be familiar with metaphor from literature, cinema, or even advertising. You might have pondered interaction metaphors such as the desktop metaphor. Or perhaps you’ve given up on using metaphor in the wake of the book Killer Web Sites, which touted creative navigation metaphors with little regard to their usability. While I consider usable navigation and interaction metaphors important, I think other people have covered those topics well. This column focuses on text and visual metaphors in content and explores how deep metaphor can be useful in mental models as well as content, user experience, and product strategy.

Metaphor Educates, Assists, and Influences

“Metaphor is so widespread in language that it’s hard to find expressions for abstract ideas that are not metaphorical.”—Stephen Pinker

Because metaphor suggests a likeness between objects and ideas, it is a powerful way to articulate the new or the conceptual. Metaphor helps us explain something new and unfamiliar in terms of the familiar. Metaphor also enables us to describe the conceptual in terms of the tangible. Therefore, I see at least three ways in which well-crafted metaphor enriches the user experience: educating, assisting, and influencing.

Educating

Metaphor helps us explain something new and unfamiliar in terms of the familiar.

In science, metaphors help explain concepts such as global warming—who hasn’t heard of the greenhouse effect? Any content product or service whose goal is to educate or inform users can draw upon metaphor. For instance, HowStuffWorks uses a grocery store metaphor to describe how the stock market works.

Assisting

Assisting is a cousin to educating. With technology and interactive products and services constantly improving and evolving, metaphor can help users make transitions to new technologies, interfaces, or features. For instance, I remember when the Web was new. One of my professors complained about describing the Web in terms of print, using such terms as pages. He preferred the terminology nodes. Well, people were familiar with pages. The print metaphor resonated. The Web page caught on.

Influencing

“If you offer a product that is unlike anything out there, you may need to describe it at least partly in terms of something customers already understand.”

Perhaps a less obvious use of metaphor is persuasion, or influence. If you offer a product that is unlike anything out there, you may need to describe it at least partly in terms of something customers already understand. If you offer a service with benefits that seem abstract, you’ll need to make its benefits tangible. Figure 1 shows how Prudential concretely demonstrates the concept of security through the rock metaphor in its logo and tagline.

Figure 1—Security metaphor in Prudential’s logo and tagline

Security metaphor

What is more, metaphor conjures connotations. The connotations lie in the idea or object you choose for comparison and how they relate to your audience. The financial metaphors in the Martin Luther King, Jr., speech “I Have a Dream” have persuasive power when you consider their context. Most of his audience, even skeptical white men, likely related to them. His metaphors also encouraged treating race equity with a sober respect—similar to the respect his audience likely gave to their finances.

“In a sense, we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable Rights’ of ‘Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.’ It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds’.”—Martin Luther King, Jr.

Finally, metaphors can tap into our customers’ deepest needs—what psychology and other related disciplines describe as universals—and unconsciously influence our customers. I’ll briefly explore such metaphors—not only for content, but also for user experience and product strategy—in the next section.

Deep Metaphors, Deeper Influence

“The metaphor is perhaps one of man’s most fruitful potentialities. Its efficacy verges on magic, and it seems a tool for creation which God forgot inside one of His creatures when He made him.”—Jos Ortega y Gasset

“Perhaps the real magic of metaphors is their potential for profound influence.”

Perhaps the real magic of metaphors is their potential for profound influence. Harvard Professor Gerald Zaltman and marketing guru Lindsay Zaltman recently released a fascinating book, Marketing Metaphoria, in which they posit this idea: When companies—especially marketers—think about customers, they do not dig beneath the surface. The Zaltmans argue that beneath the surface are deep customer needs that truly—and often unconsciously—drive our customers’ decisions.

To prove this premise, they conducted more than 12,000 in-depth interviews for more than a hundred clients, in more than 30 countries, using the Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique, or ZMET. The results? Seven deep metaphors emerged most often, in every sector and country. People who otherwise have little in common—whether cultural background, age, gender, education, occupation, political values, consumer experiences, basic beliefs, religious preference, or almost anything else—shared these metaphors.

An effective marketing strategy, the Zaltmans argue, should consider how to tap into these seven deep metaphors:

  • balance—which focuses on justice, equilibrium, and the interplay of elements
  • transformation—including changes in substance and circumstances
  • journey—involving the meeting of past, present, and future
  • container—encompassing inclusion, exclusion, states of being, and other boundaries
  • connection—which focuses on the need to relate to oneself and others
  • resource—involving acquisitions and their consequences
  • control—the sense of mastery, vulnerability, and well-being

Shallow, or surface, metaphors can suggest these deeper metaphors. For instance, in the “I Have a Dream” example, the surface financial metaphors tap into the deeper metaphor of balance. King depicted race inequity as a serious imbalance, and most people gravitate toward correcting imbalances. Marketing Metaphoria offers many more such examples.

“These metaphors could inform content strategy, UX strategy, or product strategy, inspire new product or service ideas, and more.”

As the book’s title suggests, the Zaltmans are speaking to traditional marketers and managers. But interactive marketers, UX professionals, and product managers can benefit from listening to their ideas, as well. These metaphors could inform content strategy, UX strategy, or product strategy, inspire new product or service ideas, and more.

A few examples quickly come to mind. The promotion and content—instructions, button labels, images, and the like—of self-service applications could draw on the control metaphor. Social networking products naturally tap into connection. Product positioning and interactive marketing efforts can evoke metaphors in many different ways. For instance, with one image, Hearing Planet relates its products, hearing aids, to the metaphor of connection, as shown in Figure 2. When older adults lose their hearing, they also lose their ability to participate in conversations and, consequently, the ability to connect with friends and family. A hearing aid restores that ability.

Figure 2—An image selling hearing aids evokes connection

Evoking connection

Another example is the way Apple depicts MobileMe. The line “keep everything in sync” coupled with the cloud—holding representations of different core applications such as email and calendar—suggests container. On a shallow level, this helps make the abstract concept of a Web-based service concrete. On a deeper level, MobileMe is attempting to tap into customers’ need to have constant access to their tools—to remain in a state of perpetual access.

Figure 3—MobileMe tagline and cloud draw on the container metaphor

Drawing on the container metaphor
“We hear much about understanding customer behavior. We also need to understand the customer thought, or perception, that drives the behavior.”

In addition to the discovery of the metaphors themselves, I am thrilled to see research that tries to uncover what customers cannot themselves articulate in surveys or simple interviews. I am ecstatic to see strong evidence revealing the subtle yet powerful influences of metaphor on customer thought.

I have not seen anything comparable in the interactive marketing world, which sometimes seems terribly shallow, or even the UX world, which goes deeper. In both of these worlds, we hear much about understanding customer behavior. We also need to understand the customer thought, or perception, that drives the behavior.

An interesting Business Horizons article, “Tacit Meaning in Disguise: Hidden Metaphors in New Product Development and Market Making,” explores metaphor in mental models for product development. I hope this kind of exploration of metaphor continues. If we do not push to understand such thought influences, our mental models and personas will remain incomplete, and our interactive marketing, products, and services will fail to reach their deepest potential.

Getting Practical: Metaphor Dos and Don’ts

”There are few things as toxic as a bad metaphor. You can’t think without metaphors.”—Mary Catherine Bateson

Whether shallow or deep, metaphors offer plenty of benefits. How can we use metaphor well in our content? Consider these guidelines:

  • Do use metaphor sparingly, carefully, and respectfully.
    Metaphors take time and effort to develop well. Using too many metaphors can lessen the impact of each metaphor and cause cognitive overload in customers. Furthermore, deep metaphors are powerful, so we should use them in a respectful, not a manipulative way. For instance, I would not want to take a poor product and try to use a deep metaphor to spin its marketing. Finally, Marketing Metaphoria recommends focusing on just one deep metaphor for a product or brand. The book also offers other useful recommendations for applying deep metaphors.
  • Don’t mix and match your metaphors.
    Another reason to use metaphor carefully is to avoid mixing metaphors. Mixing metaphors can confuse people, possibly ruining any potential for educating, assisting, or influencing. Usually mixed metaphors are the result of sloppy or rushed thinking, but sometimes they are intentional. One example of a mixed metaphor is from Bonfire of the Vanities, which suggests a comparison to both a bee and a chicken: “All at once, he was alone in this noisy hive with no place to roost.” This may be okay in a literary context, where people want to ponder what they are reading, but likely would not work in other contexts.
  • Do take metaphors far enough—but don’t take them too far.
    This guideline is tricky. Achieving this comes more naturally with practice. You want to take a metaphor far enough that the comparison between objects or ideas is clear. At the same time, every metaphor breaks at some point—where two objects or ideas no longer seem alike. You don’t want to take your metaphor to the breaking point and, consequently, perplex your customers. Instead, focus on the comparison, not the contrast. For instance, the term information architecture includes an incredibly useful metaphor for describing this element of user experience, especially to clients who are not familiar with it. However, information architecture, in some ways, is not like building architecture. If you focus on this breaking point, you’ll digress from your metaphor's goal and confuse customers.
  • Do think about a metaphor’s connotations.
    Connotations are important to consider, even for educational or assistive metaphors. You do not want unintended connotations to disrupt the customer experience. For instance, if you are describing the efficiency of a product, you probably do not want to compare it to a toilet’s efficiency. Also, consider whether your shallow metaphor is tapping into a deeper metaphor. If so, make sure it’s the right one, as in the “I Have a Dream” example.
  • Do make metaphors culturally appropriate.
    As with any descriptive language or imagery, cultural considerations are key. Ensure the ideas or objects you choose for a metaphor are understandable, relatable, and not offensive.
  • Do make metaphors brand appropriate.
    Because brand differentiation often involves abstract ideas or characteristics, metaphor offers an opportunity to powerfully reinforce brand. Avoid a metaphor that conflicts with your brand. If yours is a value brand, you might not want to use metaphors that refer to luxury, unless you are trying to convey the idea that the brand offers luxury for less. Furthermore, if your brand tends to focus on one deep metaphor, do not use language that suggests other deep metaphors.
  • Do reinforce metaphors with visuals and media.
    Metaphor offers a powerful way of integrating text with visuals and media. A tight integration imbues the experience with the metaphor, giving it greater resonance. For instance, in the earlier Hearing Planet example, the home page—especially its visual—suggests the metaphor. The rest of the site’s content, including a video, could draw on that metaphor more effectively through well-placed, suggestive language and visuals that more clearly position hearing aids as a bridge to friends and family.
  • Don't mistake metaphor for marketese.
    Ever since Jakob Nielsen claimed a 124% usability improvement for objective text over marketese, the UX world has hesitated to consider persuasive content, including metaphors. Metaphors are not bombastic marketese. Metaphors are a way of communicating more clearly, pertinently, and deeply. Used well and in ways that don’t interfere with usability, they can enhance the customer experience.
  • Do test your metaphors.
    Metaphors can elicit emotions and seem to have meanings you do not intend, so it is important to test them with customers and carefully refine them, as with any content or design.

Conclusion

“Metaphor is an alchemy that transforms usable content into richly influential content and good products into treasured products.”

Metaphor is a not just a useful tool for educating and assisting customers. Metaphor is an alchemy that transforms usable content into richly influential content and good products into treasured products. Let’s continue to explore the magic of metaphor.

7 Comments

What a fascinating and persuasive, burgeoning tree of juicy apples of a post, Colleen!

Several of the key metaphors that you cite, such as those of connection, container, journey, transformation, and resource, are also identified by Steven Pinker, in his book The Stuff of Thought, as being innate metaphors that underlie human language itself.

No wonder, then, that these metaphors have such power of persuasion in User Experience.

Great article, Colleen, and on a subject we do not seem to hear a lot about.

We hear about brands and branding all the time; but it seems that metaphors are the piece that get overlooked or just do not get a lot of play time.

Great quotations and references here, too.

Great article. I’m often bewildered that software development folks are able to use metaphors so articulately and freely in day-to-day conversations about building software, yet seem to be utterly incapable of using metaphors to bridge the knowledge gap that exists between us and our users and customers!

Luke—Thanks for the kudos and the nice metaphor to boot. Great point about Stephen Pinker. Marketing Metaphoria cites him quite a bit, so the connection makes sense.

Jim—Yeah, I haven’t encountered a discussion of metaphors quite like this. I hope we start to give them more play. As we have to get more sophisticated with the emotion and persuasion aspects of our designs to stay competitive, we’ll need to think about metaphors more.

Ben—Interesting point about developers using metaphors in everyday conversation. That makes sense, because they’re constantly encountering new technologies or solutions and need to explain them to each other.

This is truly a great article as it touches upon all disciplines in UXD. I believe, as professionals, we can learn a lot by using and thinking with metaphors when designing a usable and positive user experience. Thank you for a fantastic read!

Very excited to come across your extremely thoughtful article on metaphors. In an age of information overload and attention deficit, the ability to be heard is often a daunting challenge. Metaphors solve that problem for all the reasons listed in your article. As a presentation and sales specialist, I have always noticed that people recognize the power of metaphor to explain, persuade, and assist, but they often feel that they lack the skill to create these powerful communication tools. I wrote a book “Metaphorically Selling” to give people an easy model for creating metaphors and analogies for themselves. Your readers may want to subscribe to my free monthly newsletter, “The Metaphor Minute,” to see examples from business that use metaphors to get communicate in a variety of situations.

Eliane—You’re definitely welcome! I wasn’t sure how people would react to the subject, so I’m thrilled you found it valuable.

Anne—I’ve added your book to my reading list. It sounds highly useful, and I appreciate you making me and the UX community aware of it.

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