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Why So Many UX Analogies?

Practical Usability

Moving toward a more usable world

A column by Jim Ross
July 11, 2016

If you frequently read UX articles online, I’m sure you’ve noticed the trend to use analogies in describing user experience. In writing about user experience, people have drawn analogies to pizza, yoga, fishing, parenting, riding a bike, home renovation, crossword puzzles, professional wrestling, talk shows, road trips, fitness classes, and ghost hunting?

UX professionals have also written articles describing valuable lessons they’ve learned about user experience from Seth Rogen, Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, Steven Spielberg, Martha Stewart, Don Draper, James Bond, Sherlock Holmes, the Terminator, the Avengers, the Blues Brothers, One Direction, Super Mario Brothers, Sonic the Hedgehog, and the Berenstain Bears?

I’m guilty of writing two of those articles myself: “The Ghost Hunter’s Guide to User Research” and “What I Bring to UX from James Bond.”

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Recently, as I contemplated writing a new article about UX lessons we can learn from dogs, I searched to see whether there were already any similar articles. What I found were a lot of disparaging comments about this trend of making analogies between user experience and other topics. For example, an article on Medium, “What Game of Thrones Can Teach Us About UX Design,” concludes, “Nothing! It’s a f***ing TV show! … Articles like that reduce our profession to its lowest form and degrade it immensely in doing so.” Wow! I get his point, but isn’t that a bit harsh?

I hadn’t realized UX analogy articles were so widespread until I searched further and found the many examples I listed earlier. Just Google UX is like or what UX can learn from, and you’ll find far more examples than the few I’ve listed here.

This discovery has made me wonder: why have there been so many articles making UX analogies to such a wide range of topics over so many years? Are these articles just lightweight fluff, as the detractors claim, or is there some value in making these comparisons? What is it about user experience that lends itself to so many different analogies? Surely people in other fields don’t make similar comparisons, do they? This is what I decided to find out.

What Is an Analogy?

First, let’s look at some official definitions of the word analogy. Merriam Webster defines an analogy as “a comparison of two things based on their being alike in some way.” [1] The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes an analogical argument as citing “accepted similarities between two systems to support the conclusion that some further similarity exists.” [2]

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What Purposes Do Analogies Serve?

Human beings continually and naturally draw analogies as a way of making sense of the world. Analogies help us understand new concepts, teach new concepts to others, and see the familiar in a new light, which in turn, enables us to generate novel solutions to problems.

Understanding the Unfamiliar

Analogies are an important part of how we make sense of new concepts and experiences. Our minds constantly, unconsciously compare new concepts to things we already know, as a way of understanding them. [3] We look for similarities between our past experiences and any new situation to help us understand the new and unfamiliar.

Communicating New Concepts

UX professionals often use analogies to help others understand new concepts. For example, when trying to explain the UX-design process to a novice audience, many of us have used the building-a-house analogy, in which we compare a UX designer to an architect, site maps and wireframes to blueprints, and software development to constructing the house. You wouldn’t have construction workers just start building a house without first creating blueprints, and you wouldn’t start decorating and painting the house before the walls were put up. This analogy helps people understand the need to do UX design before beginning development and to focus on interaction design and information architecture before creating a visual design.

Solving Problems

Analogies are also useful in problem solving. When we face an unfamiliar problem, we can think about similar problems or situations we’ve encountered in the past, compare their similarities and contrast their differences, and apply the lessons we learn to our current situation. [4]

Noticing and comparing similarities between different domains can help us generate novel solutions to problems. For example, the idea for an automobile assembly line came to Ford employee Bill Klann after observing a slaughterhouse in which a trolley system moved animal carcasses to multiple butchers, each performing a specialized task. [5]

Seeing the Familiar in a Different Light

Analogies also provide a technique for generating new ideas, in which we compare something familiar to something else that is seemingly unrelated. Asking questions such as “What else is this like?” or “Where else have I seen something like this before?” can generate analogies that enable us to see something familiar in a new light. [6]

What’s the Purpose of Articles that Draw UX Analogies?

There seem to be three main types of articles about UX analogies—although some articles combine two or more classes of analogies.

Learning from a Related Field

Some articles compare user experience to another related field such as architecture, game design, print design, or Disney Imagineering. It’s easy to see the connections and similarities between user experience and these fields. Each of them focuses on designing experiences. Examining how professionals in other domains handle similar situations can lead us to new ideas. So such articles seem more legitimate and respectable.

Taking a Fresh Look at User Experience

Articles that compare user experience to something that isn’t so obviously connected to it, let us take a step back and see user experience from a new perspective. These comparisons enable us to re-examine elements of user experience that are so common and familiar, we don’t even consciously think about them anymore.

Attracting Attention Through Humor

Some comparisons aim at being humorous, and it’s a stretch making a connection to user experience. Such analogies may also make some good points, but their purpose is to attract our attention with what may seem like a ridiculous comparison. For example, if I were start out with the idea, “What User Experience Can Learn from the Simpsons,” I could probably think of some connections. Presto! I’d have a unique, humorous UX article that would attract attention. But it’s this type of pop-culture comparison that critics of articles based on UX analogies love to hate.

Why Are There So Many Articles That Make UX Analogies?

Although user experience isn’t the only profession that is prone to making such analogies—I’ll get into this later—I think the field of user experience lends itself particularly well to such articles.

UX Is a Multidisciplinary Field

People come to user experience from a variety of different backgrounds. Many UX professionals have transitioned into user experience after gaining education and experience in other fields. So, naturally, we notice parallels and compare user experience with our previous fields and other topics of interest. User experience might become a boring, stagnant field if we didn’t bring this variety of experiences we’ve had in other fields to our discussions.

Our Analytical Minds Naturally See Comparisons

The analytical and problem-solving skills we use in user research and design are the same skills that naturally lead to making analogical comparisons. To conduct user research or usability testing, you have to be observant and perceptive. When you analyze the findings of such research, you notice patterns, make comparisons, draw conclusions, and generate solutions to the problems you identify. It’s understandable that these skills would cause us to see similarities between user experience and other fields or personal interests.

There Is a Lot of Demand for UX Content

There are many UX magazines, company blogs, personal blogs, and UX conferences that continually need content. It’s often difficult to think of original ideas. It sometimes seems that everything that could have been written about user experience already has been written—many times over. The saying, “Write about what you know,” comes to mind. What do we know most about? Our career, user experience, and our personal interests and hobbies. So it’s natural to perceive connections between our work and personal interests and passions.

People Like Articles Based on UX Analogies

Although there are some critics, a lot of people do like these types of articles. Articles that are based on analogies tend to draw attention and get clicks. When they’re done well, the authors receive positive feedback, which leads to more similar articles.

Drawing Analogies Isn’t a UX Thing

Before I started doing research for this article, I had assumed that articles making analogies were unique to user experience. Boy, was I wrong! It turns out that nearly every profession has produced similar articles. For example, there are articles comparing the following fields to many other things:

  • marketing—It’s like waitressing, dating, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Seinfeld, cooking, reality TV, baseball, trick or treating, exercise, golf, and being attacked by dogs.
  • sales—This field has similarities to dating, running a race, fishing, a taco, chess, baseball, and the Texas Two Step.
  • computer programming—This profession resembles poetry, cooking, writing, being a parent, and building a house.
  • project management—It’s like a puzzle, Batman, playing in the Super Bowl, camping, pregnancy, baking a pie, air-traffic control, directing a play, and surviving The Hunger Games.

Are UX Analogies Legitimate Topics for Articles?

Yes! Using analogy to consider the similarities and differences between user experience and another field or subject can provide entertainment, insights, and fresh ways of looking at familiar subjects. But, like any kind of article, some articles drawing such analogies are better than others. If you feel that you have to stretch to make a comparison, that’s a sign you’re forcing an analogy.

The key to writing such articles well is to provide useful information, prompt new ideas, or bring new perspectives to light by making a comparison. Humorous comparisons are okay, too. Just remember that there are so many of these articles already, analogies have become somewhat of a cliché. So, if you’re going to write such an article, make sure the comparison serves a purpose—either providing humor, insights, or both. 

References

[1] Merriam-Webster. “Analogy.” Merriam-Webster. Retrieved April 29, 2016.

[2] Bartha, Paul. “Analogy and Analogical Reasoning.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2013. Retrieved April 29, 2016.

[3] Hofstadter, Douglas R., and Emmanuel Sander. “Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking.” New York: Basic Books, 2013.

[4] Gavetti, Giovanni, and Jan W. Rivkin. “How Strategists Really Think: Tapping the Power of Analogy.” Harvard Business Review, April 2005. Retrieved April 29, 2016.

[5] Zax, David. “How Steve Jobs’s Mastery of Analogies Sent Apple Skyrocketing.” Fast Company, October 14, 2014. Retrieved April 29, 2016.

[6] Bessant, John, and Joseph Tidd. “Analogies. Innovation Portal. Retrieved April 29, 2016.

Principal User Experience Architect at Infragistics

Cranbury, New Jersey, USA

Jim RossJim has spent most of the 21st Century researching and designing intuitive and satisfying user experiences. As a UX consultant, he has worked on Web sites, mobile apps, intranets, Web applications, software, and business applications for financial, pharmaceutical, medical, entertainment, retail, technology, and government clients. He has a Masters of Science degree in Human-Computer Interaction from DePaul University.  Read More

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