In Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff writes that language is an important source of evidence about how people think and act in their everyday lives. The way we think, act, and communicate about everyday things in our lives is inherently metaphorical in nature.
Because metaphor is a fundamental means of communicating with others, we should be able to use metaphors to construct coherent pictures of key research findings to help stakeholders understand and act on them. Perhaps we can even use metaphors to frame questions for our research studies as a more direct means of facilitating participant understanding.
This edition of Discovery is about unleashing the power of metaphor. How can you leverage the value of metaphor when conducting early-phase product research?
You can use metaphors to
But it’s also important to recognize a metaphor’s breaking point and, when necessary,
limit its meaning
sculpt its meaning
In this column, I’ll cover all of these uses and limitations of metaphor.
According to George Lakoff, metaphors exist within our conceptual system, guiding our thought processes and understanding of the world around us. Part of what can make a metaphor so powerful is how well its source fits the target domain—that is, the concept you’re trying to clarify by using the metaphor. Its fitness, or coherence, depends on people’s ability to understand the metaphor as a structured whole, or what Lakoff calls its experiential gestalt.
When conducting usability-test sessions to evaluate software, UX researchers typically instruct participants to think aloud. This method employs the metaphor user as narrator. As a researcher, you ask participants to think aloud because you cannot read their minds and want to elicit their thoughts in real time. You want to avoid losing those moments when participants say something so provocative and insightful about their experience that you need to ask them to give you a play-by-play of their thought process. This implied metaphor derives its power from its simplicity. Participants simply describe what they see, whatever comes to their mind, in a judgment-free zone.
In such moments, participants unconsciously draw on metaphors from their personal experiences. They fill in any gaps as they think aloud. For example, a participant might say:
“I see a section of the page that shows me some product details. There’s a Buy button, so I’m assuming I can purchase this item and add it to my cart. Oh, wait! Is there a cart? I don’t see one. I would’ve expected to put the product into some kind of cart so I can add more stuff before buying it.”
To exercise participants’ retrospective memory muscle and unpack the energy behind product-purchase and adoption decisions, Jobs-to-Be-Done consultants Chris Spiek and Bob Moesta use a powerful metaphor in their customer interviews. The moderator asks participants to imagine that a documentary filmmaker is filming them as they walk around a store searching for a product or solution. They instruct participants to walk them through their thinking—from the time immediately prior to the moment they decided to consider a different solution to the time when they began considering a specific, new solution, then ultimately, decided to make the switch. As an interview progresses, the participant becomes immersed in the experience of being watched.
The metaphor shopping experience as documentary film taps into people’s desire for others to listen to and understand them. Having a camera pointed at them, zooming in on their thoughts and decisions, might be alarming or seem like an invasion of privacy to some. So, at the beginning of an interview, the moderator admits to a slight ‘creepiness’ factor. But, as the interview progresses, participants quickly forget their self-consciousness as they succumb to the good feelings of having someone else hear them. They see themselves from the outside as they walk around the store, making purchasing decisions.
The inherent dimensions of the shopping experience as documentary film metaphor make it more coherent and meaningful, so the moderator doesn’t need to instruct participants about these parts of the experience. Just as in a film, there is a protagonist: the participant. There is a plot: participants are looking for a new product that would fit into their life. There is also a resolution: participants buy the product, then experience using it. The documentary and the shopping experience are structured in exactly the same way. Such multidimensional structures are what Lakoff calls experiential gestalts. The source of the metaphor and the target domain become one.
A former colleague of mine had a favorite question that he liked to add toward the end of an exploratory study: “If you had a magic wand, what would you be your [ideal situation]?” Replace the variable [ideal situation] with the topic of the research.
What is so striking about a magic wand? It’s the immediate image we get of holding a stick in our hand that lets us do things we simply cannot otherwise do. When a UX researcher asks a participant this question, there is little doubt about the intent behind the metaphor. The ability for anyone to grasp this question quickly is its power. No clarification is necessary.
Research has shown that conventional metaphors can be effective means of conveying tricky concepts. In one case, a computer-science teacher used a television remote metaphor to convey fundamental object-oriented concepts. The brand and model of the television were its class, while a specific television was an instance, or object, of that class. Students found these metaphors helpful in understanding the critical building blocks of object-oriented programming. Ultimately, as the students progressed in their fluency in object-oriented programming, the metaphors became less useful. But, in conveying an initial understanding to students or providing a refresher course, the metaphor was very helpful.
In helping users to understand new concepts, technical writers in the technology industry have found metaphors very helpful—especially in conveying complex concepts. Back in the 1980s, when computers were just beginning to reach mainstream users, they were mostly for hobbyists and nerds. In the proceedings of a 1986 conference on systems documentation, Richard Chisholm, of Plymouth State College, described the need for metaphors in technical writing because of their ability to help people new to computers to better understand them.
In the ’80s, while people who were unfamiliar with computers understood terms such as menu in the context of ordering food at a restaurant, they were not ready to embark upon a journey into a world of completely new processes and procedures and learn how to use a computer.
Therefore, language became an essential tool that let technical writers help prospective customers to understand computers. Without the right metaphors, people would become confused and throw up their hands in frustration. The consequence could be lost business. But metaphors helped technical writers create the scaffolding that was necessary to enable users to get up to speed quickly with their shiny, new toys.
Think about the last time you greeted someone by saying, “Hey, what’s up?” Or “Why are you feeling down?” Most of us aren’t even aware of the metaphors that are in common use in our everyday vernacular. But such orientation metaphors—happy is up, while sad is down—are an integral part of how we express ourselves to others.
According to Lakoff, some metaphors presuppose a manner of conduct of which we are barely even conscious. A great example of this is the metaphor argument is war. When we argue with people, we are attacking their position on an issue and trying to convince them of or defending our own. We don’t necessarily step back and think, Hey, rather than attack your position, why don’t I dance with it so I can shimmy and sashay with your opinion? The fact that metaphors are heavily baked into our language provides the necessary structure for their use in varied contexts.
When you’re looking for metaphors to frame UX-research questions or convey insights to stakeholders, make sure that you use conventional metaphors that are accessible to your audience.
If a UX researcher asks the magic-wand question, the metaphor freedom from constraints is magic becomes the guiding principle for the discussion. Additional questions that stretch the metaphor can elicit more interesting ideas from participants. For example, “Now that you’ve wielded your magical powers and told me about how you would love a system that automated your work for you, imagine that you could use your magic wand only once. Of all the possible uses you’ve described for your magic wand, for which purpose would you choose to use it?”
While applying constraints might seem counter to the freedom from constraints is magic metaphor, it forces participants to reflect on what matters most to them. This might be just the information your stakeholders need to learn about, especially if time and resources are real constraints.
The coherence of a well-structured metaphor enables it to surface details that might not immediately be obvious. For example, Lakoff describes using a solutions as problems metaphor for eliciting emergent ideas rather than using a problems as puzzles metaphor. While problems are like solutions that might be in solid or liquid form, they never truly disappear. You might add a catalyst to the mixture that would make one problem dissolve without precipitating another one, but you’d never have complete control over the solution. This very powerful metaphor describes not just a process for addressing problems but also a way to view the world around us.
Are there similar metaphors that could effectively convey a user's experience with your product from which you could derive new meaning? Often, the metaphors we use in UX research come directly from our participants and generate new insights about our users. I recall that, on a past project, one participant described himself as “the human integrator.” As a benefits administrator for his company, he opened employee data files all day long, then copied data and pasted it into other systems that his company used to help administrate employee benefits. Their company’s need for administrators to complete these rote, mundane tasks, subsumes their raison d’être. The human as machine metaphor is an instance of what Lakoff calls metonymy—an entity’s referring to another related entity—and it conjures up images of workers who feel they could be adding more value than they currently are. This suggests a gap in a product’s feature set and an opportunity to fix serious, common problems that many HR departments experience.
Listen for powerful metaphors in the words of your participants. You may derive more meaningful ways of framing the problems your stakeholders are trying to solve.
Sometimes, when you cannot use a single metaphor to convey multiple aspects of a concept coherently, you can use additional metaphors to supplement user’s understanding. However, the additional layer of complexity makes it difficult for users to understand which metaphors apply to which construct.
Researchers warn against mixing metaphors for fear of confusing users. A theoretical example of this might be the card metaphor that is in common use in mobile apps. An app pages as cards metaphor suggests a container object that contains a finite amount of information that fits into the fixed width of a screen. As with a physical card, the card that a user is viewing in a mobile app is easy to dismiss by flipping it, or in digital terms, swiping.
However, what if you allowed users to expand the amount of information on a card so it became infinite, stretching longer and longer? Since when has a card had the ability to become longer and longer? This behavior would not be in keeping with the spirit of the card metaphor. Suddenly, the app pages as cards metaphor incorporate an endless scroll metaphor. But these two metaphors conflict with one another, so would be a cause for confusion among users who expect a fixed scope of content on each card, but instead are getting an unlimited amount of information in the endless scroll metaphor.
When the use of a metaphor with multiple aspects has the potential to create more misunderstandings among users or stakeholders, do the up-front work necessary to ensure coherence and reduce the chance of sowing confusion among them. Put it to the test. Lakoff refers to the way we conceptualize the objects, events, and activities around us as “having interactional properties.” These are the properties we perceive and feel. A concept’s functional properties and ultimate purpose are all grounded in our natural experiences.
Ensure that the metaphors you use don’t violate what is most natural in people’s experiences.
One powerful characteristic of metaphors is their ability to focus on specific aspects of a concept or experience, while at the same time, de-emphasizing or obscuring others. Deliberately ignoring elements that might result in an incoherent metaphor allows us to suspend our disbelief.
The metaphor product use as a journey derives from the life as a journey metaphor. In UX design, we often express the product use as a journey metaphor through customer journey or experience maps. These maps emphasize certain aspects of the journey a customer takes when using a product: their physical or digital means of encountering the product, the painpoints they experience in using it, and the various ways customers think and feel when using the product as they go through their lives. Everything fits together nicely.
For example, as with any journey in life, your experience with an electric toothbrush you bought online has its highs and lows. The product use as a journey metaphor concentrates on those aspects of the product that make the experience of using the product most meaningful and sheds those aspects that are not relevant in conveying this understanding. You won’t ever hear about a mode of transportation for that journey or the length or destination of the journey. Unless you’re driving while brushing your teeth, any mode of transportation is irrelevant to the intended use of the product.
Be mindful of any partial mappings that a metaphor might create. Exercise the metaphor to its logical limits and proactively address its limitations for the intended audiences only when they make sense.
As shapers of meaning, metaphors can be a UX researcher’s best friend—or if they’re misused, an unfortunate foe. When a metaphor’s structure does not fall into place to create the meaning you want, don’t be afraid to try a different metaphor. However, mixing multiple source domains might simply muddle your message, confusing your intended audience even more. Instead, search for the simple, approachable metaphors that people experience naturally.
Johnson, Gerald J. “Of Metaphor and the Difficulty of Computer Discourse.” Communications of the ACM, December 1994.
Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2017.
Sanford, Joseph P., Aaron Tietz, Saad Farooq, Samuel Guyer, and R. Benjamin Shapiro. “Metaphors We Teach By.” Proceedings of the 45th ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education: SIGCSE ’14, March 2014.
Michael has worked in the field of IT (Information Technology) for more than 20 years—as an engineer, business analyst, and, for the last ten years, as a UX researcher. He has written on UX topics such as research methodology, UX strategy, and innovation for industry publications that include UXmatters, UX Mastery, Boxes and Arrows, UX Planet, and UX Collective. In Discovery, his quarterly column on UXmatters, Michael writes about the insights that derive from formative UX-research studies. He has a B.A. in Creative Writing from Binghamton University, an M.B.A. in Finance and Strategy from NYU Stern, and an M.S. in Human-Computer Interaction from Iowa State University. Read More