Innovating in Technology: Connecting the Old with the New Through Metaphor


Heavy!  But if you stop and think about it, the whole of our technological world is pervaded with metaphors, both verbal and interactive.  Metaphors aren’t just for writers but with technology it’s the hook with the now that takes people into the future and that’s the clever bit so I’ll call these ones ‘innophors’ (innovative metaphors) for now.

I’ve previously emphasised the importance of convention and familiarity with user experience but doesn’t this sound at odds with technology and innovation?  How can we innovate or differentiate if people don’t like change, if they only seek the familiar?  Familiarity comes in many flavours and the charge of technology and computing is so often through metaphor – to such an extent that the metaphor becomes the new reality*.  Think how much we scroll, cut and paste every day without paper, scissors or glue?  Does anyone care about that publishing metaphor?  How many people know?  Last time I talked about Excel and the spreadsheet metaphor that goes way beyond the balancing acts of accountants.  Maybe some of it was chance but I do wonder how many Excel spreadsheets are actually used for accounting purposes these days.  The keyboard is a metaphor for the typewriter and in 50 years most people that remember what the return key meant will be dead and gone – maybe along with the keyboard!  Now people expect to consume information in different ways and explore information spatially through touch.

In user experience design the lovely wireframe (a plain, low fidelity mockup of a web/system screen) is a metaphor for the initial shape of something, like a sculpture, before it gets built out.  Some metaphors are a bit unusual and you wonder at their effectiveness given how many people knew what wireframe meant in the first place!  It doesn’t matter in this case as the end user does not care so much as the ux practitioner but it does emphasise the importance of the creative concept and getting it right and knowing when to name it right.  Tim Berners Lee’s hypertext concept for the web is one of the greatest innophors ever invented and people quickly caught on to the idea of hypertext links and the implications for a highly connected network of information.

Ok, so what…..how does this help us?  It’s important because the gateway for change and innovation is typically through metaphor, be it the interface or the name of some service that relates to some previously understood idea but breaks it into a new one.  It can be as significant as tweeting on Twitter or as specific and non-verbal as flicking through album covers on your ipod.  The point for the user experience is less about something being new and more that it must be obvious.  If people don’t get the idea or the functionality then it’s no good, try again.  But this doesn’t mean that you can’t bring about radical change, it just has to make sense by connecting with people’s current understanding.

So whatever you want to bring about, design or conceive it must link to the now but it does not stop it being new.  Look to connecting a new idea to an existing one and use innophors.  People need a hook into the idea to take them on the journey and the concept – be it a name or a piece of functionality or a device – is what makes something take.  It has to make sense.  Keep pushing the metaphor into new bounds to define a new reality and user experience.

*Curiously, the metaphor can take over the original reality so you’re more likely to see a mouse in a plush office than on the street, we’re better at fighting computer viruses than real ones, etc.  It’s that lovely word ‘simulacrum’ that French postmodern intellectuals talk about in cafes.  I once spoke to my daughter about what we decided to call ‘cocktail’ words on the assumption that the colourful drink concoctions were called such things because of peacock tails but when we talk of cocktails we first think of the drink variety or we bend the word to some new end, cocktail of drugs, molotov cocktail, etc.  These things become meta-metaphors or something like that.  Amusingly, it turns out that I was wrong and that the origins of the meaning of ‘cocktail’ are not clear – which kind of proves me right!  It doesn’t matter what a word originally meant, it’s how we use it that counts.  Language and symbols should not just be seen as systems to help us map reality in some fixed and finite way but instead are tools to help us define new realities and new concepts (a journey in understanding courtesy of Ludwig Wittgenstein).  Symbolic power is so often the key to making technological innovations and doing them in a way that people understand.

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