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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The Joy of Excel


Yes it’s unusual to talk about UX away from web and ecommerce but so what, Excel is UX on legs.  Ok that’s two gratuitous puns too many but I was writing about risk management last time and it does that to you.  If you like to divide people into two camps (I know, there are those that like to do this and those that don’t) there are those that admit they love Excel and those that pretend otherwise – but everyone likes it – or loves it.  And yeah I know about Lotus 1-2-3 and I’m old enough to have used it but that’s history, get over it.

Excel is the perfect partner to Word, as numeracy is to literacy.  In fact, they could have called it Number but maybe they were wise to the fact that the concept of a spreadsheet (the huge bits of paper that hardcore accountants used to use to do their numbers on) would become a metaphor for what is in fact tables and records and things like that.  Metaphors are a big thing in computing but more on that another time.

It feels like the whole world uses Excel, in their work but also at home, even if that isn’t quite true.  Yes people still use it for balancing accounts but also for lists, managing projects (who can be arsed with the bastard child that is MS Project anyway), databases, reporting and anything else you fancy.  In fact, this versatility creates an End User Computing risk in some organisations as smart people in the business start to build non-supportable critical applications – ok UX can maybe create risk too!  People use it at home also – for balancing accounts, managing projects…the same things actually.

So what’s good about it?  The concept is great, columns and rows, lists and records.  You sort everything out, fair and square in nice little boxes and then do clever things very easily and then get to make it look good with charts and so on.  I’d bet there’s a lot of people who avoid going to parties to spend time at home on a pivot table.  Excel is easy to use but the fundamental concept puts you in control of whatever it is you want to do.  User Experience frequently takes account of putting users in control because they are people and people like control whether they admit it or not.  You want simplicity but you want control and sometimes these things seem at odds, ie simplicity = less functionality but control = more.

Giles Colborne of CX Partners wrote a great book called Simple and Usable which describes four strategies: Hide, Organise, Remove, Displace.  I like to turn these into the ironic mnemonic, HORD.  The key thing is to get shot of what’s needed and put occasional/first time functionality out of the way to retain simplicity.  This is what control means.  Over the years, Excel has grown and grown till its groaned.  Just how many toolbars were there?  The whole Office suite was exploding with functionality and something needed to be done, hence the move to the ribbon.  I’ve heard also that Microsoft got tired of requests for functionality that already existed so they made better use of the menu space by making it context sensitive.  The move to the ribbon in Office 2007 upset the hardcore Excelers.  Why move stuff?  Users were lost, for a little while.  I trust they did a proper information architecture research job to structure and label the information in the minds of the user.  But change is change and however good it was it was a major disruption to people’s habits.  It was a big step but it highlights the power of convention in usability.  If you’re used to it, it works, warts and all.  If you use Microsoft products then getting another one makes life easy because you get the layout and look-and-feel without having to think about it.  What’s best is not always ‘best’ in the eyes of the techy purist.  I think that simple fact, alongside compatibility and integration, is one of the biggest reasons why Microsoft dominates – it’s not just slick marketing.  Go on, mention the decline in Internet Explorer but face it, the controls are more on the websites than the actual browser so who cares.

Excel is probably the best thing Microsoft has ever done – and maybe will ever do.  They were lucky to popularise a great concept but they’ve done a great UX job on it nonetheless.  Whole businesses run on Excel (even if they don’t realise it) and whole households run on it too, from a simple list to a sophisticated database/reporting engine.  Excel gives everyone control and everyone the chance to be a spreadsheet geek; maybe the only thing it’s not good for is blogging.

A pull handle on a push door


It’s annoying isn’t it.  Really annoying.  Which way that door is going to go.  Pull or push or both?  Who cares, you just need to get through it.  It’s got a handle on it.  Give it a pull.  Dah!  Fooled ya! Idiot! can’t you work a bloody door?!  How many times has this happened to you?  Not something worthy of an international crisis, sure, but add it all up and it counts.  Then add up all the other people that have had the same experience (as well as the irritation, embarrassment and distraction) and time is the thing that costs – and reputation.  Emotion counts.  If it’s a service or website or application, you may give up, or go elsewhere, or try and learn how the thing works – but only if you have no choice.

I’ve experienced very plush offices with just this door problem.  The solution?  Have ‘P-U-S-H’ stencilled on the handle.  This is called designing around a problem, or in medical terms, treating the symptoms rather than the cause.  Of course, people still wander up, alone in thought or busy in conversation, see a handle with their peripheral vision, and still pull it.  Dah!  In business, it’s the kind of issue that people try to measure with ROI.  We’ll show you how much you can save by solving these problems – something which, of course, will cost.  Don’t bother.  Just solve it. In this case, just remove the handle.

Now if you ask those guys in Facilities I bet they’ll tell you how it is.  Oh, we need to leave the handles on in case we need to reverse or reposition the door and the cost of removing the handle…  Oh come on, really?  How often do you need to do that?  You’d be surprised.  I bet I wouldn’t.  We’re always having to make changes to the office.  When did you last reverse the way a door opened?  Ah, I can’t remember but we’re always doing things like that.  Sure.

It’s the same in IT and application development.  It’s not obvious how to do that function – yeah, it’s a training issue.  So, we’ve designed it so badly we have to train people how to use it.  Sometimes it’s more subtle.  I was recently involved in the migration of an application for a FTSE 100 company.  The data had already been well positioned and structured in a data warehouse.  Thankfully, no one was interested in revisiting that and we could focus on the front end.  For once we could start with the user interface rather than the database, the only bit users care about.  So, let’s speak to the users and see what they need.  Well, we took the opportunity to revisit the information architecture (how information is grouped and labelled) as well as integrating the visual design with the rest of the Intranet and with a fully indexed search capability.  Great!  But.  But what?  They still want the ‘field finder’ functionality.  Ugh, really, they can’t find fields??  We don’t want to do that, surely.  Yes but people are asking where it is as they use it extensively in the current interface.  No, let’s not do it, we’re designing a product for them with their steer and our expertise so that finding information should be intuitive.  Out of scope.

We went live and no one’s missed the field finder.  In fact the system has been a huge success, one of the few projects we’ve been excited about putting live because we knew we’d got it right.  We knew that because we’d adopted user-centred design for a user experience that worked.  No, it wasn’t for a high volume retail website, just an internal application – one that is critical for the business – over which the users have no choice.  Afterwards, I said to the project manager that it was well worth all the extra effort and he said, no, it wasn’t extra effort, just a different approach.  Fair comment, this cost no more, we just did things better than we usually do.  Enterprise user experience is taking over the largest of corporates but everyone else it seems is still catching up.

User experience is not difficult, is not adopting “agile”, is not the sum of this or that set of methods but is an approach.  If you engage the user to understand how they work, use your design experience, and test your work then you’re more likely – far more likely – to have a successful project.  If you make people walk in the dark then they’ll ask for a torch.  If you put on the lights, they won’t think about light at all because they can crack on.  Do the work and give people what they want – and not necessarily what they ask for.