As humans, we cannot get away from metaphors. Metaphors are intrinsic to how we communicate, how we think and perceive, and in turn, who we are (Lakoff, 1980). Design, as a form of communication, is then metaphorical. Since the advent of the personal computer, researchers have related the computer interface to paper metaphors. Paper as a metaphor for Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs) has been around since Doug Engelbart introduced the paper paradigm in his research on Augmenting Human Intellect in the 1960s(Engelbart, 1962). It is an easy connection for users to make as both paper and screen-based interfaces are two-dimensional and relatively the same size. Interestingly,Xerox, a paper-based company, created the desktop which is a metaphorical paper-based system, as a part of the Xerox Alto personal computer in 1973 (Thacker et al., 1979). The screen of the Alto took the paper metaphor quite literally by making it the same size as avertical US letter sized paper. The paper paradigm also imports many typographic and hierarchic print standards into the interface—headings are (usually) placed at the top,margins inhabit the sides, etc. The cursor could even be seen as a digital form of themanicule. Although computer interfaces have abstracted a bit since the Xerox Alto, even Google’s Material Design uses material as “the metaphor” to “reimagine the mediums of paper and ink” (Material Design, n.d., Principles section).
The effectiveness of metaphors in interface design is a contentious topic. Even those who favor metaphors agree that there are limits to its efficacy (Sease, 2008). However, not all metaphors are created equally. Several studies have categorized human-computer interaction (HCI) metaphors in terms of strengths and limitations. The examples discussed in the papers “Elastic metaphors” and “Computers as people” are concrete, functionality, interface, and interaction metaphors (Khoury et al., 2004; Fineman, 2004). Concrete metaphors use everyday objects familiar to the user as the target domain, defined as the thing or the vehicle used to understand a more abstract source concept (Khoury et al., 2004; Lakoff, 1980). Because the source and target domains are so closely tied together with concrete metaphors, its concreteness inherently limits the interface design to a set of rules specific to the target domain (Blackwell, 2006). If the digital object breaks away from what the physical object can do, then users can become confused. The desktop metaphor, composed of its synecdochal files, folders, wallpaper, and trash can, is a concrete metaphor. The trash can famously breaks the metaphor by allowing disks to eject—something a physical trash can cannot do. These concrete metaphors also limit the user by inadvertently defining who the user should be. For example, in the desktop metaphor, the user is a worker. The limitation also extends to what a user should be doing with the interface. The designer is limiting userchoice and simultaneously placing the user into a role that they may not occupy. Current users are not only doing work-related productive tasks on their desktop now, but are also fulfilling roles such as a shopper, artist or gamer, as well as doing tasks uninvented at the time of the design of the original desktop like browsing the web. Touch devices, while not WIMP devices, are still tied to the screen’s boundaries. Touch is an effort to move from traditional WIMP interfaces, but the designs still rely heavily on user familiarity with WIMPs and tend to favor similar features (Jetter et al, 2014; Blackler, 2015). Many smartphones, such as the iPhone, are built around the “home screen” metaphor. Users navigate different paths away from the home screen to interact with an ecosystem of applications. Apple’s home screen metaphor is strengthened through built-in app interface metaphors like the clock, phone, contacts, notes, and calendar. The iconic representations for these apps are depictions of older technology, such as an analogue clock, landline phone, contact book, lined notebook, or paper calendar. Their design is a continuation of the desktop design approach of using dated concepts to facilitate understanding within an abstract space. Soon, the smartphone iconography (and desktop iconography such as folders) will be as unrecognizable as the floppy disc, which continues to represent saving files. As users become more familiar with digital tools, concrete interface metaphors may no longer be needed. The desktop metaphor was, at least partially, influenced by Jean Piaget’s and Jerome Bruner’s psychological and pedagogical theories from the 1970s (Blackwell,2006). The theories helped the researchers at Xerox PARC justify a metaphorical design as an intuitive introduction of the personal computer to novices (ibid). The reasoning behind its implementation is no longer the reality as current generations are interacting comfortably with computers and post-WIMP devices such as smartphones and tablets.Furthermore, the concept of a novice / expert divide needing different interfaces is founded on shaky ground (Raskin, 2000). Since intuitive systems are learned systems, the user must learn how to interact with the system whether it is metaphorical or abstract, simple or complex (Hurtienne, 2007). I’m not advocating for abstraction and complexity over metaphor and simplicity, but for alternatives to the systems in place now.