"Empty Icons in the Metaphor Trap" (2023)

Table of Contents
The Brief The Interface

Empty Icons in the Metaphor Trap

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Andrew Hutchison


School of Design, Curtin University

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The purpose of this paper is to discuss the practicalproblems in the use of metaphors in multimedia interface design, and review amajor work in progress which has encountered these problems and implementedsome solutions.

The presentation will use actual examples of metaphors incommon use in software packages today, and describe the problems that can occurwhen a metaphor is clumsily applied to an interface design . The implicationsof this have wide application across all multimedia production, includinginstructional/educational material.

One of the fundamental techniques used to make it easier for humans to interact with computers is thenotion of the metaphor. The idea stemsfrom the field of Human Computer Interaction, (Preece, 1994) but is beingwidely applied by multimedia designers with other backgrounds, such as graphicdesign, who have no experience of HCI.

The unconscious assumptionis that the application of a metaphor to the graphical representation willautomatically enhance the effectiveness of the environment. This assumption isoften wrong, as others writers, such as Wendy Richmond have noted.

"The more I work with interactive projects, the more Irealise that we've barely begun to explore their potential for enrichedcommunication. And we're all so new atthis game that we are still unaware of the frustration we may cause our users.But one thing I know for sure; poor design causes confusion and annoyance". (Richmond, 1992 p. 257)

An increasing number of interface designers are discovering whatI call the "metaphor trap".This phenomenon occurs when a strong metaphor is applied to the design,and then all the features of the package are required to be squeezed into thisimage, however inappropriate. (Laurel, 1993)These features include the navigation style, the audio-visual treatmentand the information organisation.

This paper will describe some of the practical issues aroundinterface design, and in particular, the use of metaphor in interface design asit applies to practical multimedia production .

The metaphor which is being unconsciously applied to almost allmultimedia work is the "buttons and menus" metaphor.

In a productivity tool environment, there are many, many choices,commands and operations. The problem ofhaving to get the information, the feedback, and the interactive controls allon the same small screen has led to the pop down menu, tiny "icon"buttons in tool bars along the top, side, or bottom of the screen and appearingand disappearing windows. So the"menus, buttons, icons" interface is appropriate because it allowsvery large amounts of interactive control and feedback to occur on screen.(Preece, 1994)

However, while menus, buttons and icons are proven to be a verysuccessful way of providing human computer communication, they are notnecessarily a successful metaphor.

A metaphor works by likening something which is not understood tosomething which is understood. Thus,pop down menus on a computer screen are likened to a food menu so that peopleunderstand that they can make a choice.

However, beyond these extremely simple connections, the"menus, buttons, icons" system ceases to be a metaphor. In real life, paper does not scroll,information boxes do not suddenly appear in front of your eyes,"windows" are not opaque with text written in them, and"progress bars" do not let you know how long it will be until you canget on with your task.

At a very early stage in the development of graphical userinterfaces, the evolving "menus,buttons, icons " systems diverged from metaphor into agreed, abstractconvention. (Beames, 1996) In my belief, people do not learn how to usegraphical user interfaces by way of metaphor.They learn them by simply learning the meaning and function of largelyobscure symbols, and in fact, they have to develop a new understanding of themeanings of such words as "window", "menu","dialogue", "icon", "box" and "button".

If we accept that this is so, then we also have to accept thatlearning new meanings for words is a coping device for dealing with a metaphorthat doesn't work. Since the use of themetaphor is supposed to ease the cognitive load on the user, then it is clearlya reverse of the desired situation.

I believe Donald Normanhas captured the essence of this problem.

"The real problem with the interface is that it is aninterface. Interface gets in theway. I don't want to focus my energieson an interface. I want to focus on thejob. My tool should be just somethingthat aids, something that does not get in the way, and above all, somethingthat does not attract attention and energy to itself. When I use my computer, it is in order to get a job done: I don't want to think of myself as using acomputer. I want to think of myself asdoing my job." (in Laurel, 1990, p 127)

Therefore, it would seem to be a simple step to then realise thatmany successful productivity tools are successful despite their metaphor.

A striking example of this was brought to my attention during thedelivery of the multimedia course at the School of Design at CurtinUniversity. The authoring packageMacromedia Director was chosen as the single such productivity tool that theSchool would teach, although many others are referred to. It was chosen because it was very powerful,cross platform, and the School anticipated that it would emerge as the international industry standard, as indeedit has. It was chosen despite the fact that Director has areputation as being very, very difficult to learn.

The teaching of Macromedia Director, as a component of thecourse, relied heavily on the provided tutorial manuals and examples on disk,published by Macromedia.

It was discovered during a course review that a very large numberof students simply didn't understand the way the package was beingpresented. It also emerged that many ofthe staff felt that the tutorial manuals were at odds with the way their ownunderstanding of Director worked.

Director started life as Videoworks, and at that time, it's solefunction was not as an authoring tool, but as an animation package. It made very heavy use of the "mediaproduction" metaphor, including the use of words such as "cast"to describe the database of picturesand sounds, "stage" to describe the screen where the animation takesplace, "movie" to describe the file format, and "projector"to describe a packaged, stand alone, executable.

This metaphor made a great deal of sense when"Videoworks" was used to produce non interactive animations.

However, as the multimedia field developed,"Videoworks" evolved into "Director". Interactivity was included with theprogramming language Lingo, which was specifically designed for manipulatingpictures and sounds. Director becamethe single most used authoring package for the development of professionalmultimedia in the world. And unfortunately, the "movie" metaphor isnow almost completely irrelevant.

In fact, as the experience at the School of Design at CurtinUniversity demonstrates, the desire ofMacromedia to produce training materials entirely dependant on the learneraccepting this particular metaphor has backfired.

Macromedia Director has developed a reputation for being verydifficult to learn, and this reputation is well deserved. I believe this is largely due to the brokenmetaphor being applied. The metaphorhas been overtaken by historical circumstance and Director’s own evolution tomeet market needs.

To take a very specific example, let us examine a particularfeature of Director, the "score".According to Macromedia, this resembles a musical score, where the usercan see, and affect the position of individual elements of sound, picture,text, scripts, etc. This is, in myopinion, a forced and inappropriate connection to try and make.

One needs only glance at "the score" in Director torealise that it does not visual resemble a musical score at all, but looksvery, very simular to a spreadsheet or cell database such as MicrosoftExcel. And in fact, this is what"the score" in Director does, it organises things in a logicalfashion.

The only similarity between "the score" and a realmusical score is that they are both time dependant, except that even thisconnection is now only optional, since Director is most often used forinteractive multimedia.

For me, Director's "score" is a prime example of afeature of a software package that has been squeezed artificially into aninappropriate metaphor, with the result being confusion on the part of theuser trying to learn it. The metaphor is broken, and the tool, thedesigners, and the users are all in the metaphor trap.

How is it then that a productivity tool with such an inefficientand possibly counterproductive metaphor, can be so successful? I believe there are several reasons forthis.

Firstly, despite the difficult metaphor, a productivity tool suchas Macromedia Director really does work.It is an extremely powerful authoring tool for interactive audio visualproduction.

Secondly, sheer market presence.People do not use Microsoft Windows because it is easy, or intuitive touse. They use it because it comesbundled free with the computer they bought, and because it is a standard,existing on tens of millions of computers around the world.

Thirdly, the human ability to overcome the confusion caused by abroken metaphor. When an experienced user of Director refers to the"score", he or she does not have in their mind a visual image orfunctional model of a musical score, rather they see that cell database, whichfor reasons lost in the mists of multimedia time, happens to have the samename. They have abandoned the metaphor,and developed an understanding beyond it.

If Director represents a software productivity tool whoseoriginal metaphor has been overtaken by the tools own evolution, then perhapswe need to look at other aspects of this equation which are also rapidlychanging.

It seems probable that the average user of computers ischanging. For many of us who wereadults in a culture before computers were a common place aspect of daily life,computers can still be emotionally and intellectually problematic. We are the technophobes who had to be led tocomputer use with friendly metaphors and cartoon characters. However, the generation of young adultsabout to leave high school already have no memory of a time beforesophisticated computer games and mobile phones. Metaphor may be as irrelevantto interfaces of the future as instructions on how to use a domestic telephoneare to us now. (Hutchison, 1996)

If metaphors that don't work now can be overcome by hard work onthe part of the user, and in the future metaphor may be irrelevant, then thequestion arrises as to whether or not metaphor is needed even now.

All metaphor requires the user to first understand themetaphor. This produces a cognitiveload on them. Then they have to dealwith inconsistencies in the metaphor, adding to the cognitive load. Perhaps it is already possible to toimplement an interface which reflects a mental model without use ofmetaphor. It would seem that this couldalso be a great advantage in other regards, freeing design styles from theexisting default use of menus, buttons and icons. This could allow greater opportunity to engage the userintellectually and emotionally.

The writer was responsible for leading a team to develop apromotional CD-Rom for the School of Design at Curtin University. The originalmotivation for the project was to use it as a teaching vehicle for theundergraduate and postgraduate multimedia course at the School of Design. However, for the project to maintain it'susefulness, it needed to aspire to real world objectives, and it was hoped thatthe School would also get the benefit of a real product.

The Brief

The CD-Rom, which has the working title "D'98", is acasual browser, to inform the international design/media community about theSchool of Design. The target audience includes prospective students, andprospective employers of students graduating from the School. The user profile thus included non nativespeaker of English, of any possible cultural and ethnic background, any age andany gender. The only assumptions aboutthe user were that they were already interested in the School, and that theyhad some level of conversational English.

Another very important part of the brief was that thepresentation would need to be quite outstanding in it's design. It is part of the School's mission to beinnovative and groundbreaking, and the CD would need to have a useful life ofabout a year, as part of the School's promotional campaign. It was therefore required to have an unusualaudio visual style, departing quite radically from the sophisticated"magazine layout" style which is curently prevalent in CD magazinestyle browsers.

The design team, which included postgraduate students from a verywide variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, adopted a methodology whichresulted in a design solution which did not use any metaphor. The methodology adopted is not the subjectof this paper, and it will not be described, but the results, and the rationalbehind the interpretation of these results, are presented here.

The Interface

The user is presented with an almost blank, white screen, which has on it bright, colourfulobject, animating and making occasional sounds. These cartoon style"artefacts" are combinations of randomly chosen objects, most ofwhich are unrecognisable. There is quite deliberately no meaning at allgenerated from the combination of objects, their context, the sound they make,or their movement.

There are no instructions on the screen. The user is left with nothing to do exceptexperiment. As the user moves thecursor over each object, a word appears, each one describing a sub section ofthe presentation. If the user clicks,then the presentation goes to that section, where they find a simular, butdifferent collection of objects.

The significance of this design solution is not in that it usesany new or revolutionary idea. It'soperation is dependant upon several already successful implemented ideas andconventions.

Firstly, the assumption that the user understands that in orderto execute a command to a computer, it is necessary to operate the mousebutton.

Secondly, the technique of giving the user so little option, thatthere can be no confusion about what to do. The interface is so simple andclear that it is "intuitive".No help is needed to discover how to navigate.

Thirdly, the interface reveals the literal destination by"popping up" text descriptions.

However, this interface's intended particular benefits are:

The users expectations about menus, buttons in a grid, icons, etcare not fulfilled. This hopefullyraises the level of interest.

The level of audio visual engagement is raised by the bizarre andinexplicable "artefacts" which are on the screen, and the absence ofany voice or text prompts.

The user is encouraged to investigate the objects, and isimmediately rewarded with a text description of the destination.

Throughout "D'98", a clear visual distinction is madebetween the objects which are for navigation, the backgrounds, and the actualinformation the user is seeking.Anything that animates is a navigation object. The backgrounds are all blank, or in monotone.

Thus, the user is challenged by the unusual mode of navigation,but not put under any great cognitiveload.

The animating "artefacts" are not icons, since thedefinition of an icon is that it has meaning attached to it, or that meaning becomes attached to it. (Fiske, 1982)

These "artefacts" therefore became know to the designteam as "empty icons", since they have no meaning, and the user isnot required to learn any meaning.

There is no metaphor being applied in this interface. The pre-existing knowledge that the userbrings with, the need to click on things, is a convention, not a metaphor. The animating "artefacts" whichlook like toys are a visual gag, a theme, and a style, but they are not ametaphor.

Not by any means is this case study presented to criticise theuse of "menus, buttons and icons".Clearly they work for a wide variety of applications, and the designsolution presented in this case study was a customised solution for a particularproblem, as all good design should be.

Hopefully, the value of this case study is that it raisesquestions about the definitions of the terms we use to describe human computerinterfaces, and leads us to reflect on just how and why we apply certainsolutions to this problem.

This is turn will hopefully lead us to consider the differencebetween "productivity tools", and interactive audio visual"experiences". It is clearthat "menus, buttons and icons" are a very efficient way of presentingcontrol for a user, and also a very important convention.

However, there seems little reason to suppose that non productivity based audio visualexperiences, such as browsers, games, educational entertainment, etc, need tohave this same kind of metaphor/convention applied to them.

There may be great benefits waiting for us in this area if we canbegin to leave behind multimedia's increasingly irrelevant ancestery in thecomputer sciences.

My thanks to the members of the "D'98" design team,Jodie Callum, Alex Chin, Mohamed Azlee, and George Borzyskowski, for their veryvaluable contributions.

Beames, N. (1996) "Are we doomed to Live under thecurse of the cursor." in Proceeedings of AIMIA '96- Creative Exports,Australian Interactive Multimedia Industry Association, Surrey Hills.

Hutchison, A. (1996) "Problems for a CraftCulture" in Proceeedings of AIMIA '96- Creative Exports, AustralianInteractive Multimedia Industry Association, Surrey Hills.

Fiske, J. (1982) Introduction to Communications Studies. Methuen, London.

Laurel, B. (1993) Computers as Theatre, Addison-Wesley, Reading,Massachusetts.

Laurel, B. (ed) (1990)The Art of Human Computer Interface Design, Addison-Wesley, USA,

Preece, J. (1994) Human-Computer Interaction,Addison-Wesley, Wokingham, England.

Richmond, W. (1992).It needs design, in Communications Arts, Vol 34, No 4, 194.

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© Andrew Hutchison

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