top of page
Image by SIMON LEE
  • Writer's pictureantoniodellomo

Interface Metaphors

The term "metaphor" is traditionally associated with language use. When we want to convey an abstract concept in a more familiar and accessible form we frequently resort to using metaphoric expressions. For example, we tend to talk about time, which is a very abstract concept, in terms of money. We save it, spend it, waste it, give someone our time, and so on.

If we consider how system interfaces have been designed, we can also see how metaphors play an important role. The object on the screen, the types of user interactions we perform, the way the system responds, the names given to command names, tend to be based on familiar terms. Desktops, icons, menus, windows, cutting, pasting, copying are either system objects or actions that are part of a virtual interface metaphor. It is difficult to think of a system that is not based on some form of metaphor. We need to ask ourselves, therefore, to what extent and how they help users interact with computer systems.

Virtual interface metaphors

One of the first computer companies to realize the enormous potential of designing interfaces to be more like the physical concrete world that people are familiar with was Xerox. Instead of developing verbal metaphors as ways of helping users to understand their interface, they went one step further and designed an interface metaphor that was based on the physical office. The outcome was the "Star user interface" and the overall organizing metaphor that was presented on the screen was of a desktop, resembling the top of a typical office desk as an icon on the screen. These included paper, folders, filling cabinets, and in and out trays as shown below.

The desktop metaphor as it appeared on the Star screen (Smith et al., 1982)

Instead of being abstract entities, having arbitrary names, files were transformed into pictorial representations, which everyone could easily identify and understand. Having this basic understanding would provide the basis from which users would know how to interact with the icons. The "mouse" was developed to enable actions equivalent to physically handling document, which was achieved by "clicking", "pointing", "selecting", "moving", and "dragging".

Composite metaphors

The desktop metaphor has been combined with other metaphors to allow users the flexibility of carrying out a range of computer-based actions. One example is the scroll bar. Such objects do not exist in real life but they are metaphorical in the sense that they have been designed to capitalize on the main feature of the concept of a scroll - that is, a rolled-up document that has to be unrolled to be read. Other examples of composite metaphors are menus and windows. Both have their own metaphorical basis that is distinct from the concept of an office or a desk. From a cognitive perspective, it might be assumed that people would have difficulties with interpreting composite metaphors. In most instances, though, it seems that people can readily assimilate differing concepts and develop multiple mental models.

5 Reasons Why Metaphors Can Improve the User Experience

As designers, we need to present information carefully to make sure our users think, feel, and do the right thing. As we said in the article, using the correct metaphors can be a great way to help your users understand abstract content, motivate action and, most importantly, create a sense of familiarity.

The way we think, what we experience, and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor.” – Lakoff and Johnson

Metaphors can be really powerful. If you are responsible for pushing user experience design in your organization it will help you to select your own set of metaphors and add them to your standard set of messages. Let’s sum up below five reasons why metaphors can improve the user experience.

1. Put Abstract Concepts in Concrete Terms

2. Create Familiarity

3. Trigger Emotions

4. Draw the Attention of Users

5. Motivate Users into Action


Metaphors simplify and highlight important aspects of UX. Each of them touches on important aspects by analogy. However, always as a designer, pay attention because any metaphor can create a false sense of understanding. As we all know, metaphors convey a meaning that fits the original concept but if not used properly metaphors also carry dead weight. They bring meaning along that does not help or even contradict what we are trying to say and users can easily get the wrong idea.

Photo by Lisa Zoe on Unsplash


bottom of page