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About Face 3: The Essentials of Interaction Design by David Cronin, Robert Reimann, Alan Cooper

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Chapter 13. Metaphors, Idioms, and Affordances

Some interface designers speak of finding the right metaphor upon which to base their interface designs. They imagine that filling their interface with images of familiar objects from the real world will give their users a pipeline to easy learning. So, they create an interface masquerading as an office filled with desks, file cabinets, telephones, and address books, or as a pad of paper or a street of buildings. If you, too, search for that magic metaphor, you will be in august company. Some of the best and brightest designers in the interface world consider metaphor selection as one of their first and most important tasks.

We find this very literal approach to be limiting and potentially problematic. Strict adherence to metaphors ties interfaces unnecessarily to the workings of the physical world. One of the most fantastic things about digital products is that the working model presented to users need not be bound by the limitations of physics and the inherent messiness of real three-dimensional space.

User interfaces based on metaphors have a host of other problems as well: There aren’t enough good metaphors to go around, they don’t scale well, and the ability of users to recognize them is often questionable, especially across cultural boundaries. Metaphors, especially physical and spatial metaphors, have an extremely limited place in the design of most Information-Age, software-enabled products. In this chapter, we discuss the reasons ...

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