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5 Reasons Why Metaphors Can Improve Your User Experience

There are many ways to experience the world around us. Especially offline, we can make use of our different senses to collect information, interpret our environment and make judgments. On the Web, however, our senses are more limited. As designers, we need to present information carefully to make sure our users think, feel and do the right thing.

A great way to help your users understand abstract content, create a sense of familiarity, trigger emotions, draw attention, and motivate action are metaphors.

  • The way we think, what we experience, and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor.

– Lakoff and Johnson

Let’s look at five reasons why metaphors can have such an influence on your user experience. For the full article, including examples, please visit Six Revisions.

1. Metaphors put abstract concepts in concrete terms

Metaphors are a great tool to help your users understand abstract or unfamiliar content. By linking abstract information to a concrete concept, it becomes more easy for people to understand complexity. Existing mental schemata are applied to understand something unfamiliar. These schemata can refer to visual, functional, or structural similarities.

Visual similarities indicate that both the familiar and the unfamiliar concept look alike and can be compared based on external features. Functional similarities are based on common functions or features, unrelated to their appearance. Structural similarities are related organizational structures of both the familiar and unfamiliar concept.

2. Metaphors create familiarity

We love to recognize things. It gives us a feeling of familiarity and makes us feel comfortable. In his article Brains Agree: The Case for Website Usability Guidelines Todd Follansbee explains that we use patterns to get an idea of what to expect. Recognizing mental patterns helps us to accept and understand the unfamiliar.

3. Metaphors trigger emotions

You can perfectly use metaphors to trigger emotions. Emotional engagement on the Web has becomes increasingly important lately. Emotions not only make your design appealing, but at the same time more effective, pleasurable and memorable. Designing with emotion means that you don’t stop at a useful and usable website, but that you take your design a step further and add a great user experience to it.

Great references for emotional design are Don Norman and Aarron Walter, who both focus on the additional value we can add to a Web site when we consider human emotions.

4. Metaphors draw attention

Metaphors can be used to draw attention to a website in general or to very specific elements. Things we recognize draw our attention, just like we recognize familiar faces in a big crowd of unfamiliar people. Of course your whole website its important, but there might just be one thing that’s more important than all others. Or you have many competitors and you really want to draw attention to your entire website in order to stand out.

Just beware to use metaphors with caution. They can can be the key to get you the attention you need, where you need it. At the same time, if used too much, you might overload your page and effect the exact opposite. Set highlights, but don’t blend your users.

5. Metaphors motivate action

Another very interesting aspect of metaphors is that they can influence people’s actions and get users involved. By translating interactions that we know from the real world to the Web, we can also transfer our knowledge to the screen. This way, metaphors can be very engaging and actionable because we intuitively know what to do.

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