CHI & UPA 2010 Conferences

May 13th, 2010

We ran two courses at the CHI conference in Atlanta – Card Sorting and Ajax Design & Usability. The latter coincided with news from Morgan Kaufman that they will be publishing my book on Ajax UX later next year. I also attended a couple of interesting courses while I was at CHI, the only down side to the whole conference being that I got diverted to Belgium on my return and had to spend a couple of days in Brussels followed by a very expensive (but quite short) train ride from Brussels to London. I did fare better than those who stayed on until the end of the conference, as many were stuck in Atlanta for an extra week. (No offence to Atlanta, but it isn’t really a two-week holiday destination unless you rent a car.)

The very first UPA conference to be held outside of North America starts in about 10 days. On Monday evening (24 May) we’ll be running our Ajax course again, followed by a full day course on Web Design for Usability. I’m keeping an eye on alternative routes for returning from Munich, but hopefully flights will be running as usual.

Finally, if you like to let us know what courses are of interest to you at conferences and as one-day events, please fill out our brief survey at before 22 May 2010.

You can also enter our raffle for a GBP 35/USD 50/ EUR 35 Amazon voucher by completing the questionnaire. It will only take a few minutes.

March 2010 UK UPA Talk

March 15th, 2010

William is giving this months UK UPA talk in London on 18 March, based on his reduced empathizing skills paper presented at the CHI 2009 and British HCI 2009 last year. The UPA talk is entitled The psychology of nerdiness and its implications for user-centered design and is a light-hearted look at some of the important issues raised by the paper. Slides and a video will be available from the UK UPA site after the event.

The original paper, Reduced Empathizing Skills Increases Challenges for User-Centered Design,  is available here.

Meet the UX Salmon

March 9th, 2010

I was at the UX Competency Framework Workshop in London a couple of weeks ago. We needed to describe the roles and talents that make up this thing we currently call a user experience designer. One of the main points of discussion (at least it was my main point of discussion) was that we needed to change the focus of UX from usability evaluation – which is usually performed at the end of a project – to the early conceptual and design stages (however short these may be in an Agile project). I guess the word waterfall was floating around in my head (or swimming, take your pick of bad pun) and suddenly it dawned on me. UX designers need to behave like salmon, swimming upstream against incredbile odds, to take their place at the head of the product design river. (Where we realized after a little discussion that we would then need to spawn and die – but ignore that part<g>.)

Anyway, I thought it might be an encouraging analogy for some and decided to flesh this idea out some more (what a terrible day for puns) in the form of some artwork. So here it is, the UX Salmon:

Card Sorting Software Price Reductions

January 29th, 2010

SynCaps V1 is now free. V2 has been reduced to £150. See our SynCaps comparison chart for more information on their differences.

Happy Birthday Macintosh (or why Apple was so late to its own party)

January 25th, 2010

Around 25 years ago I was doing some consultancy work for Xerox here in the UK. We needed one of those new-fangled graphical environments for an application I was designing – an interactive SGML editor that could be used for electronically marking up content (predating HTML development software by about 15 years, but much, much simpler).

At the time, there weren’t that many GUIs around. Windows version 1 was already late and so not yet available. Apple had recently launched the Macintosh, which looked promising, albeit with a tiny, tiny screen even for the mid-1980’s. But here’s the interesting part of the story: when I rang Apple in the UK to enquire how we might develop software for the Mac I was told “you would need to buy a Lisa to write the software and download it to the Mac”. The Lisa was the fairly unsuccessful precursor to the Mac and cost around USD $10,000 (which Wikipedia informs me is around $22,000 at current value). And that was in addition to the cost of the Mac in the first place (around $2,500). I asked if there were any discounts or other incentives for software developers. The Apple UK spokesman said that they didn’t really want to encourage people to write software for the Mac. They were going to do it all themselves! Now this might just have been the UK office not really understanding the market, but Apple struggled for years in proportion of Mac sales relative to Wintel (Windows/Intel) machines. Maybe deep down it took Apple a long time to realize it really did need to encourage third parties to develop for their machines.

Oh, and I did eventually choose a working graphical environment for my prototype. It was called GEM from Digital Research and ran on top of MS-DOS. However, Apple sued DR because of apparent similarities with the Mac, forcing changes that effectively crippled the product. It was sold on some games machines (like the Atari 520ST and siblings) but eventually faded away in the 1990s.

Las Vegas, Berlin and World Usability Day

October 26th, 2009

We presented two one-day courses – Ajax Design and Usability and Card Sorting at the NNG Usability Week Conference in Las Vegas. The weather was great, but we were inside most of the time (I also thought that would be very convenient but being couped up all day is not such a great idea). We will be presenting Ajax Design and Usability again in Berlin next month (see

To celebrate World Usability Day on 12 November, we are planning some special offers. Be sure to visit our site during the week commencing 9 November.

The point of personas

September 23rd, 2009

I was at the Accessibility 2.0 conference in London yesterday and heard a couple of comments about personas that indicated they are still not very well understood. Since I have been teaching developers about them for around 10 years, I thought it might be helpful to provide some clarification.

The first thing to realize about personas is that they are primarily roles that users take while interacting with a system. But, instead of referring to users collectively (or to their more abstract role), we create a persona as a tangible representation. This turns out to be a good thing from a psychological perspective since research shows people are more likely to feel positive about an individual than they are a group with similar characteristics. So personas do really help to promote something I call empathetic design (see my paper for the CHI conference on why this is needed).

It important to emphasize that personas must be tangible. (This was one of the inappropriate references I came across.) You cannot on the one hand refer to Bob as a nuclear physicist who enjoys golf but then say he is aged 40 to 49. Bob needs to be a specific age, have a finite number of children and so on. Otherwise he is straddling the boggy ground between persona and user profile.

Returning to the roles issue, does it make sense to have a persona with a disability? While it would help as a reminder that the system being developed needs to be accessible, being disabled is not usually a role – it is an attribute. (The exception would be a system that was designed specifically for a particular disability, like the Nokia Braille Reader.) This does not diminish the importance of accessibility but does highlight the need to consider other contexts of use as a separate dimension. So while personas would provide focus for the tasks performed by defined user communities, the contexts of use would cover issues like user experience, frequency of use, range of abilities and so on. Of course, accessibility should not really be a separate consideration. With few exceptions, all systems should be designed to support users’ preferred or required interaction styles. This is something that most developers knew about when developing for the desktop but seems to have been forgotten in the intermittent gold rush that is Web 2.0.

(I cover Ajax accessibility in my course for NNG in Las Vegas and Berlin.)

Random acts of confusion

September 12th, 2009

The magician Derren Brown recently ‘predicted’ the outcome of the UK national lottery, precipitating a kind of science versus society war in my household. While I have seen some clips from the two programmes, I refuse to watch the whole thing on the grounds that it is damaging to the public perception of science and mathematics.

When I see a card trick or a woman being sawn in half, I *know* it’s a trick. No cards or women are actually be harmed in the cause of entertainment (well, I am pretty sure about the women, but the cards might suffer in some cases). The problem with the lottery ‘prediction’ is that most people do not understand the fundamental nature of randomness. Brown’s pseudo-scientific explanation (using the wisdom of crowds) actually makes sense to them. (If you are unfamiliar with the theory, it is where the average of a large number of guesses is more accurate than the vast majority of individual guesses.) The problem is, and this is what makes the trick so effective – but confusing at the same time – it is not possible to predict with any degree of certainty what the next random number might be. In a truly random system, the history of the numbers drawn is entirely irrelevant. The only useful information that can be gleaned this way is whether there are non-random factors at play. So knowing the sequence of results from a roulette wheel might tell you it is not perfectly balanced and therefore slightly prone to choosing some numbers over others. But for a perfectly random system (and lottery equipment is as close as you can get to perfectly random), no amount of contemplation is going to make any difference.

Because of my scepticism, I am now forbidden from discussing the trick any further within earshot of my family (I don’t think they read my blog so I am not worried on that front). And I have to hand it to Darren Brown, its a good trick – even if the ‘predicition’ came shortly AFTER the actual draw. But please, can we have a trick next time that is not going to damage our already impaired understanding of science?

Full results of mobile e-commerce user survey published today

August 28th, 2009

The detailed results from a survey of Britain’s 12 biggest mobile phone e-retailers are being released today by benchmarking specialist Syntagm ( Scores show which sites provide the best experience for shoppers trying to buy a phone online – with some big surprises in the ratings.

Overall results:

• Expansys 62%
• O2 50%
• Argos 47%
• Carphone Warehouse 46%
• T-Mobile 44%
• Virgin Mobile 43%
• 43%
• Orange 41%
• Phones4u 41%
• Vodafone 41%
• Three 39%
• Tesco 36%

Syntagm compared the sites across 13 categories including content, design, navigation and online support. The results suggest that, in the rush to expand their online storefronts, the majority of mobile sites offer a substandard shopping experience and second-rate service.

However, the overall picture masks a number of excellent results in specific areas:

• Expansys achieved the highest or joint highest score in eight of the 13 benchmarking groups.

• O2 ranked in first place for content (83%) and online support (10%), and T-Mobile topped the table for trust (60%) and navigation (97%).

• Argos, Phones4u and Virgin Mobile were each marked top in one of the categories – checkout (85%), trust (60%) and accessibility (80%), respectively.

Results were not all favourable though. Tesco in particular performed poorly, receiving the lowest or joint lowest scores in five categories, and languishing in the bottom three in a further four groups.

And many of the mobile providers were found guilty of prioritising style over substance: half of the sites scored 80% or above for visual design, whereas three quarters scored 60% or below when it came to providing effective product information.

The shopping basket should be central to e-commerce, but the survey found it surprisingly difficult to access on some sites, and often poorly designed. The individual results for this category ranged dramatically from 28% for Tesco to a near-perfect 96% for Expansys.

William Hudson, Syntagm’s CEO, comments: “In the current climate retailers need to be making it as easy as possible for potential customers to find and purchase a product if they are going to survive tough consumer spending conditions and fight off competition from rivals.”

“Whilst there isn’t a direct correlation between usability and sales, we would expect a better shopping experience to result in higher customer conversion rates, and we encourage the companies to concerned to employ the results of our survey to that end.”


Notes for editors
About Syntagm:
Syntagm is a small consultancy based in Oxford. Established in 1985, it specialises in design for usability (user-centred design and user experience) and people development. It has worked more than 100 blue chip organisations across Europe and North America.

About the benchmarking report:
Benchmarking took place in late May and early June 2009, comparing the 12 mobile phone sites across 13 categories: content, visual design, navigation, engagement, accessibility, trust, persuasion, shopping basket, search, selection, checkout, account management, and online support.

Syntagm and its staff have no financial interests in any of the organisations benchmarked.

Why Metaphor is a Double-Edged Sword

August 26th, 2009

[Author’s note, 2009: This is the first article I wrote for the ACM’s interactions magazine, back in 2000. What is interesting, reading it again 9 years later, is that almost nothing has changed. The desktop metaphor is still in widespread use but remains largely broken. The shopping cart metaphor continues to be the best example of the effectiveness of metaphor, which is frankly more than a little disappointing!]

Don Norman is not one to steer clear of controversy. In The Invisible Computer he writes of his disapproval of metaphor in the design of user interfaces – an opinion that he has repeated in debate on the CHI-WEB email list.

What’s all the fuss about? The original issue in CHI-WEB was whether to use a shopping cart metaphor when designing e-commerce sites. Some contributors pointed with glee to examples of shopping sleds and wheelbarrows, while others insisted that a cart is a cart is a cart. Don said that we shouldn’t be using any of these things and should just have “lists of items purchased”. Naturally, this left quite an air of confusion over the whole subject. To try to iron things out, metaphorically speaking, we need to have a better understanding of some of the issues.

Metaphor attempts to express a new domain (the target) in terms of one that is already understood (the source). This is quite common in language where we discuss negotiation as if it were war (“he stood his ground”), use the term higher to mean more and view life as a journey (as in “where do you want to be in two years?”). Some psychologists even argue that thought and language are fundamentally metaphoric. Unfortunately this model of metaphor is very complex, requires a good understanding of both the source and target domains and is very specific within culture and language. An approach that suits user interface design better is called the structure mapping theory of analogy and is the work of Dedre Gentner and her colleagues. This theory still relates target and source domains, but by considering the relationships between the conceptual objects (concepts) within each.

The Controversy

What are the objections to metaphor in user interface design? The most commonly quoted are that metaphor is not helpful except to inexperienced users and that it is overly restrictive. The “desktop” metaphor, which is the basis of most graphical environments found today, is often cited as an example of the failure of metaphorical design. However, I think it deserves a closer look. Figure 1 shows a conceptual model of the source domain – an office of the mid 1970’s. The rectangles represent concepts while the connecting lines are relationships. I have drawn this in the style of a UML class model so that concepts and relationships are read from the labeled end of each line. So, for example, in-tray receives document and filing cabinet stores folder. This model (with some minor changes, such as printer instead of copier) was the basis of the desktop metaphor used on the Xerox Star, the inspiration for the Apple Macintosh, Microsoft Windows and other graphical environments. The trays, folders, documents and other concepts were represented with clear icons and descriptive text, allowing inexperienced computer users to rapidly learn the use of a complex and innovative computer system.

Notice, by the way, that Figure 1 includes a relationship that really isn’t of the same type as the others: desktop covered by blotter. While this relationship was certainly true of many desktops at the time, most of the other relationships are concerned with actions. The desktop relationship with blotter is superficial and not part of the system of relationships that interest us. This is called a non-systematic relationship.

Conceptual model of a desktop showing relationships between documents, folders, trays and similar

Conceptual model of a desktop showing relationships between documents, folders, trays and similar

Figure 1, Conceptual model of a mid-1970’s office

But why is the desktop metaphor unhelpful? I think the desktop metaphor on our computer screens has drifted too far from the original office domain. Microsoft Windows, for example, hides the in-tray and out-tray in an email application, variously called Mail, Inbox, Outlook or Outlook Express depending on the age and configuration of the system. The desktop is confusingly covered by wallpaper and printing documents by dragging them to a printer does not work reliably. The Macintosh does not fare much better and also has the odd feature of allowing users to drag the floppy disk to the wastebasket (“Trash”) in order to eject the floppy. From the office domain it’s obvious that the effect of that action (if any) should be the same as discarding a document or folder. So in most cases, the apparent problem with the desktop metaphor is that it does not correspond to the original office domain.

Now to the suggestion that metaphors confine their designers and users. This supposes that by establishing a well-understood system of relationships we are limited to just those relationships. Although it is likely that inexperienced users will understand the metaphor very literally, this same understanding will give them the confidence to explore and experiment. As long as we do not introduce anomalous relationships such as wastebasket ejects floppy, there will still be considerable freedom to innovate. For example, within the desktop metaphor, we could make use of a stapler to group and compress documents (as compared to the now common zipper concept which is not part of the office domain). We can also use bridging concepts to move from one metaphor to another. A screwdriver (Figure 2 ) could be used as a bridge from the desktop metaphor to the physical hardware. More advanced users might be able to drag the screwdriver to the filing cabinet to perform maintenance operations such as modifying partitions or defragmenting storage. All of these metaphorical design features could be in addition to more direct (but less predictable) mechanisms such as popup menus and shortcut keys.



Figure 2, Bridging concept from desktop to hardware

Some Problems

Having defended the general concept of metaphor, let’s be honest about its limitations. The first problem is that designers sometimes try to be too literal in their use of metaphor. For example, in a real office, mailing a document to a customer means that you no longer have a copy of it, unless you have explicitly made a copy beforehand. Enforcing this behavior in our virtual office would be incredibly frustrating to users. Mindless consistency is not an attractive design strategy.
A larger difficulty is that there really aren’t that many useful metaphors for completely new problem domains. The most successful metaphors are those which “virtualize” an existing problem domain. This means adopting not only the concepts and relationships of the domain, but also the activities, as shown for a “virtual store” in Figure 3 . Other candidates for virtualization are libraries, clubs, medical services, automotive sales and service – in short, most things that have well-defined domains.

Diagram showing relationship between shopping, checkout and delivery activities

Diagram showing relationship between shopping, checkout and delivery activities

Figure 3, Activity (state) diagram for a virtual store

The Name is the Thing

The debate over terms shopping sled versus shopping cart may seem relatively trivial at first sight. It is easy to forget that to inexperienced web shoppers, a shopping cart may be a familiar comfort. Arriving at an e-commerce site that does not use the shopping cart metaphor may be a learning experience, rather than a shopping one. It could also be a wasted learning experience if most other web sites use different concepts and activities. The novelty will be beneficial only if it offers a real improvement over familiar solutions and is adopted by the Internet community as a whole.

An Iceberg Model of Metaphor

Many concepts are domain specific. For example, a cash register is almost always associated with shopping and the activity of paying. Other concepts, such as money are much more general. The image of money in an e-commerce site may be associated with paying, but it may mean pricing, discounts or currency. The difference is that using a domain-specific concept such as a cash register invokes the system of hidden relationships to which it belongs. The cash register may be the only visible evidence of the metaphor, but the rest of the shopping domain is lurking beneath the surface.

This iceberg model of metaphor can present problems as well as providing solutions. A number of web sites have taken to using the term check in. Some use it as an activity required of visitors to the web site (i.e., registering or joining), while others ask existing members to check in. Which is right? The term check in is used almost exclusively in the travel industry to mean registration for a pre-arranged journey or stay and so is associated with a reservation as shown in Figure 4 . The question of whether the customer is a visitor or a member does not really arise, except that a member might be tenuously considered to have a reservation. It would be best not to use the term at all outside its travel context.

Image showing reservation as a concept hidden below the surface of check-in

Image showing 'reservation' as a concept hidden below the surface of 'check in'

Figure 4, Check in has a reservation hidden below the surface

Metaphoric Guidelines

My own view is that metaphor is an important tool for user interface design, but must be used with care. The guidelines below cover some of the most important issues:

Metaphors operate on systems of relationships, not on individual concepts. Make sure that the system of relationships is reflected in your user interface and do not use concepts out of context.

Metaphors do not have to be complete, but interfaces need to provide adequate clues to users. Omitting less important concepts or changing them slightly may not have a large impact on usability, but only testing will tell.

Metaphors should not rely on mere appearance. A concept should not just have the appearance of a shopping basket, it should behave like one too. It needs to have the same or similar relationships in the target domain as it did in the source.

Avoid non-systematic relationships (such as desktop covered by blotter in Figure 1). Most of the important relationships will be how concepts interact with each other, particularly from a user’s perspective.

Don’t let abstract relationships interfere with the metaphor. For instance, it may be true that a desk and a filing cabinet are both instances of office furniture. However, it’s their purpose that is of interest.

Choose metaphors that provide concrete images. The shopping domain is useful because it contains a number of domain-specific concepts that can easily be represented visually: shopping cart (or basket, trolley, etc.), cash register, price tags, discount signs, etc. A catalog metaphor, by comparison, is relatively devoid of distinct concrete images (an order form is not as immediately recognizable as a cart or basket).

Try to get as close to the original domain as possible (unless an alternative has obvious advantages). Mail-order shopping and vending machines are already one step removed from the source shopping domain. Also, some aspects of the vending machine domain are not entirely beneficial to e-commerce: Vending machines usually sell low value items, most require payment in advance, and not all are reliable.

Beware culture-specific metaphors and concepts. Cart (US) versus trolley (UK) is a minor issue since the image is the same. However, kiss and ride (dropping off a loved one at a purpose-built public transport facility) does not enjoy wide-spread recognition.

Further Reading

Gentner, Dedre and Markman, A. B. (1997), ‘Structure mapping in analogy and similarity’, in American Psychologist, Vol. 52, pp. 45-56.
Ortony, Andrew, ed. (1993), Metaphor and Thought, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Copyright Notice

First appeared in interactions, Volume 7 , Issue 3 (2000), pages 11-15, Association for Computing, New York, NY.

Permission to make digital or hard copies of all or part of this work for personal or classroom use is granted without fee provided that copies are not made or distributed for profit or commercial advantage and that copies bear this notice and the full citation on the first page. To copy otherwise, to republish, to post on servers or to redistribute to lists, requires prior specific permission and/or a fee.