Archetypes and Metaphors

by Andy Polaine on May 18, 2010

in General

There is an interesting piece over at Johnny Holland by Rahul Sen titled Archetypes and Their Use in Mobile UX. It’s probably worth reading it and coming back here, but the introduction gives you an idea of where he’s headed:

“Have you ever needed a user manual to sit on a good chair? Probably not. When we see a good chair, we almost always know exactly what to do, how to use it and what not to do with it. And yet, chairs are made by the thousands, and several challenge these base assumptions to become classics in their own right. The chair is one of the most universally recognized archetypes known to us. In light of recent events in the mobile realm, I believe that the stage is set to probe notions of archetypes in the mobile space.”

As does the last pull quote:

“Thinking in archetypes gives us a unique overview of interaction models and their intrinsic behavior patterns, making it possible to ask interesting what if questions and examine consequences.”

There is lots to like and he makes some great observations here, but hanging them onto the term “archetype” is problematic. Rahul gives a brief nod to the differences between metaphors and archetypes, but muddies rather than clarifies. This moment of slippage defeats the whole archetype argument, but if you replace the word archetype with metaphor in the piece, then it all makes great sense.

The reason why metaphors are so important to understand in interaction design is precisely because there are very few, if any, archetypes. It’s easy for us as savvy users and interaction designers to presume there are original ideas or symbols universally recognised by all, but they’re simply not. It’s the reason why so many people don’t ‘get’ interfaces that should be blindingly obvious. They don’t understand the mental model behind it, thus it’s not an archetype.

Metaphors are useful because they bridge this gap. One thing to note is that metaphors are not “analogies between two objects or ideas, conveyed by the use of one word instead of another,” as Rahul says. Those are similes. I’m not saying this to be grammatically pedantic, but because there is an important distinction. A metaphor isn’t saying “it is like“, but “it is“. It helps you understand a concept you don’t know by expressing it in the form of a concept you do know, not just saying it’s like the other one. Life is a journey, it’s not that life is like a journey.

An interaction design simile would say, “this file on the desktop is like a real paper document on your desk”. A metaphor is saying, “this file on your desktop (in fact, the icon of it) is a real file”. It makes a difference because it makes a difference to how we interact with those things and to the mental models we form. It makes a difference to how much we can stretch and/or break those metaphors. Delete your most precious file and decide whether it was like a file or really was one.

Lakoff and Johnson’s work on metaphors is essential to bring in here, because they demonstrate that our entire language and understanding of our experience in the world is based on embodied metaphors. When you start to pick apart language, you realise it’s all metaphors (such as “pick apart” – the metaphor being that language is a thing made up of other things that you can pull apart).

They also talk about how metaphors collapse into natural language without us thinking about them anymore, but they’re still metaphors. When we say we’re close to someone, we learn this metaphor from actually being physically close to someone (usually our mothers). Physical and emotion closeness are the same thing at that point. Later, we use the metaphor of being close to someone to express emotional closeness, but it because so commonplace and universally understood (in most languages) that we cease to perceive the metaphor anymore.

On the other hand, poetic metaphors, such as “the sun was a fiery eye in the sky”, are designed to make us perceive the metaphor and appreciate its discord or imagery. Most interface design is still on the poetry side of things, screaming out the metaphors, which is why they are far from being archetypes.

The interesting thing about multitouch devices is that the interface seems like it disappears. You feel like you are just interacting with the content in many cases, such as scaling or moving around digital photos that have never had a physical form. The interface is still there, of course. You’re not really stretching or pinching anything, you’re just making those movements with your fingers over a piece of glass, but the direct manipulate feeling that it affords tricks us enough. This still happens to a lesser extent in desktop metaphors – it really does feel like you have lost a file when it gets accidentally deleted, but actually it was never really a file, but a bunch of pixels on the screen pretending to look like a file and in fact just being a visual reference for a scattered set of magnetic impulses on a drive. Like theatre, we willingly suspend our disbelief in order to believe in the metaphor because it’s easier that way.

The strength of Rahul’s piece is in the various examples of something-centric “archetypes” that he gives and the “what if?” questions he asks about them. They’re insightful, but they’re just not archetypes by the definition he sets out. Ironically, having pointed out in a note right at the start of the article that he his not referring to Jungian archetypes, I think Rahul’s examples are much more closely related to Jung’s understanding of archetypes than the other definitions he refers to.

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