5 examples of designs that borrow heavily from metaphor

In this article, I talk about 5 examples of instances where design has borrowed from metaphor and existing knowledge or mental models of users, and break them down in terms of the various ways they utilize these mental models. I also discuss how these decisions provided potential benefits and limitations in terms of usability and comprehension, the design of the artifact, the range of interactions, and any related usability and design concepts you may find appropriate.

1. Notes

When smartphones were relatively new, some of the smartphone producers used one of the important components called familiarity to associate with customers’ mental model. People have been using notebooks and traditional journals for decades. Although, there are different types of notebooks; the fundamental look and feel remain the same.

When Apple released the first few iPhones the notes application was made to look exactly like the traditional notepad. It even included a couple of torn off papers, leather stitches on the top to make it easier for users to connect with their mental modal. They designed the icon in such a way that users won’t have to search for note making an application. The design of the icon looked look like a ruled notebook. It’s been ten years since the release of the first iPhone. Even though, many of Apple’s customers now have familiarity with digital notes application. Apple still maintains the subtle texture of the paper on their notes application. This is because of the strong mental model of the users.

2. Wacom Tablet / Cintiq

Design tablets such as Wacom tablet or Cintiq helps the digital artist to create designs/art using computers. The biggest advantage of using a digital tablet is to let users have better control. The mouse is not ideal for traditional style art or digital sculpting. People went back to a traditional medium and thus limiting the power of recoverability. Recoverability is one of the core components in Human Centered Design (HCD). Customers should always able to recover from their mistakes. At least up to some extent. Cintiq and design tablets were initially designed for the curated user base. It mimicked traditional art boards. Designers can able to design like how would they traditional design. This helped designers and artists to have more control with the advantage of recoverability.

To support the digital medium, Wacom pens have multiple buttons for clicks. Many have used pencils with an eraser on back. Wacom have incorporated this feature on their pens. So by default, if the artist uses a digital application which is meant for painting or sculpting, back of the pen erases the design. In addition to that, they have integrated pressure sensitivity on their products. Traditionally, when users want their pen or pencil to draw or write darker/bolder. Users push harder to the surface. To incorporate such a core feature, Wacom pens work in a similar way. When the user pushes harder to the surface, the outcome on the digital canvas is always darker and bolder. This is considered one of the most important features in Wacom tablets and cintiqs. It’s a core integration of mental model.

3. Gear Shift

Humans have a strong connection to this particular mental model. We have accustomed to gear shift to look and work in a certain way in four-wheelers such as cars, trucks, vans, etc. Although many of us are using automatic, car manufacturers have been using this style even now. This is because of the strong association between the user’s mental models. Some of the car manufacturers have tried changing their designs in many forms. Chrysler is one of the companies who were bold enough change how gear shift works. Even though it is radical and minimalist design, it failed. This is because people were not used to gear work this way. Although Chrysler incorporated a visual indicator to let drivers know the current gear they are in, it didn’t help. There are other vehicles manufactures tried to solve this issue by mimicking traditional gear shift but no positional feedback. It failed as well. These designs caused an increase in accidents and caused chaos. In short, these are failed experiments. This proves all the learning experience caused because of the strong mental model cannot be changed easily. This can be a good example of lack of consistency.

4. Online Shopping

E-Commerce is one of the dominant markets in today’s world. More and more startups have been experimenting with the various shopping experience. In the early 2000’s when online shopping rose significantly. Some of the companies assumed people would have accustomed to the traditional shopping experience and would prefer that way even virtually. Due to this, they have created a 3D supermarket, where shoppers can navigate aisle by aisle. The designs of the virtual stores were based on some of the popular supermarkets such as Walmart. This didn’t do well because people only preferred to look at the product, compare and purchase instead of navigating them to the product location. Also due to some technical limitations, some of the popular browsers couldn’t handle the load of 3D interaction. This caused glitches and lag. The traditional approach didn’t work for online shopping. This again is a good example of how improper use of familiarity can cause problems. When e-commerce platforms for consumers realized this they have quickly stopped this approach. It reminds us, at certain times only key components of mental models would work.

5. Recycle Bin

Recycle bin is one of the iconic features in computers. Especially on windows-based machine. Other manufacturers call that differently. For Example, Apple calls it Trash. In Windows, when it was first introduced in computers, people could able to relate it instantly because they have used in their life. Even in the early stages, Microsoft has put customers in mind to make products which appeal to them. Looks of the recycle bin designed in such a way that user can quickly relate to what they have in their mind. It also addresses a core component called predictability. It is extremely important in Human Centered Design (HCD). Windows trash is named as recycle bin and with icon design which reflects something you can recycle. It provides a good hint to the users how that would work. A significant number of users can assume the purpose of recycle bin just by looking at the icon. This can signify the importance of a mental model. By understanding users’ mental model, designers could able to successfully design a core feature. This example incorporates important theories in mental models such as recoverability, multithreading, and familiarity.

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