Metaphors are Jet Fuel

C’est ne pas une brush

C’est ne pas une brush

VR/AR experiences will live or die by how quickly a user can learn how the experience works.  Thankfully, designers have an arsenal of tools in the form of metaphor to help speed the acquisition of knowledge.  Metaphors are cognitive shortcuts.  If I tell you, “I had a rough morning,” you know exactly what I mean. 

In Google Tilt Brush, you can choose the type of brush that you want from the palette.  However, you’re not choosing an actual brush.  You are choosing the type of line/pattern/texture that you want to use. Metaphors, or words applied to objects, actions, or concepts to which they are not literally applicable, are extremely efficient means of communicating complex ideas.  

“For instance, if I say “This is a Trash Bin,” you may not know a computer’s file management system or directory structures, but you’ve got a pretty good idea of how trash bins work, so you can deduce that the unwanted files go in the trash bin, and you’ll be able to retrieve them until the bin is emptied. Metaphors are assistive devices for understanding.”
— Frank Chimero

VR/AR offer tremendous possibility in creating entirely new experiences and environments.  The primary obstacle that designers and developers will encounter is that they can only design for the speed of the user’s understanding.

When virtual objects and actions in an app are metaphors for familiar experiences - whether these experiences are rooted in the real world or the digital world - users quickly grasp how to use the app.” - iOS Human Interface Guidelines, 2015

Learning on Jet Fuel

Metaphors that "embody," or perfectly represent, an idea will communicate those ideas faster.  Same for qualities, feelings, etc.  Furthermore, exposure to metaphor can be incidental!  It doesn’t have to be something that users are conscious of in order to influence them. Researchers from MIT, Harvard and Yale tested how mere exposure to smoothness or coarseness affected people’s subsequent decision-making.

One half of the participants completed a jigsaw puzzle with a smooth surface.  The other half completed the same jigsaw puzzle except that was covered in sandpaper.  After participants finished the jigsaw puzzle they were given a second task to read and evaluate a story.  They were told that this was an unrelated task.  However, the researchers were really studying how the haptics of touching a smooth or a rough puzzle would change people’s judgments of the story.  In American culture, roughness is associated with coarseness, difficulty and harshness.

Here’s how the researchers described the rest of their study:

“After the puzzle task, participants read a scenario describing an interaction between two people and formed impressions about the nature of this interaction. This passage described both positive components (e.g., kidding around) and negative components (e.g., exchange of sharp words) of a social interaction and thus was ambiguous as to the overall tenor of the interaction…After reading, participants rated whether the social interaction was: adversarial/friendly, competitive/cooperative, a discussion/argument, and whether the target people were on the same side/on opposite sides using 1-9 scales.

Results indicated that participants who completed the rough puzzle rated the interaction as less coordinated (more difficult and harsh) than did participants who completed the smooth puzzle, F(1, 62) = 5.15, P = 0.027. Thus, roughness specifically changed evaluations of social coordination, consistent with a 'rough' metaphor.”

Experience of texture influences unrelated task of judging social interaction.  A rough texture led to more competition and less coordination.   Half of the participants touched the rough textured puzzle and the other half touched the smooth textured puzzle.  Next they read a story about an ambiguous social interaction.  The people who touched the rough texture believed that the interaction was more difficult and harsh.  

Experience of texture influences unrelated task of judging social interaction.  A rough texture led to more competition and less coordination.   Half of the participants touched the rough textured puzzle and the other half touched the smooth textured puzzle.  Next they read a story about an ambiguous social interaction.  The people who touched the rough texture believed that the interaction was more difficult and harsh.  

So why would touching a smooth or a rough puzzle piece change an American’s subsequent evaluations of a social experience?  Likely because of how it essential it is to the following metaphors:

  • Having a rough day
  • Using coarse language
  • Being rough around the edges
  • Acting as a smooth operator

This study is an example of how sensory input (touching rough or smooth puzzle pieces) affected people’s subsequent decision-making. The puzzle pieces acted as embodiments (e.g., tangible representations) of social dynamics. The lesson for people making VR/AR experiences is that people are making automatic associations with everything that they see, touch, and hear. Users are in a constant state of monitoring their environment and taking in new information.  Metaphors are a powerful cognitive shortcut to help users learn what your world is and how to navigate it. 

Metaphors can help you communicate abstract information quickly.  Consider which metaphors capture the experience that you want to create and how your want your user to feel.  Then work backward from there to how to represent it.  For example, if I wanted to create a narrative about love, the metaphor “Love is a Journey” would be extremely useful.  Consider the following examples used to describe love (and its challenges):

  • Look how far we’ve come.
  • We have a long way to go.
  • It’s been a long, bumpy road.
  • We can’t turn back now.
  • We’re at a crossroads.
  • We may have to go our separate ways.
  • This relationship isn’t going anywhere.
  • We’re spinning our wheels.
  • Our relationship is on the rocks.
  • This relationship has hit a dead-end street.

This list of metaphors likely triggered ideas for how to represent love inside of a digital experience.  Hopefully, it also provided an example of taking an abstract concept and representing it in a way that users can quickly grasp.  For additional advice on metaphor, I recommend Maggie Appleton's article, Why Metaphors Matter for App Designers. It's not specific to VR/AR, but it contains some nuggets.  

Further reading

Ackerman, J. M., Nocera, C. C., & Bargh, J. A. (2010). Incidental haptic sensations influence social judgments and decisions. Science,328(5986), 1712-1715.

Chimero, Frank.  What Screens Want.  Build conference Belfast.  Nov 14, 2013.  

 iOS Human Interface Guidelines, 2015