I agree with you. As content manager for a web site development company, I
spend much of my day searching for replacements for bad labels and

The clients says "I want something like ----" but everytime I offer
alternate suggestions they return to their original ideas. These ideas are
often misconceived and misleading, but they have become the labels of that
section/function in the clients' minds. It's like the name of a rock 'n roll
band. It only matters what it means the first few times you hear it, then it
begins to carry a different message. When I say "The Rolling Stones" who
thinks of gathering moss? Almost no one.


-----Original Message-----
From: Peter Merholz [mailto:[log in to unmask]]
Sent: Wednesday, August 25, 1999 8:45 AM
To: [log in to unmask]
Subject: Metaphor you, meta for me

Because I'm a contrarian who enjoys screwing with the user experience, I've
changed the subject header! Ha! Try to track the discussion now!

Anyway, we seem to be going round and round covering the same ground here.
Obviously, we cannot avoid metaphor. The point should be to address the
judicious use of metaphor.

I take issue with Don's desire to replace metaphors with explicit
description. He suggests instead of "shopping cart" to use "list of items
purchased." Such precise descriptions are fine only if you want your site to
have no personality whatsoever. In some instances (say, an online
registration for university classes), no personality is fine.

In most shopping, however, there needs to be an emotional hook. Even big
bland Wal-mart employs Greeters to make the experience friendlier. In the
words-based world of the Web, figurative speech is among the few
opportunities to make that more visceral connection.

Again, though, you have to be careful. My main issue with Jakob's
spotlighted link (of which my ranting against started this beast of a
thread) was that Jakob based his conclusion (don't use terms other than the
understood "shopping cart") on a *bad example*. "Shopping sled"? Who the
hell ever heard of a shopping sled?

Metaphors aren't bad. But bad metaphors are bad. The problem is when people
don't distinguish between good and bad metaphors. "Wheelbarrow," for the
gardening audience, is a good metaphor. It also shows that the store "gets
it," and that you can trust them 'cause they speak the lingo.

[Tangent: Again and again one sees usability engineers declaiming that a
general way of doing something is "poor usability," when as often as not,
the usability has little do with the general way, but in the particular
execution being studied. UIE's _Web Site Usability_ is the classic
example--the conclusion that "graphic design neither helps nor hurts" is
invalid because each site they looked was a poor example of graphic design.
A site with quality graphic design would have likely shown that good graphic
design helps.]

Now, if structured its site as some kind of 3D walkthrough of a
greenhouse, that would be a poor execution of metaphor. Obviously, these
things come in degrees.

One thing that hasn't really been addressed is how the notion of metaphor
falls away after repeated use. Folks in HCI get all het up about the
"Desktop," because as an overarching metaphor, it has severe limitations, as
it doesn't really approximate a real-world desktop.

Well, while the HCI folks weren't looking, the rest of the world has seemed
to stopped caring. "Desktop" is just a word to describe the background of
the computer screen, where icons and the trash/recycle bin are. It's no
longer a metaphor--it's simply a label.

This became clearer to me with the advent of,
"Your Personal Virtual Desktop." Their service is a web-based desktop, with
all your files and notes stored on a remote server. They call this a
"virtual" desktop, suggesting that now your local computer's desktop is

And language marches on,

Peter Merholz, Chief Problem Solver, PeterMe Problems Solved  |  [log in to unmask]  |  icq: 7631566