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Why is it doing that? Usability and interface metaphors in Workflow

  • University of British Columbia
  • University of Alberta and University of Guelph


Metaphors are a widely used resource for interface design and analysis. Based on Lakoff and Johnson’s seminal work on metaphor, Barr (2002) developed a model that acknowledges three types of metaphors commonly used by designers to give individuals who interact with an interface a sense of its logic from first sight, and to scaffold their understanding of it and its general affordances for action. These are known as orientation, ontological, and structural metaphors. As an addition to Lakoff and Johnson’s taxonomy of metaphors, Barr proposed two supplementary metaphors that derive from the structural, which he called element and process metaphors. Generally speaking, it is possible to assert that the first group of metaphors assists a user in becoming acquainted with the function of the interface, and the second group, added by Barr, relates to the actual operation of that interface. During the analysis of the collected data, it was found that those participants who took what was termed a “reflexive” stance towards the Workflow interface tended to assess the appropriateness of the orientation, ontological, or structural metaphors only. Those participants who decided to take what was termed an “active” stance tended to address issues related to element and process metaphors of the interface instead. In the current INKE prototype design cycle, lower-fidelity digital prototypes have been favoured over low-fidelity paper or pdf-based prototypes as an experiment in interface design and testing. The findings of this study suggest that prototype testing for digital humanities experimental software could productively include one more step in the interface development protocol, prior to the digital prototype stage. The purpose of this phase would be the exploration, proposition, or assessment of possible metaphors at a conceptual level with actual user groups working on low-fidelity representations of the interface. In this stage, based on user group expertise of the editorial process, the participants might participate in focusing the design team towards which resources for meaning-transference are more suitable for the task. After this design process, a digital prototype would then be created to test the congruency between the structural metaphors initially chosen and the actual operation of the interface (e.g., De Souza et al., 2001, Nadin, 2001, Reilly et al., 2005). Our findings suggest that such approaches would be valuable for use in humanities-oriented software prototyping as well.
Why is it doing that?
Usability and interface metaphors in Workflow
E P, T D, G R, S B,
E D, R K,  INKE R G
Japanese Association for Digital Humanities,
Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, Japan
September 
I D is not a new eld of
study; some sources credit to Vannevar
Bush’s  Memex (Bush, ) for being
the rst initiative towards a graphical user
interface (Wardrip-Fruin, ). But is pos-
sible to assert that the notoriety of Interface
Design (hereinafter ID) as a discipline has
increased with the ongoing development of
graphical interfaces. Some scholars place
the origin of its ongoing momentum in the
impact of the Macintosh computer in 
(Myers, B., Hudson, S. E., & Pausch, R.,
). Along its history, ID has taken the-
oretical inuences from many different dis-
ciplines, psychology and computer sciences
among the most notable, particularly during
the early years of its development.
Nadin () questioned the approach
offered by these two disciplines to the then
emerging eld by pointing out that the
nature of psychology compels it to deal only
with the user, while the nature of computer
science compels it to deal only with the sys-
tem. The purpose of an interface is no other
than the communication between these
two, and so approaching the problem from
one or the other angle is not sufcient. This
was, and still is, a strong argument in favor
of communication and language-related
approaches to interface design and analysis.
For instance, Nadin () himself proposed
a design protocol based on semiotic theo-
ries where the interface and its elements
are treated as signs; many other researchers
have been using a semiotic approach to ID
effectively (i.e. Andersen, ; Bolchini,
Chatterji, & Speroni, ; C. S. de Souza,
Barbosa, & da Silva, ; Clarisse Siecke-
nius de Souza, Barbosa, & Prates, ; Cla-
risse Sieckenius De Souza & Cypher, ;
Clarisse Sieckenius De Souza, ; F. de
Souza & Bevan, ; De Souza, ; Der-
boven, De Roeck, & Verstraete, ; Islam,
; Leite, ; Meystel, ; Prates & de
Souza, ).
Perhaps the most common approach to
Interface Design from a communication/
linguistic perspective is the use of some
theoretical and methodological resources
of rhetoric, a discipline dened roughly as
the study of discourse (Bizzell & Herzberg,
). Particular attention is given the
metaphor, a literary device of comparison
(Helander, Landauer, & Prabhu, ). In
the realm of interface design, metaphors are
usually used to depict or explain a general
logic, as well as processes and functions, by
comparing the affordances of a given envi-
ronment with those of the interface (Barr,
Biddle, & Noble, ). Thus, a metaphor is
basically a tool for the transference of mean-
ing (Turbayne, ).
Lakoff and Johnson () exposed the
extended use of metaphor as a concept
in everyday life, a resource to “assist our
thinking”, in words of Turbayne (, p.
). Among many other contentions, they
classied metaphors in three categories:
Orientational, Ontological and Structural (Lakoff & Johnson,
). Barr, Biddle and Noble () adapted this taxonomy
of metaphors to their own framework, oriented to either design
or evaluation of user interfaces. According to them, an Orien-
tational metaphor is one that “explain[s] a concept in terms of
space” (p. ); it is a kind of metaphor often used to explain
either quantication (as in “uploading” and “downloading”),
or navigation (as in placing new information at the “top” or
“advancing” from left to right). An Ontological metaphor
is one which explains concepts in terms of “(…)objects and
substances” (p.). It is perhaps the most widely used, as in
interface design virtually everything is understood in terms of
the particular affordances of already existing objects, with the
possible exception of what Barr and others dened as “novel
metaphors” (p.). The use of les and folders as administrative
resources in an interface is an example of this particular kind
of metaphor. Finally, Structural metaphors involve the adop-
tion of a logic system and therefore, its particular entailments.
If it is true that ontological metaphors are the most common,
they are usually contained within a structural metaphor that
provides them with a particular logic. An example of this is the
“workspace” metaphor, which is embedded in virtually every
existent operative system (for example, the “ofce” metaphor
for text editors).
In their framework, Barr, Biddle and Noble () proposed
two different strands to tackle more specically, on the one
hand, the formal, and on the other, the functional entailments
that can be found in a structural metaphor. According to Barr,
these subdivisions, called element and process metaphors, were
inherited from Nielsen’s () protocols for heuristic evalua-
The general aspect of the
Workflow Interface
The Workow editorial version prototype (hereinafter Work-
ow) was designed to be an interactive online visualization of
the editorial process (Radzikowska, Ruecker, Rockwell, Brown,
& Frizzera, ). As noted earlier, an prototype of this software
was beta tested among  participants in two different locations
during , eight for each location. The ndings reported here
correspond to the data obtained in the Vancouver, B.C. setting.
In this paper, I’ll discuss participant responses that pertained to
the detection and assessment of metaphors by participants, and
contemplate implications for interface design.
consider the following:
“having the cords all laid out in front of me like in a ow chart
way makes things look quite a lot simpler” (participant )
“the only content that this is carrying is driven by the task, the
process owchart that you have created, so technically, you are
right, this is a step and that’s a step” (participant . :-
“I see that it’s part of a work ow, it’s like a owchart” (partici-
pant . :-:)
The corkboard metaphor, even if not explicit, could have
granted some of its element and process metaphoric entail-
ments to the interface. As noted earlier, the action of advancing
an article within the stages of the interface is performed by
Workow metaphors
In early phases of the prototype conceptualization process, a
representation of a corkboard with pinned cards on it was con-
sidered suitable in terms of metaphoric entailments. During the
study, this metaphor was detected in context by at least one of
the participants, an international journal editor:
“there’s some workow there [gestures to corkboard
on wall with  ×  index cards arranged in sequence].
Those are all our accepted papers. As you can see, it’s
all on pieces of paper” (participant . :-:)
In terms of orientation, the purpose of a owchart is to rep-
resent “ow”, a continuum or a sequence of steps in a par-
ticular direction (navigation), usually oriented top to bottom.
In Workow, the main navigation lead of the interface is
horizontal but its resemblance to a traditional owchart and
the western convention for reading order makes it possible to
infer its intended sequence and direction. Several participants
acknowledged the owchart metaphor entailments in the inter-
face as well as the modied orientation metaphor. For example,
moving a white circle (usually referred to as a “bubble”) that
could be recognized as a pin in this particular metaphor. There-
fore, the “bubble” potentially conveys two different metaphors,
“bubble as an article” and “bubble as a pin”; however, the
acknowledgment of the former overthrows the recognition of
latter, instead of linking them to convey “pin as a document”.
I would argue that this lack of semiotic connection between
the two former metaphors might be due to the difference in
sizes among the dot elements, a metaphoric entailment used
in Workow to convey length of article; because this is not a
feature of a pin, it debunks the corkboard metaphor. This situa-
tion is foreseen in the rst two heuristic principles arising from
the taxonomy presented by Barr, Biddle and Noble (), and
noted by one of the participants:
“the immediate question I had was around, what does the
bubble mean. So I understand through the video that that’s a
text. But what does it mean when there are multiples bubbles of
different size?” (participant . :)
The stages of the editorial process across which the bubble travel
are represented by squares colored according to the convention
of trafc lights. Thus a new ontological metaphor appears —
“the interface as a driving road, pathway or journey”— and with
it, a new set of metaphoric entailments. In Workow, every
acquired article advances individually through the stages, one at
a time, like pieces on a chessboard. The ideal path, the shortest
one between the acquisition of a document and its publication,
is mostly through the green stages, an element metaphor for
green trafc lights. Following the same idea, the red squares
represent crucial or denitive obstacles for publication, and the
mustard ones represent different levels of revision that might
delay, but not preclude, the publication of the piece. Workow
as a road, pathway or journey was detected and acknowledged
too by participants:
“It is laid out so that you’ve got your signs, red lights, you know,
you’ve got lines on the road, you’ve got a sense of what’s legal
to do for example, and then you can get your vehicle down the
road.” (participant )
“[…]to see the whole workow visually, gives me a sense of the
journey” (participant . :-:]
“what’s interesting here is the way you are using the colour
coding along the ow and obviously I might get curious about
that to understand things, red might be bad […]” (participant
. :-:)
“that might be a pathway that doesn’t discourage authors nec-
essarily to go elsewhere” (participant . :-:)
Active and reexive patterns
The detection of the metaphors implicit in Workow during
the testing process does not necessarily occur in the same way
for every participant. The recognition and interpretation of
metaphors in an interface depends, among many other fac-
tors, on the knowledge and experience of each participant with
the particular instances that are being implicitly or explicitly
compared. In the case of workow, the decision of using a
owchart metaphor might be based on the fact that the in-
tended nal user of the fully developed software are imagined as
being familiar with a owchart due to their professional activity
(editors), although they are not necessarily familiar with that
metaphor in a uniform way.
Among all the possible differences in the interpretation of
the metaphors within the interface, two behavior patterns were
detected. On the one hand were participants that tackled the
performance of the list of tasks and described their actions in
a straightforward way; this pattern is deemed “active” for the
purpose of this paper. On the other hand were participants
that preferred to take the role of observe and assess the inter-
face rather than use it; this pattern is denominated “reex-
ive”. Those participants that took a reexive stance evaluated
the appropriateness of the owchart metaphor in depicting
and easing understanding of the editorial process; they found
mistakes or omissions in the structure of the metaphor; they
offered possible alternative functionalities to the interface; or
they offered new possible pathways to represent metaphorically
this process. The following observations capture this “reexive”
“In fact, there’s almost like had to do… and again I don’t know
if this will work in terms of… you’ve got to really sit down and
sort of think about it, but I like the Rubix Cube.” (Participant
“I do see something that is a little interesting here because
recently through a couple journals, they have another slot here
and its called «reject and resubmit» and I don’t really know
what its about because I think if its rejected is rejected, but I
think the meaning of that is its basically that it is suitable for
the journal but we think it’s beyond major revisions… (Partici-
pant )”
“If you can manage this in a certain way or organize in a
certain way, under issue, for example… Or, though, see, right
now we put out a call for papers for a special issue, right? We’ve
yet to receive submissions but we do have a submission… just
a general submission, right? So, that will go under, I guess a
different page... (Participant : .-:)”
“I don’t know if this [gestures to interface] — I mean, you can
see that all those stages are here, so there’s nothing missing. In
fact, there might be a little more than you ever have to use. But
that’s okay.” (Participant : .-.)
In general, we noted that those participants that presented a
reexive pattern of behavior tended to assess primarily the ori-
entational and ontological metaphors rather than the structural
metaphors in the interface. The participants with an active
stance towards the testing process —those that completed each
task and spoke aloud about their experience of working with
the interface— tended to assess issues related with the function-
ality of the interface and questioned the appropriateness of the
resources employed in the interface for scaffolding the under-
standing of its operation.
And so, if I am assuming from the video that each bubble is
a text and each bubble represents a task in a particular stage,
things are aligning up visually for me but I don’t know what
the relative size means.” : […] “Sometimes I am getting a
mouse-over, sometimes I am not, so you know… there’s a nice
little pulse when I go over, and if a hover for a very long time…
nothing.” : […] “Would it be so hard to put a little eld
here that says maybe “articles not yet in process”?” : […]
“let’s say there’s  articles here . . . that becomes an imme-
diate issue. The capacity of your system it is going to be highly
constrained by this visual metaphor.” : (Participant ).
“I’ve got so many articles that I can’t remember who wrote such
and such, the name isn’t in my head, so just as a quick little
comment I would say, I want to see the name prominent too,
more than seeing the little  character snippet of text. … if I
want to read it, I’ll just hit read article.” : […] “You do really
need to keep track of… are there ways in this ow that I can
ag certain things?” : (Participant ).
“the action to click to see what the article is would be problem-
atic because it does give a good overview of what things are but
I don’t know what these things are” (Participant ).
It is possible to state that the assessment given by these partici-
pants to the interface was mainly oriented towards what Barr et
al. () titled as process and element metaphors.
Finally, we should note that the patterns described here did
not occur in isolation. In most of the cases, the participants
assessed or reported metaphors that fell in many or every of
the categories presented by Barr et al (). It was the promi-
nence in the occurrence of a particular pattern that determined
its stance.
The nding of these two stances in the
assessment of the suitability of particular
metaphors and the functionality of the
workow interface might open a discus-
sion about the possibility of acknowledging
these same stances as phases or stages of a
formal testing protocol for new interfaces
to be developed following a metaphor-ori-
ented design process. Given the fact that
the participants in the Workow testing
process were experts in editorial processes, a
“reexive” stage of testing could be designed
to encourage participants to propose possi-
ble metaphors, or to assess the feasibility of
particular metaphors as a resource for easing
the understanding of an interface. The
denition or assessment of these metaphors
could inform early design work.
The inclusion of this phase in a hypothet-
ical testing process might not require the
development of a digital prototype —perhaps
not even a low-end prototype or a sketch;
however, it can be helpful in dening the
grounds for the overall design of an in-
terface, and in preventing the necessity of
discarding a prototype because the interface
is deemed by users unsuitable.
The “reexive” phase could be understood
as a design-oriented resource when using
experts’ opinions to dene design premises,
and as an assessment tool when the meta-
phors to be used in the interface are previ-
ously dened by a design team. Ideally, once
the overall metaphors are dened, an “ac-
tive” phase of testing could be implemented
to assess the application of the metaphoric
entailments to the interface in operation.
The application of this proposed protocol
would imply the inclusion of an additional
phase prior to the development of a proto-
type within the regular design and testing
process – a step that may ease the design
and development process by focusing par-
ticipants on the clarity of the element and
process metaphors.
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Design principles are semiotic by nature. To design means to structure systems of signs in such a way as to make possible the achievement of human goals: communication (as a form of social interaction), engineering (as a form of applied technical rationality), business (as a form of shared efficiency), architecture, art, education, etcetera. Design comes about in an environment traditionally called culture, currently identified as artificial (through a rather romantic distinction between natural and artificial), and acts as a bridge between scientific and humanistic praxes. A long this line of thinking, Simon (1982) stated, ‘Engineering, medicine, business, architecture, and painting are concerned not with the necessary but with the contingent- not with how things are but how things might be- in short, with design’. The object of semiotics is sign systems and their functioning within culture. For a long time (and for reasons whose presentation is beyond the scope of this article), one type of sign- the symbol- has been considered representative of all signs in human culture: ‘for most of us... the significant part of the environment consists mostly of strings of artifacts called “symbols ” that we receive through eyes and ears in the form of written and spoken language and that we pour out into the environment- as I am now doing- by mouth or hand ’ (Simon 1982). Actually, we perceive signs through all our senses, and we generate signs that address the same. The fact that some of these signs (visual, auditory) are more important should not prevent us from considering any other sign that can be used for representation, communication, and communication functions. But before dealing with these basic functions, we have to settle upon one of the many definitions of sign that have been advanced in the field of semiotics, and then apply it as consistently as possible. The definitions fall into two basic categories: 1. Adoption of one kind of sign- usually pertaining to verbal language- as a paradigm, with the understanding that every other sign is structurally equivalent. Artificial intelligence researchers are quite comfortable
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In the present day User Interfaces (UIs) are complicated software components, which play a crucial role in the usability of web applications. An explosion on interface design for HCI has been commenced over the last decade. But very little attention has been paid to semiotics theories for web interface design, though designing the web sign has a widely acceptable crucial effect on enhancing users understanding and satisfaction. For these, the objective of this paper is to reflect user experiences in interface signs interpretation and how these could affect the usability of web applications. To accomplish this objective, a systematic empirical case study was conducted on a web application. This study was replicated with seven participants from five different educational institutions in Finland and followed a strict case study methodology to ensure the validity and reliability of our research outcomes.
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Although metaphor is a commonly used device in the de-sign of user-interfaces, it is not rigorously understood, and most guidance stops at the recommendation of its use. In this paper we seek to provide a systematic taxonomy of user-interface metaphors, based on and extending the framework of Lakoff and Johnson. We then suggest that some usability heuristics emerge directly from analysis of the taxonomy. We conclude that the taxonomy and heuristics may provide appreciable benefits in user-interface design and evaluation, and address some of the criticisms of metaphor use that have been made.
Although multi-touch applications and user interfaces have become increasingly common in the last few years, there is no agreed-upon multi-touch user interface language yet. In order to gain a deeper understanding of the design of multi-touch user interfaces, this paper presents semiotic analysis of multi-touch applications as an interesting approach to gain deeper understanding of the way users use and understand multi-touch interfaces. In a case study example, user tests of a multi-touch tabletop application platform called MuTable are analysed with the Communicability Evaluation Method to evaluate to what extent users understand the intended messages (e.g., cues about interaction and functionality) the MuTable platform communicates. The semiotic analysis of this case study shows that although multi-touch interfaces can facilitate user exploration, the lack of well-known standards in multi-touch interface design and in the use of gestures makes the user interface difficult to use and interpret. This conclusion points to the importance of the elusive balance between letting users explore multi-touch systems on their own on one hand, and guiding users, explaining how to use and interpret the user interface, on the other.
Metaphor as a semantic device is inspected in terms of its psychological and philosophical implications. It is shown to be an artificial language, often misleading, and psychologically unsound. The author attempts to expose categorial confusion. The book has a twofold aim: to "explode the metaphysics of mechanism by exposing mechanism as a case of being victimized by metaphor," and to show that "the metaphysics of mechanism can be dispensed with." In lieu of metaphor the author proposes an alternative model which treats the events of nature as elements of language, and shows how the linguistic metaphor sheds light on the concrete problem of vision and visual perception, left obscure by the mechanical metaphor. The main theme of the book is "that we should constantly be aware of the presence of metaphor, avoiding being victimized by our own as well as by others," with a secondary theme, that because of the infusion of metaphor into our psychological orientation to problems the distinction between the bona fide problem and the "mythology" relating to the problem are so tenuous, that a distinction is drawn only with the greatest difficulty. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)