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The Web: How Metaphorical Can It Get?

Monday, November 1, 1999
Quick! Give me a good reason as to why one should click on "Start" to close the Windows operating system on your PC. Sounds befuddling for a logical thinker -- or, for that matter, for any Charlie on the street with the ability to put two and two together. Here's one for the Mac user (just in case you are smiling away!) …why on earth would you drag a file icon and drop it into the trashcan to eject your floppy? What's one got to do with the other? Welcome to the chaotic world of user interface design where icons come in the form of objects from your toddler's toy box to the memorabilia and souvenirs of your lost love. Take this chaos to the celebrated Web world, and you have a whole new, bigger and mightier animal to contend with.
When people interact with Web site interfaces, they bring to the encounter a lifetime of experience. Expectations learned in other areas of life can affect how site users think a menu system, a navigation format or a query system on the screen should work. For instance, when we press an elevator button, we expect to see a light or other indication that our request has been accepted and an elevator car is on its way. If no lights show up or bells sound, we think the button or the elevator is not functioning. The same expectations carry over when we request a piece of, say, "inventory availability information" on a Web-based supply-chain management tool. Communication experts would refer to this effect as the "constructivist theory," psychology experts would rather call it as the cognition process of the human mind. In the language of the programming hack, it would be called "widgets and metaphors."

The Web world and its users are maturing at an overwhelming pace; the medium of delivery is shifting from client-based modules to Web-based applications that can be made to stream from a remote server. Even as the Web's graphically rich interface is stepping out of the shadow of the Windows world, there are some control elements and graphical metaphors that have been passed down to the Web world, the tab metaphor perhaps the most popular of all. Amazon.com, for example, uses the tab metaphor so effectively that this control element single handedly takes cares of the site's navigational aspects, menu system, and "where am I?" information. What's more, it doesn't necessarily need the gimmicks of Java script or DHTML. The metaphor is so strong that its functionality is reinforced even on the now antiquated Mozaic browser that's compatible with only HTML 2.0 and lower.

Using metaphors that are theme-based sets off a cognitive chain-reaction in the user's mind. The site user will interpret every element of the interface in terms of its real-life counterpart.

So, there's a fine line between exploiting metaphors to enhance usability and using them without first defining their properties. Controlled use of metaphors and its subsequent evaluation in usability labs would help designers better understand the state of acceptance and comfort levels of users. Who knows? Today's contra-intuitive, yet innovative interface may well evolve to be tomorrow's standard for a metaphor. Until then, some Web journeys are likely to resemble the game of "spot the odd man out."

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