Metaphor can be a powerful tool for communicating complex ideas and generating enthusiasm. By suggesting creative relationships or by mapping the familiar onto the new, metaphor can be used to explain, excite, and persuade. In 1992, vice-presidential candidate Al Gore popularized the term information superhighway. This term mapped the familiar and respected metaphor of the physical highway infrastructure of the United States onto the new and unfamiliar concept of a national information infrastructure. Gore used this term to excite the voters about his vision for the future. While the term did oversimplify and has since been horribly overused, it succeeded in helping people to begin learning about and discussing the importance and direction of the global Internet.
Three types of metaphor can be applied in the design of web sites. These are organizational, functional, and visual metaphors:
• Organizational metaphors leverage familiarity with one system's organization to convey quick understanding of a new system's organization. For example, when you visit an automobile dealership, you must choose to enter one of the following departments: new car sales, used car sales, repair and service, or parts and supplies. People have a mental model of how dealerships are organized. If you're creating a web site for an automobile dealership, it may make sense to employ an organizational metaphor that draws from this model.
• Functional metaphors make a connection between the tasks you can perform in a traditional environment and those you can perform in a new environment. For example, when you enter a traditional library, you can browse the shelves, search the catalog, or ask a librarian for help. Many library web sites present these tasks as options for users, thereby employing a functional metaphor.
• Visual metaphors leverage familiar graphic elements such as images, icons, and colors to create a connection to the new. For example, an online directory of business addresses and phone numbers might use a yellow background and telephone icons to invoke a connection with the more familiar print-based yellow pages.
The process of metaphor exploration can get the creative juices flowing. Working with your clients or colleagues, begin to brainstorm ideas for metaphors that might apply to your project. Think about how those metaphors might apply in organizational, functional, and visual ways. How would you organize a virtual bookstore or library or museum? Is your site more like a bookstore or a library or a museum? What are the differences? What tasks should users be able to perform? What should it look like? You and your colleagues should cut loose and have fun with this exercise. You'll be surprised by the ideas you come up with.
After this brainstorming session, you'll want to subject everyone's brilliant ideas to a more critical review. Start populating the rough metaphor-based architecture with random items from the expected content to see if they fit. Try one or two user scenarios to see if the metaphor holds up. While metaphor exploration is a useful process, you should not feel obligated to carry all or any of the ideas forward into the information architecture. The reality is that metaphors are great for getting ideas flowing during the conceptual design process, but can be problematic when carried forward into the site itself.
For example, the metaphor of a virtual community has been taken too far in many cases. Some of these online communities have post offices, town halls, shopping centers, libraries, schools, and police stations. Figuring out what types of activities take place in which "buildings" can be a real challenge for the user. In such cases, the metaphor hampers usability. As an architect, you should ensure that any use of metaphor is empowering and not limiting (see Figure 8.2).
Figure 8.2. The Internet Public Library uses visual and organizational metaphors to provide access to the reference area. Users can browse the shelves or ask a question. However, the traditional library metaphor did not support integration of a multi-user, object-oriented environment, or MOO. Applied in such a strong way, metaphors can quickly become limiting factors in site architecture and design.
You should also go into this exercise understanding that people tend to fall in love with their own metaphors. Make sure everyone knows that this is just an exercise and that it rarely makes sense to carry the metaphor into the information architecture design.
While architecture blueprints are excellent tools for capturing an approach to information organization in a detailed and structured way, they do not tend to excite people. As an architect who wants to convince your colleagues of the wisdom of your approach, you need to help them envision the site as you see it in your mind's eye. Scenarios are great tools for helping people to understand how the user will navigate and experience the site you design. They will also help you think through the experience your site will provide and may generate new ideas for the architecture and navigation system.
To provide a multidimensional experience that shows the true potential for the site, it is best to write a few scenarios that show how people with different needs and behaviors would navigate your site. Before beginning the scenario, you should think about the primary intended audiences. Who are the people that will use your site? Why and how will they want to use it? Will they be in a rush or will they want to explore? Try to select three or four major user types who will use the site in very different ways. Create a character who represents each type. Give them a name, a profession, and a reason for visiting your site, as demonstrated in the sidebar. Then, begin to flesh out a sample session in which that person uses your site. Try to highlight the best features of the site through your scenario. If you've designed for a new customization feature, show how someone would use it.
This is a great opportunity to be creative. You'll probably find these scenarios to be easy and fun to write. Hopefully, they'll help convince your colleagues to invest in your ideas.
This simple scenario shows why and how users may employ both searching and browsing within the web site. More complex scenarios can be used to flesh out the possible needs of users from multiple audiences.
Rosalind, a tenth grader in San Francisco, regularly visits the LiveFun Web site because she enjoys the interactive learning experience. She uses the site in both investigative mode and serendipity mode .
For example, when her anatomy class was studying skeletal structure, she used the investigative mode to search for resources about the skeleton. She found the interactive human skeleton that let her test her knowledge of the correct names and functions of each bone. She bookmarked this page so she could return for a refresher the night before final exams.
When she's done with homework, Rosalind sometimes surfs through the site in serendipity mode. Her interest in poisonous snakes led her to articles about how certain types of venom affect the human nervous system. One of these articles led her into an interactive game that taught her about other chemicals (such as alcohol) that are able to cross the blood-brain barrier. This game piqued her interest in chemistry and she switched into investigative mode to learn more.