The role of metaphor in user interface design

Treglown, Mark (2002). The role of metaphor in user interface design. PhD thesis The Open University.



The thesis discusses the question of how unfamiliar computing systems, particularly those with graphical user interfaces, are learned and used. In particular, the approach of basing the design and behaviour of on-screen objects in the system's model world on a coherent theme and employing a metaphor is explored. The drawbacks, as well as the advantages, of this approach are reviewed and presented. The use of metaphors is also contrasted with other forms of users' mental models of interactive systems, and the need to provide a system image from which useful mental models can be developed is presented.

Metaphors are placed in the context of users' understanding of interactive systems and novel application is made of the Qualitative Process Theory (QPT) qualitative reasoning model to reason about the behaviour of on-screen objects, the underlying system functionality, and the relationship between the two. This analysis supports reevaluation of the domains between which user interface metaphors are said to form mappings. A novel user interface design, entitled Medusa, that adopts guidelines for the design of metaphor-based systems, and for helping the user develop successful mental models, based on the QPT analysis and an empirical study of a popular metaphor-based system, is described. The first Medusa design is critiqued using well-founded usability inspection method.

Employing the Lakoff/Johnson theory, a revised version of the Medusa user interface is described that derives its application semantics and dialogue structures from the entailments of the knowledge structures that ground understanding of the interface metaphor and that capture notions of embodiment in interaction with computing devices that QPT descriptions cannot. Design guidelines from influential existing work, and new methods of reasoning about metaphor-based designs, are presented with a number of novel graphical user interface designs intended to overcome the failings of existing systems and design approaches.

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