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Metaphor Brainstorming

Metaphor brainstorming is a method for generating metaphors and extracting aspects of those metaphors that can be applied to the design of hardware, software, processes, and services.

Metaphor brainstorming involves:

  1. Brainstorming metaphors that relate to a particular topic or product. For example, if you were interested in designing a new E-commerce site, you would use traditional Brainstorming< to elicit metaphors like checkout counter, aisles, coupons, sales tables, shopping carts, and receipts.
  2. Selecting a set of the metaphors from your original brainstorming session and then conducting a deconstruction session where your focus is to elicit attributes and objects associated with the selected metaphors. For example, the metaphor "aisle" can be deconstructed into attributes like "length", "width", "height", "visual appeal", "ease of updating", and "number of intersections" and objects like "signs", "floor graphics", "educational panels", and "coupon holders".
  3. Mapping the metaphors and their attributes and objects (the "source" domain) to possible system functions (the "target" domain). For example, the concept of the visual appeal of a physical aisle may suggest ways to make your virtual aisles more appealing to your online customers.

Related Links

Blackwell, A. F. (2006). The reification of metaphor as a design tool. ACM Trans. Computer-Human Interaction 13, 4 (Dec. 2006), 490-530.Covers many topics on the use of metaphor and is long, but a thorough discussion of how metaphors can be used and misused in design.

Carroll J. M. & Mack, R. L. (1985). Metaphor, computing systems, and active learning. International Journal of Man-Machine Studies. 22, 1 39-57.Examines the role of metaphor in the learning process. This article promotes an "active-learning" approach to metaphor that can help users form useful mental models.

Carroll, J. M., Mack, R. L., & Kellogg, W. A. (1988). Interface metaphors and user interface design. In M. Helander (Ed.), Handbook of Human-Computer Interaction (pp. 67-85). Amsterdam: Elsevier Science Publishers.Reviews how metaphors can be used in user interface design.

Righi, C. (2001). Building the conceptual model and metaphor: The “3X3”. In R. Branaghan (Ed.), Design for people by people: Essays on usability< (pp. 213-219). Usability Professionals’ Association, Chicago, IL.A methodology for choosing among multiple metaphors for design and then applying a storyboard approach to extend the metaphor for a specific purpose.


Lifecycle: Analysis
See also: Brainstorming
Sources and contributors: 
Chauncey Wilson
Released: 2009-08
© 2010 Usability Professionals Association