Constipated Metaphors

May 15, 2007

I just finished reading “The Psychology of Personal Information Management“, written by Mark Lansdale in 1988. I love reading old papers like this, because they are either comically inaccurate, like the 1950s Popular Science predictions (“in the year 2000, everyone will have a personal robot butler”), or else shockingly prescient (e.g. Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think“, which basically predicted the web and digital cameras).

In the paper, Lansdale makes an interesting comment about the use of real-world metaphors in designing user interfaces. Many interfaces have been inspired by observing people’s behaviours in the real world: “Hmmm, people organize paper documents into folders, so they must want to do the same for digital documents!” Lansdale makes the point that we must try to understand the psychological reasons behind the action, because the action may be a coping strategy rather than an actual need. In other words, people may only use a strategy because of the limitations of the technology — just because something is done with paper documents doesn’t mean people want to do it with digital documents.

No one would suggest the introduction of unstructured `piles’ of documents in a computer environment. (I say this with the thought that somewhere someone probably has, much in the way that someone thought of building planes that flapped their wings.)

This is pretty funny in retrospect, because several people have actually done this. Not to judge those efforts; I just liked Lansdale’s metaphor, and generally agree with his point that real-world metaphors are not necessarily desirable.

Incidentally, I loved this quote from the Register’s article on piles:

Although haemorrhoids give millions of sufferers discomfiture every day, Apple’s “piles” are an intriguing concept which should ease the pain of using such a constipated file and folder UI metaphor.