Thursday, May 17, 2007

Metaphors for understanding organizational and process issues

Metaphors come in handy for communicating about and even identifying organizational issues of relevance to user experience. For example, in "Changing the course or pace of a large ship," I wrote about a couple of commonly used boat metaphors:
"... the head of a now large and quite successful corporate user experience organization recently told me, early on (i.e., ~5 years ago when he joined the company as manager of a very small UI group), he felt like he was rowing a small boat to try to change the course of the large ship to which it is attached via a rope.

Interestingly, a director in another very large corporate user experience organization recently invoked a similar metaphor, describing the pace of change he was able to achieve as akin to the pace of an oil tanker rather than a speed boat. However, he was talking about the situation now, not years ago when the organization was in its infancy."
The speed boat metaphor appeared again in "What is holding User Experience back or propelling User Experience forward where you work?", answers to which were solicited from working professionals via collaborative "Speed Boat exercises":
"For one exercise, I drew a speed boat and several anchors hanging from it on the whiteboard, and asked everyone to write onto post-its whatever has been holding User Experience back where they work and then place those post-its on the several anchors.

... To learn what the students believe has been key to propelling User Experience forward where they work (to the extent that it has been propelled or is being propelled forward), I shifted the focus of the Speed Boat exercise from the anchors to -- you guessed it -- the engine propellers (see nearby photo). Interestingly, in several cases, "propelling forward" encompassed "moving upstream," to use yet another metaphor which, at least on the surface, is moving in the opposite direction!

... Why bother with the speed boats and the anchors and the propellers? There are several reasons, but one of the most interesting, in my view, is how they appear to help tap what participants actually 'experience' in their workplace."
And I've referenced other metaphors, including a couple of "three-legged stools" (e.g., of collaboration) that will fall over if any leg is missing.

Recently, I stumbled upon a couple of clever and more complex metaphors of a related nature.

In Thoughts on Microsoft Spark UX Summit, Adam Richardson wrote:
"...I had kind of a funny thought about UX while sipping from a plastic bottle of Ritz Carlton water. I noticed the nutrition label on the water, where everything was 0%. Now if you knew nothing about water and its importance to life you would think it was a completely useless and trivial liquid. It’s all around you and thus taken for granted, and sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s bad, but exactly why some is good and some is bad you can’t really explain. It suddenly hit me that user experience is treated like water: on conventional business metrics it shows up as a 0 all across the board. However, user experience is something companies deliver whether they mean to or not, but they lack the means to see it or understand how to quantify what makes it good or bad. And increasingly UX needs to be treated as the life-sustaining element that keeps them alive by separating them from the competition. Achieving this requires addition of new metrics that actually reflect it."
And in a paper submitted to CHI 2007's alt.chi venue -- an experimental venue for "unusual, challenging, and thought-provoking work that might not otherwise be seen at the conference," Anna Swartling and colleagues described how a football metaphor can help one visualize organizational responsibility (or lack thereof) for usability.
"In our study of a procurer organization, we saw that even though both procurer and developer were positive towards usability, no one in particular took responsibility for it. Rather, for some, usability was perceived as omnipresent in many processes, and for others, if it wasn't included in the requirements specification, it was more or less absent. Usability was always someone else's problem or responsibility. We came to think of usability being "kicked" around, within the organization as well as during development. This transformed into sports and for us, closest to mind was football."
Anna and her colleagues developed this metaphor extensively, associating various systems development project roles with goal keepers, team captains, the referee, the audience in the stands, the home and visiting teams, and others. And by doing so, they were able to better understand why usability gets "kicked around" as it often does.

As the authors state:
"The advantage of a metaphor is that it enables the possibility to see things from a new perspective."
What metaphors have enabled you or others to better understand organizational and process issues of relevance to user experience?

Metaphor is critical to human thinking, particularly when dealing with abstract concepts as so well documented by George Lakoff. Check out the classic Metaphors We Live By for more information.

A user experience metaphor of a different nature that I stumbled upon recently: Mike Kuniavsky's use of magic as a metaphor for the design of ubiquitous computing devices. Those interested in exploring the benefits of this design metaphor should look back in the archives for Bruce Tognazzini's description of the insightful relationship between "Magic and Software Design."

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