The Full Wiki

Interface metaphor: Wikis


Note: Many of our articles have direct quotes from sources you can cite, within the Wikipedia article! This article doesn't yet, but we're working on it! See more info or our list of citable articles.


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

An Interface metaphor is a set of user interface visuals, actions and procedures that exploit specific knowledge that users already have of other domains. The purpose of the interface metaphor is to give the user instantaneous knowledge about how to interact with the user interface.

The folders and the file cabinet representation of the file system of an operating system is an example of Interface metaphor. Another example is the tree view representation of a file system, as in a file manager that helps a user to use it, given some previous knowledge of recursive structures.


Functional definition

Interface metaphors are designed to be similar to physical entities but also have their own properties (e.g., desktop metaphor and web portals).

They can be based on an activity, an object, or a combination of both. They work with users' familiar knowledge to help them understand ‘the unfamiliar.’ They conjure up the essence of the unfamiliar activity, but they put it in terms users are better able to understand.

Generation of metaphors


Historical contributions

In the mid-twentieth century, computers were extremely rare and used only by specialists. They were equipped with complicated interfaces comprehensible only to these select few. In 1968, Douglas Englebart gave a demonstration which astonished executives at Xerox. [1] They began work on what would eventually become the Xerox Alto. In 1973 Xerox completed work on the first personal computer, the Xerox Alto, which had a sophisticated graphical user interface involving windows, icons, a mouse and a pointer. (WIMP) [2]

Unfortunately, the Xerox Alto, and its successor the Xerox Star were far too expensive for the average consumer, and suffered from poor marketing. In 1984 Apple Computer launched the Apple Macintosh, which was the first affordable and commercially successful personal computer to include a graphical user interface (GUI). The Macintosh was the second Apple Computer to ship with a graphical user interface, with the Apple Lisa being the first. [3]

In 1985, Microsoft released Microsoft Windows which bore a striking resemblance to both Macintosh, and to the Alto's interface. Microsoft Windows eventually overtook Apple in the PC market to become the predominant GUI-based operating system. [4]

Recent findings

Interface metaphors have come a long way since they were first used. Recently, it has been predicted that the latest metaphors will come from life sciences. Others may come from health care or other industries, as they are going to become information-dense environments. An interface for a next-generation technology might come from the gaming world, where quick visualization metaphors will be.

A downside to changing interface metaphors on a constant basis is that the owners of software with many users are reluctant to make big changes, and their interfaces tend to evolve incrementally and to keep their familiar look and familiarity.


Software designers attempt to make computer applications easier to use for both novice and expert users by creating concrete metaphors that resemble the users' real-world experiences. Continual technological improvement has made metaphors depict these real-world experiences more realistically to ultimately enhance interface performance.

Beginning users, however, could use a sort of help box, because the metaphor is not always going to be clear enough for them to understand, no matter how much effort its programmers devote to making it resemble something the users understand.

Experts, on the other hand, understand what is going on with the technical aspects of an interface metaphor. They know what they want to do and they know how to do it—-and so they design shortcuts to facilitate achieving their goals.

While the concept behind interface metaphors appears simple (to promote more efficient facilitation of a computer), a lack of empirical evidence exists to support these claims. Little research has actually been completed that demonstrates the benefits of implementing metaphors in computer systems as well as what makes a metaphor most effective. Therefore, it is imperative that more research be done to discover how to further improve interface metaphors so that both novice and expert computer users are able to increase their performance.

See also


  • Carroll, J. K., Mack, R. L. & Kellogg, W. A. (1988), Interface Metaphors and User Interface Design, in M. Helander (ed.), "Handbook of Human-Computer Interaction", Elsevier Science, pp. 67-85.
  • Zmoeining,C. (2000). The graphical user interface. Time for a paradigm shift? Retrieved March 31, 2006 from
  • Vaananen K. and J. Schimdt (1994). "User Interface for Hypermedia: How to Find Good Metaphors?". In Proceedings of CHI'94. Boston, April 1994.

External links


Got something to say? Make a comment.
Your name
Your email address