It’s a Metaphor Fool: How mimicry and nostalgia in design have hindered user experience


Users are obsessed with mimicry and nostalgic for the past. You can buy a cellphone case that look like a nintendo controller, or a wine glass that looks like a pint glass—but in the end you still have an iPhone and you are still drinking wine.

When it comes to technology we will do everything in our power to maintain some sort of connection to the tangible world. A screen is a window; deleted files go into a trash can; documents look like notebooks on a desk; and saving happens on a floppy disk.

These aesthetically designed features “provide a bridge from a familiar place to a less know area by suggesting a tool’s function and its relationship to others” (Chimero). In his essay, What Do Screens Want, Frank Chimero discusses the problems that aesthetic design has caused for users as technology advances. By creating metaphors of the real world within the design of technology (primarily how we see it on a screen and how we interact with it) we place limitation on what that technology can do. A screen can so a whole lot more than a window, but it is continually treated like one.

Readers and publishers have done much the same thing. We package ebooks with eink and put a fancy leather case (which, by the way, looks like a book) and then talk about books when in fact ebooks can, and should be something entirely different.

According to Baldur Bjarnson, “we are facing the very real risk of limiting ebooks to the role, market position, and capabilities of mass market paperbacks” (Bjarnson). In his blog post, “Make ebooks worth it,” he outlines how ebooks can be made effective, and while realizing that they are plenty ‘good enough’ for many, if they continue the way they are, they will simply replace paperbacks and, in essence, do nothing for the publishing industry.

The problem we face as publishers then, is exactly what Chimero points out: we need to stop the aesthetics of the real-world metaphor from dictating how we design the interface and user experience. Instead we need to “design natively” (as he calls it) for the screen. I can install an app on my phone to make it function like a rotary phone, but that doesn’t make it one. The same can be said of an ebook. I can put a PDF, ePub, or MOBI file on my e-reader, but that doesn’t make my ereader a book.

The question then is, how do we design natively, if not aesthetically?

We are beginning to see how it is possible to break away from those real-world metaphors. Touch screens are a good example here. Technology went beyond the idea of a screen as a simple window, and came up with something entirely new, something we can interact and engage with. This did not, however, happen overnight. Touch screens were first manufactured as early as the 1970s (Wikipedia) but were not popularized until the early 2000’s when iPods and cellphone integrated the technology into their design.

Much like  touch screens, ebooks cannot change and becomes something new overnight, users have to be given time to get used to new technologies. “With enough time and exposure, a user can shed the padding and metaphors that becomes dead weight, like the training wheels of a bike” (Chimero). It is also important to note that screens are still an abstraction of the window, the idea remains. Chimero points out, we need some level of abstraction in order to maintain usability; we cannot expect everyone to work and read in code. Balancing abstraction, therefore, is key. Failing to balance creates confusion.

Chimero give the example of Mercator projected maps (Wikipedia), the most common maps. These maps are an abstractions of what the globe really looks like because they were designed for ease of oceanic navigation; They serve the needs of one while simultaneously misinform and confuse the other, and the other doesn’t even know they are being confused. The Gall-Peters projected maps (Wikipedia) on the other hand, while still an abstraction from the globe, offer a much more accurate depiction of Earth. 

Ereaders are like the Mercator Projection map, they serve technology companies (and to some extent publishers) because they present ebooks as books, when in reality they have the potential to be so much more. Readers (and publishers, again to some extent) are the general public, they see ebooks as books. However, people like Chimero, come a long and tell us that that isn’t true; an ebook is not a book.

Moving forward as publishers then, we have to be careful to not confuse readers with the design.

Readers have come to expect books to act in a certain way, they have a story that flows from page to page, chapter to chapter. And while they may not always be laid out chronologically, they do provide the readers with a cohesive beginning, middle, and end. Publishers cannot simply do away with this model. Take “choose-your-own-adventure” books as an example. Readers are happy to jump ahead, but most people will always go back and see where option number two would have lead them. They are unsatisfied not knowing how they go to where they are and and what other possibilities exist.

What ebook developers need to realize then is that, “Abrupt changes in an interface are hard for users to process. Don’t leave them in the dark; always show what’s happening” (Zumbrunnen). Adrian Zumbrunnen, in his article “Smart Transitions in User Experience Design,” describes how small interaction, rather than large ones can drastically change user experience. “The point is not to show the latest and fanciest interaction techniques, but rather to highlight how small interactions can significantly improve the user experience.” Zumbrunnen is speaking more specifically about web design, but the ideas can be applied to ebooks as well.

Bjarnson’s article talks about recognizes the current technological limitations of ereaders and the competition that they face with the web. But he also talks about the possibility of creating new modes of reading, learning, and skill development; it talks about symmetrical relationship, democracy, and variety that would be unique to ereaders and serve as a companions to the web. These are all things that can, and should be integrated into new ebook designs.

“Screens are aesthetically neutral” (Chimero), they don’t care if what is on them is beautiful or hideous, they just want it to change. While the user wants something beautiful (and ebook definitely are not, at least not right now), the screen itself is just asking to be used to its fullest extent.

If we know what it is users want, and what screens want, the only issue that then remains is one of collaboration. Ereaders and ebooks are  curious technologies because those creating the interface are generally far removed from those creating the content. Collaboration, therefore, has to bring together publishers, readers, writers, hardware developers, software developers, and distributors. It will, as Brian O’Leary points out in his post, “Collaborative Creation: Beyond new tools for reading and writing,” “require new skills and processes, as well as different philosophical and legal environments,” and, again, this will take time.

Design has always at the centre of all user interactions, and will remain so. I can download an app for my phone that makes it function like a rotary phone, but first it had to be something different. The same has to happen for ebooks and ereaders; they need to be something in their own right before we can then go back and make them look and feel like books.


Bjarnson, Baldur. “Make Ebooks worth It.” Web log post. Studio Tendra. N.p., 9 Aug. 2013. Web. 26 Mar. 2014.

Chimero, Frank. “What Screens Want.” Build. N. Ireland, Belfast. 14 Nov. 2013. Frank Chimero. Web. 24 Mar. 2014.

O’Leary, Brian. “Collaborative Creation: Beyond New Tools for Reading and Writing.” Web log post. Magellan Media. N.p., 25 Oct. 2013. Web. 26 Mar. 2014.

Wikipedia. “Gall-Peters projection.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 25 Mar. 2014. Web. 26 Mar. 2014.

Wikipedia. “Mercator projection.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 25 Mar. 2014. Web. 26 Mar. 2014.

Wikipedia. “Touchscreen.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 25 Mar. 2014. Web. 26 Mar. 2014.

Zumbrunnen, Adrian. “Smart Transitions In User Experience Design.” Smashing Magazine. N.p., 23 Oct. 2013. Web. 26 Mar. 2014.