Metaphors are super important for user interfaces as they a) help the developer design the user interface b) help the user understand the system.

A well-known example is the desktop metaphor introduced by Alan Kay at Xerox PARC in 1970. It is used for the computer screen upon which iconic representations of documents, folders, and other objects including disks and printers can be placed. The advantage of this way of representing is that even if the users have no computer knowledge they can still apply their mental model of files and folders to learn how to operate the computer.

Besides understanding metaphors only in terms of their appearance in literature or poetic language, a much wider ontological impact has been ascribed to metaphors by cognitive linguistics in the early 1980s.

Lakoff and Johnson’s (1980) generalized definition of metaphor is that of “understanding and experiencing one thing in terms of another”. This expands the scope of metaphors beyond their application as a figure of speech towards shaping the mental models of the reality we live in. Lakoff and Johnson have found that our conceptual models of the world are fundamentally metaphoric in nature. Metaphors structure what we perceive, how we interact, and how we relate to other people. Thus metaphors are “pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action” [p. 4]. Two of their often-quoted examples are that of ARGUMENT IS WAR and TIME IS MONEY. Thinking of arguing in terms of fighting is expressed in the phrases we use. For example:

He attacked every weak point in my arguments.
Her criticisms were right on target.
I've never won an argument with him.

Likewise we refer to time by using words that we would use when referring to money:

Writing that email cost me an hour.
I've invested a lot of time in her.
She's living on borrowed time.

In both cases a conceptual structure from another domain is applied to the domain in focus. In our two examples argument and time are the tenors or target domains, whereas war and money are the vehicles or source domains.

Auditory interface Metaphors

Many researches have used metaphors related to a place. EAR (Environmental Audio Reminders) [Gaver at al. 1991] uses an office metaphor with, for instance, the arrival of a new e-mail being signalled by a sound of a stack of papers falling to the floor.

Audio Aura is an example of using the beach metaphor [Mynatt et al. 1998]. In this case, emails are represented by seagull cries, senders by beach animals (like seals or certain birds), group work as wave sounds, and so on.

Several researchers have used a ring/dial metaphor. Sawhney and Schmand [Sawhney & Schmandt 2002] use the ring metaphor as a time measuring/indicating device as they map areas on the ring to fixed, respectively relative, times and by positioning audio items on the ring according to their time of arrival. Fraunberger et al. [Frauenberger & Stockman 2006] positioned the user in the middle of a virtual room with a large horizontal dial in front of them. As the user can turn the dial in either direction by using a gamepad controller, the metaphor used could be that of a shelf or map stand.

Crispien et al. [Crispien et al. 1996] chose the directional microphone or torch metaphor for their selection mechanism.

See also Schmandt [Schmandt 1998] for successfully applying the fisheye metaphor.

To my knowledge there is no equivalent to the windows metaphor (and WIMP interaction paradigm) for auditory interfaces. But we shall see what the future brings!

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