Anti-Buzz: The End of the Metaphor

by Andrew Emmott on March 16, 2013

in Anti-Buzz,Future Tech,General

I’m going to come right out and predict an upcoming trend: The End of the Metaphor. It’s a broad yet a subtle trend. With the foundation of pop-computing well and truly built, there is going to be a sea change in how software is designed for your average user, this does include you, and (eventually), your practice management software.

Popular adoption of computing has required the establishment of a lot of trust. One of the many tools to build this trust has been to design software with real world metaphors built in. You have a desktop, you organize your files into folders, your calculator looks like a pocket calculator, etc.

Applying this practice to new services will probably not cease – if you have a piece of software that does something genuinely new, it is probably a good idea to ease users into it by making it relatable to something they are already familiar with. What will happen, however, is that established, well trusted services will begin to lose their metaphors for the sake of superior design.

The Paper Metaphor

To understand what I mean, consider the word processor. One of several office applications that originally helped make the computer a viable business tool, the word processor built trust by behaving like a fancy typewriter. An absolutely crucial aspect of the widespread adoption of the word processor was the fact that it preserved the metaphor of paper – your documents are a sequence of pages, and you have visible, (and changeable), margins. Everything about the word processor assumes that eventually you are going to print it and it is going to be on real paper in the real world.

This was critical to the development of public trust in computing; the ability to replicate an old way of storing information helped people enjoy the nicer aspects of computing, (no white out or tedious retyping), without coming to terms with the more mysterious elements, such as how a magic electric box could remember everything you told it. The metaphor of paper, however, is absolutely not required for a successful “write words down and store/share/communicate them” piece of software. The current wave of pop-computing has made the average user more and more comfortable with electronic representations. The idea that things on a computer somehow “aren’t real” is fading – eventually paper-centric word processors will look as quaint as rotary telephones.

While the paper metaphor is fairly robust and will persist longer than others, what it will be replaced by is not certain, but your imagination might suffice here; you are likely more familiar with metaphorless software than you think.

Some Metaphorless Software Examples

1) As a call back to last time, spreadsheets do not employ the paper metaphor. Yes you can print them, but your document is just a hypothetically infinite plane of cells that you can play with; the software does not literally represent the pages and margins of the paper you might print your spreadsheet on. This “infinite space” quality of metaphorless software is something you will see more of. (You are already seeing in presentation software).

2) Web browsers have always been metaphorless, (apart from, y’know, the web metaphor). Since the dawn of browsers, people have struggled against their complete disregard for the paper metaphor. Web pages have never pretended to be something that expects to be printed. Indeed we still need to print them from time to time and thankfully browsers have gotten much better at it, but that doesn’t mean that web pages have ever been anything other than abstract representations of information. (We still call them pages though).

3) The classic desktop is giving way to a trend of touch-like interfaces, with Windows 8 being the latest entry into the mix. The design restraints of the tablet market have allowed for a reimagining of how a user can navigate their computer, and those innovations are beginning to conquer territory outside of the tiny-computer market. The desktop-and-mess-of-folders view of your computer is already on the way out. It’s too obtuse for casual users and too inflexible for power users.

The Future

With the rise of social computing – think not so much Facebook but things that allow for mass collaboration, (like Google Docs) – the old metaphors will begin to crumble quickly as it becomes apparent that the “real” world is in fact the one we are building online. More to the point, so far our software design has been limited by replicating physical reality, that is, representing information only in such ways that can be reproduced in physical objects. For all my insistence that computers aren’t magic, this is the one time we should remember that, metaphorically speaking, they are magic. You can, metaphorically speaking, have an executive board meeting on the moon, (say you are poring over satellite imagery), while all the participants are, realistically speaking, living in different cities on Earth. You can write a book where each page not only has a page before it and after it, but also a page above it, below it and inside of it. Eventually you’ll stop wanting your patient records to look like something you might stuff into a file cabinet. At risk of sounding like a hokey, over-optmistic children’s cartoon, our imagination is the only real constraint on how we could, (and will), use computers in the future.

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