Metaphors in UX Research and Analysis: A Secret Superpower

Metaphor is one of our most powerful innate capacities as humans, and unlocking its power in UX research work can bring us to a whole new level of insight and stakeholder engagement. Metaphor is a lot like sketching – most people wouldn’t identify themselves as skilled with it. But almost everyone can use it productively with a little bit of attention and practice.

Cyd’s talk will illustrate how to use your metaphorical capacity to do great qualitative analysis. She’ll dig into how to source apt metaphors from users and from your team, how to use them as pointers into the salient parts of a mountain of qualitative data (interview transcripts, for example), how to evaluate which ones are useful, and how to combine them in clusters to get at deep insights. Finally, she’ll show how to share metaphor-driven insights with stakeholders so that design and dev teams can come together and create great experiences.

WDS18 Day 2

User research is the most powerful and accessible practice in design. Everything we do in the field is an advanced application of a basic human capability.

It’s crazy. It’s creepy. It’s like I agreed to coffee with this company and then suddenly they’re proposing marriage. – feedback in user research

While this user could have just said “It makes me uncomfortable” the participant’s metaphor makes the feedback far more powerful. It explained the company was presuming a relationship they had not earned, and people did not want them to earn it anyway.

It’s like a wall in my face

The most-tearful research Cyd ever did was for an ancestry research site, that put up a paywall just before showing people the results of their research. They had done the work of investigation and were about to find our what their ancestor looked like, only to find the paywall demanding money first. People were really emotional, literally crying. The paywall…….felt like a wall. Granted that the company needs to get paid to keep operating, you can’t just take it away. But they could then explore the wall metaphor – what kind of wall should this be? What should the experience be?

The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another. – George Lakoff, Metaphors we live by

Metaphor works a lot like colour – we may not all see the same thing when we see something “red”. But we can all agree the thing is red.

Travel poster for going on a grand tour to Mars Travel poster advertising the Cloud 9 Observatory on Venus

(reference: NASA created posters in the style of travel/tourism posters, about the places we could go in space)

A really common metaphor is “user journey”, although do we really think about the full experience of travelling somewhere? When you travel you change. Do we maybe think user commute, user trip, user jaunt… what kind of ‘journey’ are they on and what expectations do they have around that?

This is just an errand for me. I don’t need a steed and a herald.

Qualitative transcripts are full of metaphor. You go and do research but it’s daunting to make sense of it all. We use tools like failure rates, conversion rates and other analytics.

Cyd actually feels metaphor is a more useful and valid tool than empathy. Can we really, truly empathise with people from wildly different socio-economic backgrounds? Often… no, and it’s arrogant to suggest we can. But we can use metaphor to understand and explore across boundaries.

Reference: book, Thinking Fast And Slow

The book talks about two thinking modes, the fast System 1 thinking that draws connections almost instantly; and System 2 where it is slowly and deliberately explored.

Example: a line from a poem is very hard to turn into data. But the metaphor is powerful.

In a very big study of how people consume news, they noticed the word “gem” kept coming up. Not just the term but the way people were using it. Gems are precious, high value. In folklore gems are hoarded, displayed as signs of wealth and given as important gifts. The team looked at whether those folkloric behaviours were being displayed… and they were! People were hoarding, displaying and gifting pieces of news.

This is a messy process, but metaphor helped researchers both identify and explain the ideas coming from the research. Keywords like ‘anchor’ and ‘sail’ led to using images of boats, where previously there’d been broad but separate concepts of ‘heavy’ (anchor) and ‘light’ (sail, take me somewhere).

Going back to the coffee/marriage comments, exploring the idea clearly they didn’t mean ‘coffee’ as a drink; they meant coffee as the safe first date.

Good prompt question: Can you say that another way? This may lead to the metaphor that unlocks it.

Millers Law: In order to understand what another person is saying, you must assume it is true and try to imagine what it is true of.

Can we do more to set ourselves up to use metaphor in research? Of course.

Grounded Theory (book: Constructing Grounded Theory)

Look for metaphors and metaphor-ish analogies that spark your interest. This includes ‘dead metaphors’ that aren’t in general use any more. Metaphor is really accessible to non-design roles that are collaborating in the process.

Metaphors to look for, or even bring up

  • love, sex and friendship – what kind of attraction does a participant have to what you’re researching?
  • food and shelter – what kind of meal, or house, equates to their wishes?
  • status and competition – are people trying to win something, or be the most outrageous
  • places – where could the experience they’re describing be ordinary?
  • animals – hat creature show similar behaviour

Tools… use spreadsheets to trawl your transcripts for key words like ‘wall’.

Bolder metaphor can be easier.

  • victory over winning
  • madness over rule-bending
  • etc

…but it has to work when you dial it back down to the less dramatic version.

The NASA space travel posters are easy to understand. We aren’t ‘taming the red planet’ we’re taking a tour there. That required taming, but it’s not the experience that people dream of.

How do you tell if it fits? Good metaphors fit, enhance the conversation, form connections. Wrong metaphors feel itchy and bullshit.

slide: the bicycle of lifelong learning, a cautionary example of trying to force metaphor.

Two adventures

How do I get business people to come along into research sessions?

Both the Wizard of Oz and Charlie and Chocolate Factory were adventures… Dorothy and Charlie had exciting, dangerous adventures. But at the end for Dorothy it was all an illusion, leaving her to get back to reality as if it had never happened; but for Charlie, everything ended as it had been promised. Even the people who broke the rules went home with truckloads of chocolate.

If we’re going to take people along on a metaphorical adventure, you should tell them. Don’t pick them up like a cyclone and dump them in an unfamiliar place. Be real and keep your promises. Explain that you may not get the right answer the first time.

Invite your team along. Show them what you’re doing, make the rules clear, and send them home with gifts. Give them real things to take back to their work.

Work boldly in the world of colour and connection.