A semiotic approach to the use of metaphor in human-computer interfaces
Although metaphors are common in computing, particularly in human-computer interfaces, opinion is divided on their usefulness to users and little evidence is available to help the designer in choosing or implementing them. Effective use of metaphors depends on understanding their role in the computer interface, which in tum means building a model of the metaphor process. This thesis examines some of the approaches which might be taken in constructing such a model before choosing one and testing its applicability to interface design. Earlier research into interface metaphors used experimental psychology techniques which proved useful in showing the benefits or drawbacks of specific metaphors, but did not give a general model of the metaphor process. A cognitive approach based on mental models has proved more successful in offering an overall model of the process, although this thesis questions whether the researchers tested it adequately. Other approaches which have examined the metaphor process (though not in the context of human-computer interaction) have come from linguistic fields, most notably semiotics, which extends linguistics to non-verbal communication and thus could cover graphical user interfaces (GUls). The main work described in this thesis was the construction of a semiotic model of human-computer interaction. The basic principle of this is that even the simplest element of the user interface will signify many simultaneous meanings to the user. Before building the model, a set of assertions and questions was developed to check the validity of the principles on which the model was based. Each of these was then tested by a technique appropriate to the type of issue raised. Rhetorical analysis was used to establish that metaphor is commonplace in command-line languages, in addition to its more obvious use in GUIs. A simple semiotic analysis, or deconstruction, of the Macintosh user interface was then used to establish the validity of viewing user interfaces as semiotic systems. Finally, an experiment was carried out to test a mental model approach proposed by previous researchers. By extending their original experiment to more realistically complex interfaces and tasks and using a more typical user population, it was shown that users do not always develop mental models of the type proposed in the original research. The experiment also provided evidence to support the existence of multiple layers of signification. Based on the results of the preliminary studies, a simple means of testing the semiotic model's relevance to interface design was developed, using an interview technique. The proposed interview technique was then used to question two groups of users about a simple interface element. Two independent researchers then carried out a content analysis of the responses. The mean number of significations in each interview, as categorised by the researchers, was 15. The levels of signification were rapidly revealed, with the mean time for each interview being under two minutes, providing effective evidence that interfaces signify many meanings to users, a substantial number of which are easily retrievable. It is proposed that the interview technique could provide a practical and valuable tool for systems analysis and interface designers. Finally, areas for further research are proposed, in particular to ascertain how the model and the interview technique could be integrated with other design methods.