Metaphor Brainstorming

Metaphor Brainstorming is a two-part group brainstorming session best used when a project requires interactions for which there is little existing precedent.

You always need to create interactions that users can easily understand, even – or especially – when your product solves a problem that has not been addressed by anyone else. Real-world objects and processes that compare to your new digital ones should therefore be translated into icons, terms, and imagery in your interface.


Schedule Time & Gather Materials

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Schedule Time:

  • Per meeting: 1 hour
  • Schedule two meetings on two separate days
Gather Materials

Gather Materials:


  • Paper
  • Pens


  • Post-it notes

Carry Out This Method

Metaphor Brainstorming allows your team to come up with metaphors like a sun icon for brightness.
  1. Based on the needs of your product, first rule out items that don’t need a new metaphor. A shopping cart is already an adequate, accepted, easily understood metaphor for online shopping.
  2. List the new or confusing interactions that are necessary for your product to work. Also list items that have existing metaphors in other products, but those metaphors are obscure, ambiguous, or have tested badly.
  3. Schedule two meetings for brainstorming sessions, inviting members of your product team to both. The first meeting will be for mass idea generation; the second is for fine-tuning.
  4. At the first meeting, provide your group with paper and pens.
  5. Explain to the team that you need as many ideas as possible and not to hold back even the silliest ideas, and do not scratch any ideas out.
  6. Give them the interaction or feature that needs metaphors. Tell them they have five minutes to write or sketch as many ideas as they can.
  7. Repeat this with all the features that need to be covered.
  8. After the brainstorming session, collect the ideas and put them on display on a whiteboard, pin board, or wall for the next session. Put common or similar ideas together so everyone can see how frequently an item came up (and, therefore, how strong the association).
  9. The second session should take place one or two days later, after your participants have had a chance to clear their minds.
  10. Discuss the aspects of each idea that would make it a good or bad metaphor. For each idea, think about its appeal, how easily users will understand it, the ability to translate it clearly into your interface, and whether or not your users will associate it with something unintended.
  11. Summarize the group’s thoughts to make sure you fully understand their ideas, concerns, and favorites.
  12. After these meetings, present a short list of metaphors to your design team for integration into a testable prototype.

Try These Tips

  • Using Post-It notes and index cards instead of plain paper can make preparation for the second session much simpler. (This will not work as well for more complex interactions.)
  • It may help to make an audio or video recording of the second session so ideas and concerns can be documented more completely.
  • If you have time and budget constraints, change the time spent on each idea or the type of paper used; forego the first session and instead assign homework; require sketches and no words.
  • Recruit team members that come from different backgrounds and represent different ages, or bring in employees from other teams. This will help reduce bias and generate more ideas.
  • Be aware that all metaphors eventually break down as the complexity and number of interactions increase. Stress test your metaphor for extensibility: Ask, “If we add this functionality, does the metaphor still make sense?”
  • Use software design best practices whenever possible. Plenty of interactions already have well-known metaphors, and using a different one may throw users off.
  • Some interactions do not lend themselves well to real-world metaphors. Do not try to shoehorn a metaphor in when technical terminology will suffice.

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