Metaphors are wonderful little tricks that allow us to quickly understand something new or something complex, using what we know already. Unfortunately, those of us in the videoconferencing industry don’t use metaphors and other analogies nearly enough to explain the technology we’re trying to get people and organizations to adopt. Instead, we seem to like to do things the hard way.
The most used metaphor in our industry is the meeting room. Everyone in business can relate to walking into a meeting room to meet with your colleagues. So, the videoconferencing world uses this knowledge to explain that people need to “call in” to a meeting room to meet with multiple people or groups of people. Calling in to a meeting room is a lot easier to explain than “establish a secure TCP/IP connection on port 5060 to the multi-endpoint, transcoding, image multiplexing, and audio mix-minus server, so our codec can stream video and audio over negotiated UDP ports. ”
However, the simple metaphor of the meeting room is about as far as most of us go. Too often, the conversation with potential users quickly devolves into engineering speak, as if we still believe that the company with the best tech specs will win. From what I’ve seen, good engineering and a superior product is just a small portion of what it takes to make a product or company successful. Getting people to understand what you have to offer seems to count more. Metaphors provide a way to quickly explain a service or feature.
I recently discovered a service called Sococo, which has gone all in with the concept of using a metaphor to tell the story about their service.* In fact, they have embedded the metaphor of a traditional office into their user interface, dramatically reducing the time it takes to explain and train users on what is — underneath it all — a unified communications platform.
Watch the video below to see what I mean.
In less than 60 seconds, you know the basics of how Sococo works, what you can do with it, and can imagine yourself using it and benefiting from the service. That is the power of a metaphor.
There is no need to explain presence indicators, how to initiate calls and multi-party meetings, how to disconnect a call, or how to screen share. Also, notice that the video above does not mention framerates, WebRTC, video standards, or processing speeds.
By using the metaphor of the office for a user interface, the service has a built-in shortcut for explaining the user experience. The lesson here: Any company that uses a metaphor as part of their user interface is already ahead in the race to win users.
Now, I’m sure there is more to figure out with Sococo as you use it. However, you can probably easily figure it out as you use the system, because you have a well known metaphor to help you relate to the system.
The “metaphor as user interface” concept offered by Sococo seems perfect for distance learning applications. Imagine an interface that displays campus buildings, where students can “enter” the science building and then see the floor plan with all the classrooms and offices. When Professor Smith is in his office with the door open, a student can “walk in” and ask a question (perhaps closing the door so that other students can’t barge in or leave it open so others can join in the discussion). If students are enrolled in a synchronous distance education class, they “enter” the classroom at the appointed time and are instantly in a multi-site conference with the professor and other students. If students need to work on a team project, they can all “go into” a conference room in the library so they can work collaboratively. By using a metaphor like this, I think that you could orient professors and students to such a system in 60 seconds or less.
Distance learning has been tried with systems like Second Life, which allow students and professor to interact in virtual classrooms and campuses. But those systems make the users adopt alternative modes of interaction via avatars, flying around in a VR world, etc. Sococo takes the right approach by using the metaphor for the user interface and then allowing traditional unified communications tools for interacting with your colleagues, making the experience seem natural. **
What do you think? Is using a metaphor for your user interface a brilliant idea? What companies are using metaphors and analogies correctly? Comment below.
* I have no relationship with Sococo. One of my students at Mizzou showed it to me when we were discussing unified communications in an MIS course. Other than the concept of using a metaphor of an office layout for their user interface, I have not reviewed any other aspects of Sococo’s service.
** Sococo is not the first system to use such a literal interpretation of the physical world for their user interface. When I was playing with Sococo, I started having a sense of deja vu and eventually realized that I had used something similar back in the early 90s called Eworld. It was an online service from Apple, where you would “go to” the mail center to read your email, “go to” the newstand to read online content, “go to” the marketplace to buy things, etc.