Overcoming ‘Innovator’s Block’: Designing Products with Metaphors

Published Aug 8, 2018

One of the toughest issues facing product managers and designers is the ability to consistently create unique solutions to existing problems. As product people, we seem to get caught up in the ease of proposing conventional solutions that we’re familiar with from our own roles and lives. Thinking outside of these traditional models is difficult and the result is very similar to writer’s block — or in our case, innovator’s block.

So how do we break through the tendency to box ourselves in, and clear a path for simpler and more elegant solutions that our users will love and want to adopt?

One of the most powerful approaches to innovative design is using metaphors.

The word metaphor comes from the Latin metaphora, which means ” to carry across.” For designers, the beauty of a metaphor is that it helps them draw inspiring correlations between two entirely unrelated things.

These correlations can help us turn innovator’s block on its head by reframing the problem and considering previously unseen solutions. The result is the ability to consider our conventional models in an entirely new light.

Metaphors have long been utilized as an indispensable tool in a designer’s tool belt. Industry influencers, like IDEO and Stanford University’s Design School, have been teaching designers to use metaphors for years as part of their design thinking methodologies.

How Metaphors Work

The power of a metaphor lies in its ability to open our eyes and reveal previously hidden similarities between it — as a representative model — and the product we are designing. It does this by removing you from the traditional models and processes associated with your product–and other biases born of your own life experiences.

This is a non-linear approach that may feel chaotic and ambiguous when compared to more scientific, analytical approaches, yet it can often yield the unique insights you want and need.

Metaphors in Action

Airbnb changed the way the world vacations, but it was not the hotel industry that inspired the radical approach Airbnb took to solving their problem. Uber turned the taxi industry on its head, but it didn’t do it by looking to the taxi industry for inspiration. Both of these products broke through the conventional approaches taken by their industries and created truly unique solutions for their products.

Did Uber look at Airbnb’s online marketplace as a metaphor for how to utilize the downtime of a valuable asset? We may never know, but as a metaphor it would have giving them valuable insights leading to their unique approach. And so it goes, that we constantly hear things being referred to as the “Uber of X.”

How to Find a Metaphor

Try not to be constrained or too literal when searching for a metaphor. The most useful metaphors are between dissimilar things. If you are trying to gain new insights into teamwork, comparing your favorite professional soccer team to your favorite rugby team may yield few insights since it really is just a comparison of two similar things.

Instead, try comparing your favorite soccer team to something like a flock of geese. What makes geese able to fly such long distances each year? What is it about their teamwork that helps them survive and even thrive? This kind of seemingly-unrelated comparison may inspire ideas that would not have necessarily appeared by simply looking at different variations of human teamwork.

Metaphors Can Expand Your Vision

Using metaphors is also an opportunity to expand the vision of your product. Instead of looking at the simple goal of the job to be done, take time to define the end experience you want the user to have. What value do you want to provide and what emotion do you want to evoke?

Do you want to design a “New Onboarding Process” or would focusing your efforts around building the “Simplest and Most Efficient Onboarding Process” yield a better solution? Products are not just about the action to be taken, but the whole experience your users will go through, including the emotional value they will gain. Metaphors are exceptionally good at helping you see your experience in a new light, or from the perspective of a specific emotion.

To get started, think about your product. What are the emotions you want to inspire? What descriptions would you want to see in a five-star customer review?

“The fastest…”

“The most intuitive…”

“The most effective…”

Once you have decided on these, you can use these desired experiential or emotional outcomes to find a good metaphor. What dissimilar experiences cause a similar emotional response? If you’re going got fast, think of something like a pit crew working on a race car. If you want to elicit the feeling of relaxation, think of the experience of visiting a spa or a luxury resort.

To help you think of metaphors, consider your product and come up with statements like these:

“It’s like a ____.”

“It’s like a ____ for your ____.”

“Think of it as _______.”

“If it were a ____, it would be a _____.”

For example, if you were creating a tool or app to help improve memory, the metaphor of building muscle may apply:

“It’s like a gym membership for your brain.”

“It’s like an amazing workout for your mind.”

The metaphor allows you and your product team to use existing, well-understood models — lifting weights, going to the gym, workout buddies, the emotions that motivate people to go to the gym, etc. — to help draw similarities into their learning model and user experience.

Once you’ve identified the metaphor, you can pull the thread and see what insights you can bring over to the problem you are trying to solve. For example, geese fly in a v-formation, rotating the leader so others can catch a break by flying in her draft. So, in the example of the soccer team, maybe you might consider switching captains every week.

But you get how it works. When you get the right metaphor you will certainly know it, and the ideas will start to flow. Stick with it until you feel that breakthrough moment.

Putting Metaphors to Use

Give metaphors a chance and you will see the value of adding them to your tool belt. Often, great ideas don’t launch because they just barely miss the mark. The necessary innovation may not be a different problem to solve, but simply a new way of framing the problem you’re already looking at.

The only real way to realize the power of metaphors is to start using them. Be methodical, write them down, have a sticky note fest with crazy metaphors and their potential correlations. It is an amazingly handy tool to have in your product design process. But like all tools, but careful with its use. Sometimes people try to take them too deep and get lost in the weeds trying to contrive similarities that don’t really exist.

Remember, first tries at metaphors are usually cliche, but the more you try and the more imaginative you get, the quicker they will come and the more productive they will be. Get creative! Allow metaphors to help inspire your creativity, break the barriers of conventional models, and innovate an amazing experience for your customers.