Using Adoption Metaphors to Increase Customer Acceptance

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“Adoption metaphors have a lifecycle. They begin by introducing a new concept. They help us map something new to something we already understand and give us a framework in which to understand the new thing.”

Metaphors are used every day. We are all familiar with them and what they are. They help us understand conceptual ideas, convey complex notions and have a shared understanding so that we can talk to each other using verbal shorthand. Take electronic mail, otherwise known as email as an example. Email seems so much like regular mail, except that there is no paper, no ink, no envelope, no postage stamp, and no postal carrier. There is, however, something familiar about composing a message and sending it to someone else.

What about the wildly popular Tivo’s metaphor? I applaud the decision to use a well-known comparison to explain what the product does: the video cassette recorder. Tivo does replicate many of the VCR’s abilities… and yet it offers so much more! We’re so overjoyed to be able to pause live TV that we overlook the fact that Tivo won’t play your video cassette tapes, let you transfer recorded shows from one machine to another, and it requires a monthly fee.

Metaphors help us grasp new things, but they don’t necessarily account for all aspects of that idea. VCRs couldn’t pause live TV; regular postal mail couldn’t arrive at its destination 3.2 seconds after it had been sent. The main characteristics of the original metaphor allow us to understand the basics of the new; the rest we learn over time. Moreover, the original metaphor helps us easily understand why a product might be useful or necessary, which means we’re more likely to adopt it into our daily lives.

Adoption metaphors have a lifecycle. They begin by introducing a new concept. They help us map something new to something we already understand and give us a framework in which to understand the new thing. After a while, the concept isn’t new any more, and people usually understand it pretty well without needing the original metaphor. The internet is a perfect example. Remember the term “Information Superhighway”? It was such a buzzword back in the 1990s. Although the internet had been around for a while, its introduction as an information superhighway helped frame the whole idea so that others could understand it. They could understand it because it was framed in terms of their daily lives. Do we still use the term “information superhighway”? Not much. Does this mean that we don’t use the internet any more? Is it gone from our minds the same way the term has gone away? Hardly! The internet is such a pervasive part of our culture now. It is everyday. It is mundane. It’s the exception rather than the rule to have no internet connection available to you. We are offered connections at work, at home, in coffee shops, through cell phones and in most public libraries.

The concept of the internet has been so well adapted into our culture, that it is now being used as a metaphor itself for other things. The language of the net pervades our everyday lives. For example, last week I was interviewing a woman who talked about a meeting she had with her supervisor because she needed to get up to speed on a project. Two years ago, she might have said that he informed her, he briefed her, he told her everything he could about what he knew on that particular topic. However, she said, “he downloaded it to me”. There was no computer in the room. No internet connection was involved. It was a verbal transaction, yet she invoked a metaphor that is widely recognized as being synonymous with online activity (the act of collecting or retrieving an electronic file from a remote location). Instead of an electronic file, it was ideas or thoughts. Instead of being retrieved from a remote server, it was retrieved from the supervisor’s brain. Instead of being received onto a computer, it was received into the person’s collection of thoughts. Instead of a file being “pulled” from a server and collected on one’s own computer, the information was “pushed” from one person and collected by another. As you can see, not all aspects of the metaphor fit precisely, but when she said “he downloaded that information to me,” I had no doubt what had happened between the supervisor and the direct report during the lifespan of that meeting.

With this example, you can see the lifecycle of an adoption metaphor, from its introduction, when it is a novel concept first being introduced to the public, to acceptance, when our understanding moves beyond the initial adoption metaphor and fully embraces the concept itself on its own merits. At that point, the metaphor has outlived its usefulness and is either discarded (information superhighway) or becomes mundane (download). You know the adoption metaphor has reached the pinnacle of success when the metaphor itself is used as a metaphor for other things (“where can I get “TiVo” for my radio?”). We don’t bother to refer to cars as “horseless carriages”, but we often use cars as metaphors for other things. Three quotes from recent articles: “Cops drive home seatbelt safety [in a 3-day game event aimed at high-schoolers] ” “Congress Revs Its Engine.” “Fitness Beginners learn how to go from zero to sixty with these workout tips.”

Metaphors accompany every new technological leap. They help with the core concepts such as a blog (originally “web log”) to the interface itself in iconic button choices. When introducing something new into the marketplace, how do you choose the right adoption metaphor? How can you tell if it will work? Is it luck? Do you go with your gut and then “wait and see”?

Happily, there are ways to analyze what metaphors people use to think about things. Systematic analysis at the beginning of a project can better ensure that you’ve got the right metaphor for your new product or service. In part 2 of this series, I will outline ways to analyze effectiveness of current metaphor use as well as ways to identify new or more impactful metaphors.

The following books and articles offer more information on conceptual metaphors:

  • DesCamp, Mary Therese, and Eve E. Sweetser. “Metaphors for God: Why and How Do Our Choices Matter for Humans? The Application of Contemporary Cognitive Linguistics Research to the Debate on God and Metaphor” Pastoral Psychology. 50.3 (2005): 207-238.
  • Fauconnier, Gilles, and Mark Turner. The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities. New York: Basic Books, 2002.
  • Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.
  • Rohrer, Tim. “Conceptual Blending on the Information Highway: How Metaphorical Inferences Work.” 1995.


  1. I am sometime amused when these metaphors make it into the Webster or Oxford (i.e. googling, downloadble, accessing) and the way that hardware / software metaphor influences our non-technological English parlance. I’m looking forward to part 2 of this article.

  2. I agree with Sarah, metaphors are a power tool. Metaphors are symbols. A symbol is the understanding that someone has about a specific social artifact. For example, a red octagon at an intersection means “stop”, an arrow pointing to the right at the upper right hand corner of a web page next to a form filed means “execute this search criteria”, someone winking at you in an casual conversation means “don’t take this too seriously”, etc.

    My point is that symbols are socially constructed – I don’t think Sarah would disagree with me, but it is a point that needs attention. Using metaphors or symbols can be very tricky because not everyone is going to understand them, especially in a global context. As globalization continues to cannibalize our worldview, we need to start thinking about developing or digressing to a more common social vocabulary. A vocabulary that is concise, generic and meaningful. If our goal is to communicate successfully, then it is important for us to leverage communicational shortcuts in common language not in highly specialized and potentially alienating metaphors.

    Using metaphors and symbols is powerful. No debate there. It allows people to feel like they belong to a larger group of people that “gets” the meaning. And they do save time and rhetoric. But they also alienate certain cultures and subcultures.

    It always goes back to your target audience, I guess. If you think they will “get” it, then use it.

    So, the question is “what is the common language?” Certain metaphors are generally universal that we can adapt, such as knobs, buttons and switches. What are other metaphors in our common social vocabulary that we can use, borrow and change?

    All in all, good thinking piece. And I look forward Part 2 of this article.

  3. Interesting post on an interesting topic. The way I see it, everything is metaphor. The words people use to describe concepts evolve and adapt to a changing environment.

  4. Sarah:
    Thanks for the brain-food! When we create a new site or application for a limited, specific audience, my company puts together an adoption plan to help the client roll out the new site to their users. I had never thought of consciously creating a metaphor to aid adoption like this, but I will quite likely do that in the future, though!

  5. I’m struck by the idea that a metaphor can be discarded after it’s proven its usefulness, and then the previously foreign product or idea may be used down the line as a metaphor itself… and so on. In a sense, we can’t hold onto our metaphors too tightly and must welcome new ones.

    I also like the thought that metaphors should be employed up to their usefulness. Certain aspects apply while others should be left behind to pave the way for formerly impossible features.

    Great article. Looking forward to part 2!

  6. Actually, I’m pretty sure the etymology of the phrase “down loads” pre-dates modern computing considerably. My grandfather was using it in pre-war Britain along with “up loads” to describe different types of loading activity for ships. It was probably only expanded to be a verb later on.

    But no matter, it’s a nice article. Part 2 is going to be much anticipated. What I’m perhaps most curious about is how one decides whether a metaphor is in fact the best way to aid understanding, because it could just as easily end up as a millstone. An obvious example would be if Tivo is “just a VCR” to some people, but a competitor is seen as “a device that lets you manipulate live TV.” Knowing when to kill off the meme is just as important as creating it, but in some cases you may not have that control.

  7. Brilliant article Sarah!

    I can recall telling a room of Vice-President’s that by not taking the time to organize the web content that hadn’t been consistently managed in nearly 10 years was like their child coming home in grade 6 and refusing to clean up their room for that same period of time.

    Nearly ten years later your child calls you up from University and asks for their report card from grade 10. They tell you it’s somewhere under their desk. When you open the door to their room a wall of “content” falls to their feet. Wading through everything it takes you a week to find the report card.

    After several requests, you as parents, finally get the courage and open the door one more time. It takes you several weeks, but eventually you get everything cleaned up and organized. Now when your child wants anything, you can quickly and easily find what you need.

    Taking the time to organize all of the information on the web will enable you to clean up the room where all of your clients are seeking critical information from you.

    If they don’t understand technology, find something they can relate too and see the value in. As parents, every single one of these executives instantly understood the chaos based on their own experience of having children who never clean up their room!


  8. Good article. I find it funny how many people are using new “tech” metaphors to enhance old ideas (the “downloading” example was perfect.) I find myself constantly doing the opposite however, explaining technology concepts in metaphors people already understand. My personal favorite, “Building a website is a lot like building a house.”

  9. Looks like someone has been reading her George Lakoff. Thanks for this info, Sarah.

  10. What’s really interesting about this topic is not only are metaphors discarded, they somehow resurface many generations later. I’m looking forward to part 2. I’d like to get my hands on applying the methods…not only on the web world but in other settings/environments.

  11. Interesting article! It sets the reader to think about the evolution of language. Often, we find it difficult to read old articles (e.g. articles in 1980s, etc). This is not because we are not as bright, but our vocabulary has evolved. The transient use of metaphors has set cultural change across time.
    There’s also cultural difference across geographical location. I am from Singapore and we are not too familiar with “TiVo”. Fortunately, your metaphor “video recorder” was able to cast concepts on how “TiVo” works. This technology probably takes a different name here.
    This is an interesting read and I look forward to your coming article.

  12. Just going to randomly add some comments. Apologies!

    Another intersting footnote is Dan Saffer’s thesis project on this topic, “The Role of Metaphor in Interaction Design”.. here is a link to a review which has direct links to his work.

    I disagree that we need a common language as pointed out by Andres. It rings of the shortcomings of globalization. Technology lets us tailor more personalized experiences for users and even gives them the ability to do their own MODs. Perhaps that is why simplistic social networking tools are so successful? Generative semantics hit a dead end with Deep Structure (singular meaning), although, new strategies in art, programing, and research are diverging from it in novel ways. The thing I find interesting about generative semantics is it’s similarity to current IA practices. I recently saw a debate between interaction designers on the use of “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” icons in a software app. Somebody somewhere will be deeply offended by that. I give that 2 thumbs down. Not to mention the horror stories of agencies not doing ethnographic research in campaigns in China and alientating millions of people.

    Metaphor based on historical models has of course always been a successful part of Industrial Design, as pointed out with horseless carriages. I was in a flea market the other day and saw an IBM computer from over 20 years ago that was built into a wood grained desk. It is a funny thing now. Did we call them “desk computers” only to have it become “desktop computer”? Not to mention the term “blog”… much more agreeable then “personal online content managment system”. Even the word “computer” has changed. Those used to be real people sitting at desks.

    Great article, looking forward to the next one.

  13. This is really good post..My concern here, however, is not so much in these fascinating twists and turns of jargon as in the metaphors used with intent to communicate to people who can’t be expected to know the details..just bothered about common man who doesnot know about computers & its background…!!

  14. There was a great article on Harvard Business Review last year (I think) about the misuse of metaphors in business, specifically when attempting to illustrate new business opportunities by employing metaphors from one domain to another. It spoke to what is really translatable across domains and what is not, and how metaphors can hide the problem and take people down a path that doesn’t make sense. It also spoke about the benefits of mataphors, but the emphasys was on the perrils of the wrong metaphors. I can’t find the article now, but if you’re interested in the topic, look for it at HBR.

  15. Thank you for reminding us about metaphors. The use of them and other storytelling techniques is so powerful in life and in business.

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