A product metaphor shapes the look and behavior of a product, integrates the product's features and inspires new functionality.
If you value metaphors, a single word can inspire your entire product.
The word playlist inspired us at Industrial Logic to replace our Agile eLearning's stale book metaphor with a music metaphor, complete with albums, box sets, tracks, playlists, performance critiques and more.
I was recently searching for a new Twitter iPhone app because my existing app did not support off-line access.
That meant I couldn't access an article I wanted to read on a flight, which was annoying.
I've learned to pay attention to what annoys me, as it usually signals a need for change.
So I began exploring Twitter apps and read a review of a product called Simply Tweet, which had a comment by someone who said that he could not live without the mute feature in Twittelator.
After reading the word "mute" two things instantly happened:
I recalled the many times when I wished I could temporarily turn off someone's tweets (like Mike Bria giving play-by-play commentary at an Eagles game or Uncle Bob Martin raving about politics).
I thought about how often I press the mute button on TVs to silence things I don't want to hear.
Hmmm, so how could Twitter be like TV and all that goes with it (cable/satellite connections, recorders, remotes)?
That question led me to explore a product metaphor for Twitter.
If Twitter were TV, then everyone I follow would be a channel.
I could define a network as a grouping of channels.
I could channel surf people, networks, geographies and areas of interest.
I could mute/unmute a channel, network, hashtag, word or phrase.
I could record a channel or whole network by hashtag or time period.
I could suspend a broadcast thereby communicating that my channel is off the air.
I could schedule a tweet to broadcast from my channel ("This tweet will air tomorrow at 10am and 5pm.").
I could schedule a program on my channel, a designated time when I discuss/debate some topic.
I could schedule an advertisement to air once every day for X days.
I could promote a product on my channel and obtain an advertising fee.
I could have subtitles for foreign tweets.
I could have a breaking news ticker crawling across the bottom of my Twitter app, like news channels do.
I could study a Twitter Guide, like TV Guide, to learn about channels.
I could analyze ratings for my channel, like TV advertisers do, to better understand my audience.
I could pay-per-view to follow a special channel.
Do you see why I am excited about product metaphor?
Thanks to the product metaphor, our Twitter app would feel like a whole rather than a loose collection of parts.
How many feature-rich apps have you used that resembled a loose collection of parts like this odd bike?
I recently started a Software Metaphor Google Group to help us learn more about product metaphors and metaphors in software design.
If you'd like to discover a product metaphor for your product, begin discussing it with your customers, product owners, product managers, sales folks, marketing staff and others in your product community.
Remember to pay attention to what annoys you about your software and listen carefully for a word or phrase that could inspire your product metaphor.