Create a Match Between Your Application and the Real World

Always use words, phrases, and concepts that are familiar to the user rather than terms from the underlying system. Use terms that relate to the user's knowledge of the tasks your application supports. For example, in medicine, the paper folder that contains all information about a specific patient is called a "chart." Hence, a medical application might refer to a patient record that contains the same information as a paper chart as a "patient chart" rather than as a "patient database record."

You can often take advantage of your users' knowledge of the real world by using metaphor— that is, a familiar concept from the outside world— to represent elements within your application. For example:

  • an image of a file folder suggests a container into which documents can be placed
  • a waste basket suggests a container into which items can be placed when they are no longer needed

When using metaphors, however, it is important to neither take the metaphor too literally, nor to extend the metaphor beyond its reasonable use. For example, the capacity of a file folder should not be limited to the capacity of a physical file folder, which presumably could contain only a few documents before becoming unwieldy. On the other hand, a waste basket should not be used for anything other than holding discarded files. It should not be used, for example, to eject a removable disk such as a floppy or CD.