Software Engineering with an Agile Development Framework/Iteration One/System metaphor

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System metaphor

Describe the system by reference to a familiar thing or concept

2 hours

Notes from first meeting with client

Annotated notes

Discussion with client

What is a metaphor?[edit | edit source]

In the first iteration, the functional requirements sector involves us having discussions about our approach to the business problem or opportunity. We do this by means of a system metaphor.

A metaphor is a comparison between two seemingly unrelated subjects. They are used in language to enliven, to encourage interpretation and to provide a vehicle for understanding when either there are no direct terms for a concept or other explanataion is cumbersome. By understanding and experiencing one thing in terms of another we can provide a means of exploring a concept even before we’ve really come to terms with what it is we’re talking about.

Perhaps the most famous metaphor is Shakespeare’s opening:

All the world’s a stage

And all the men and women merely players

They have their exits and their entrances

— As You Like It 2/7

In ordinary conversation we speak of “pulling your socks up”, “drowning in paper”, “unfolding the road map to peace” and “my memory is a little foggy”. The metaphor we use for something can be quite informative. For example, the words we use for business are often based on a war metaphor: “hostile takeover”, “losing ground”, and so on, and these in turn affect the management of the business. Ray Jackson (quoted in CEO Forum) uses lessons from the military in a discussion of business practices:

I think it taught me that the world is always imperfect, and that your knowledge base is also imperfect. In military operations, you never really have ‘all the facts’, in the literal sense. So it teaches you to operate on incomplete data: take the data you have, turn it into information, and figure out what you need to do. I guess I learnt that clarity is better than certainty: there comes a time when you have enough information to move on. If you wait for certainty it never arrives. The military makes you comfortable with uncertainty.

The other thing I learnt was the need to not procrastinate in making decisions, and to be incisive. You learn a process of continually making decisions, then reviewing those decisions as more information comes to light. This has been very useful in business.

The military also teaches you to carefully manage resources. On a naval mission, for instance, you only have a limited amount of fuel, a limited amount of ammunition, and so on. Your most important limited resource, of course, is your people, so you need to look after and nurture them - you can’t work them to death! The military teaches you to always be very mindful of your resources and how you can best use and conserve them.

I also think you learn a lot about leadership and communication. I like the expression ‘People don’t want to be continually inspired, they just want to know what they should do’. Most military people have a highly competitive, ‘we are here to win’ streak, so that toughness and commitment is there. Some aspects of business are like a battle, so those types of attitudes can be useful. Another useful attitude is to set your goals, and then be steadfast in pursuing them come what may. The goals of war and business are different, of course. War is about defeating an enemy - it’s a zero sum game. In business, on the other hand, your objective may be to be the most profitable company. It’s not a goal that involves defeating an enemy in the same way - it’s more about achieving your own goals.

(See also Marketing’s maneuver theory for explicit - and controversial use of the military/business metaphor: “The Armory - the online resource for the competitive marketer is the exclusive host for The Art of Attack - How to Attack and Dislodge the Larger Competitor”).

Lakoff and Johnson (1980) argue that we live our life by metaphors.

Software development: system metaphor[edit | edit source]

In software development the System Metaphor has been adopted as a core practice by the agile community. Kent Beck, author of Extreme Programming Explained defines a system metaphor as:

“a story that everyone - customers, programmers, and managers - can tell about how the system works.” p. 179.

Wake argues that we seek a system metaphor for several reasons:

Common Vision: To enable everyone to agree on how the system works. The metaphor suggests the key structure of how the problem and the solution are perceived. This can make it easier to understand what the system is, as well as what it could be.

Shared Vocabulary: The metaphor helps suggest a common system of names for objects and the relationships between them. This can become a jargon in the best sense: a powerful, specialized, shorthand vocabulary for experts. Naming something helps give you power over it.

Generativity: The analogies of a metaphor can suggest new ideas about the system (both problems and solutions). For example, the metaphor, “Customer service is an assembly line”. This suggests the idea of a problem being handed from group to group to be worked on, but it also raises the question, “What happens when the problem gets to the end of the line - does it just fall off?” This can bring out important issues that might otherwise lurk and fester.

Architecture: The metaphor shapes the system, by identifying key objects and suggesting aspects of their interfaces. It supports the static and dynamic object models of the system.

Another benefit is Generalisability. We can use the metaphor to move between developments: "Like the lettuce project, but with more of a greywater approach" is a real sentence used in developing a new project.

Choosing a metaphor takes work. Hopefully, you’ll traverse deep and rich ground as you come to agreement over an appropriate metaphor. This an important part of the process and you should attempt to recognise and capture these thoughts. Jefferies (2001), in an evocative description of an agent-based information retrieval system describes “this program works like a hive of bees, going out for pollen and bringing it back to the hive”. Although Jefferies doesn’t describe them, it is likely that they tried other metaphors first. Perhaps “a vacuum cleaner sucking up all knowledge? there’s lots of them and anyway the information is structured - not just a big dustball, well perhaps a library? no, that is big and static, what we want is something that selectively collects information, like a fleet of recycling trucks...”.

Some metaphors are used repeatedly in software development. Some common approaches:

1. Spreadsheet Metaphor

2 Script Metaphor

3 Manufacturing Metaphor (e.g. LinesStationsBinsParts or AssemblyLine)

4 Accounting Metaphor (double-entry archive notation)

5 Shopping Cart Metaphor (e-commerce)

6 Auction Metaphor (e-commerce)

7 Blackboard Metaphor (ai)

8 Document Processor (desktop systems where the “model” gets saved as a file)

9 Virtual Space Metaphor (eg. VR)

10 Desktop Metaphor

11 Tools and Materials Metaphor

12 Buttons Everywhere Metaphor

13 Person - what would a person employed to do this job do?

(other sometimes useful metaphors: bank, courts, newspaper, farm, road map, police indentikit)

In cases where no one can think of an appropriate metaphor (with or without vivid imagery), the approach is to develop a “naive metaphor”. This means that you describe the system more literally (a student management system would have student and enrolment objects etc). The disadvantage of this is that it isn’t really a metaphor - you won’t gain any deeper understanding or insights as it is rooted in what you already know. Try and avoid 'nearly computing' metaphors - concepts such as a CD rack are too close to computing to be useful.

Process[edit | edit source]

So, what do we do with this system metaphor? For some Agile proponents, the system metaphor forms that basis for much of the programming, the tenor and subjects of the metaphor directly translating to classes and patterns.

We take a lighter approach. The system metaphor is primarily a tool for discussion here in the functional requirements of the first iteration. It may also prove useful to prompt thought in the Interaction Design of Iteration 2.

The metaphor should be stated in simple terms. As Ryan states: “The system is a bakery” jibes better than “The system interprets text as commands and executes them against builders that produce resultant objects and attach assorted decorators, sorting them via pipes and filters to the correct bins; the user can than browse and eat them as needed.” (C2 2006).

Once you have a metaphor, the trick is to explore all of its characteristics, writing them down on paper or whiteboard. These ideas will flow directly to the user stories or functional requirements.

Case study Project management software

Group: Software Engineering 2006

For a project to develop a project management and group collaboration tool, a metaphor of a fridge door was useful:

  • always there (you don’t have to open it to find information),
  • messages to family (from each other, phone messages)
  • calendar (today, arrangements, upcoming events)
  • shopping list
  • security strap (to stop little chocolate stealers)
  • inspiration (“do you need that chocolate?” sticker)
  • progress charts (weight gain/loss)
  • family cleaning/cooking roster
  • current work (especially for younger ones, sketches named and sometimes dated)
  • document repository (music tickets, bills to pay) - interestingly layered!
  • reconfigurable (information held together by fridge magnets)
  • teaching role (alphabet letters introducing words and information to little ones).
  • star chart (kids’ behaviour management, behaviour contract and rewards).
  • public place,
  • central place: we go past it as part of normal life (work)flow (but without it jumping out and interrupting)
  • achievements (kids’ school certificates)
  • photos of family (selves and relatives/baby photos)
  • newspaper clippings
  • limited space, information has to be managed to avoid loss in clutter (but this is done without any rules, design or manager) (note, I did write “it does this” here, the door itself of course doesn’t do anything except act as a static repository, it is the family who actively manage the information).
  • phone numbers (family/friends/doctor’s etc)
  • menu/phone number for pizza place

...and does all these things without getting in way of real job (keeping food cold - our system mustn’t get in way of the project being undertaken). An alternative metaphor for this project was a car dashboard (see below), another was a library.

For another project, a community based surf report system for surfers, a single system metaphor proved elusive. The process, however, was very useful. As we explored possible system metaphors - a newspaper; a radio snow report; a school newsletter - the reasons why these didn't work as metaphors effectively built a list of characteristics of our system.

Tricks[edit | edit source]


hile a different metaphor might be better, it is unlikely that a metaphor can be wrong, especially if you are using it as a tool for exploration. If you realise that another metaphor is better, then good, it means that you have made a breakthrough in your understanding.

Rather than “wrong” the worst outcome is that the metaphor becomes a cause of miscommunication. The following is extracted from the wiki:

Ask yourself, what more familiar things is this problem like? Is it really like ordering coffee from a fancy coffee machine? Is it really mostly like steering (tacking) a sailboat across a lake? driving from Toronto to Paris? (...a journey of less than 90 minutes, since Paris is just on the other side of Brantford. -- RandyMacDonald) (just to avoid the CanadianCulturalAssumption) You mean Paris, Kentucky, right? :) Or perhaps a polar route during a cold winter...

* Whoever tried to clean this up by deleting didn’t fix the underlying problem, so I put it back. Next WikiGnome: clarify the driving-from-Toronto-to-Paris issue or leave as is for now.

No, best left! It illustrates rather beautifully the way subtle misunderstandings can arise. Developer-One says: “This is like driving to Paris”, meaning a short journey. Developer-Two gets a mental image of driving through the Chunnel from the UK to France, and considers how to avoid trains. Developer-Three (in the USA) ponders submarine cars. The misunderstandings here highlight the importance of MeaningDependsOnContext in discussions, especially about something as crucial as the SystemMetaphor. -- BenLast

We have to be careful then , to avoid “false insights”.

Before you discard a metaphor for another, be sure to capture all the characteristics of the first - they will still be useful in the Planning Game. Also, capture the things that lead you to make that change in metaphor. The things wrong with the metaphor can define your system just as well.

A metaphor needs to be familiar enough to the group that needs to use it. To say that it is “an accrual accounting system but for carbon credits” might be a perfect metaphor for the financial accountants but if such accounting isn’t understood by the programmers, then it will act to confuse rather than enlighten.

Sometimes the metaphor limits understanding. The paper based rows and columns spreadsheet was a strong model in the development of spreadsheets (!), but the conceptual leap from the paper to the real power of a modern spreadsheet is quite large. This leads to the danger of introducing “magic”: “it’s like a magic whiteboard”. While this helpfully encompasses all of the basic functions of a whiteboard, the real innovation of the system is hidden behind a veneer of “magic”.

We also need to know when to give up on the metaphor. The project management development described above by the fridge door metaphor was also described by a car dashboard. This worked extremely well as a system metaphor in early stages: unobtrusive but critical monitoring of vital indicators etc, but became cumbersome when used as the basis for the interface design (dials, steering wheel with leather trim and so on).

Metaphors work best when you give them chance to work. As soon as you start slipping back to describing characteristics of computing things (security, login in, etc), try and lift your thinking back to a more abstract metaphor. One way to do this is to think about the metaphor on steroids - what would a super x look like? Be careful though, as discussed above, you have to more specific than a "magic x".

example: dashboard[edit | edit source]

Case study Dashboard

Group: Software Engineering 2006

The dashboard metaphor was useful in developing ideas for a project management system (in fact, one to support the Agile Development Framework). Using the familiar concept of the car dashboard providing critical information was a useful way of thinking about what information project groups needed to be able to see constantly; what events would prompt warning lights etc. Some groups continued the metaphor for the whole development process, it, got complicated when we tried to mix the notion of drilling down for more information (not a function one would normally find on a car dashboard).

Case study Talking with Leonardo

Group: Chrissie Jackson and Jonathon Ung for Otago Museum

The Leonardo Talking Head robot is an interactive robot with a personality. The robot will accept speech and respond back. It is designed primarily for children and has the ability to educate users on the works and life of Leonardo.

Leonardo greets visitors when someone activates the sensor. He has four main topics that he can talk about: Art, History, Machines and Science. This project is in conjunction with designers who are making the actual head.


For this project, an actor metaphor was used:

  • Greets Audiences.
  • Play a scene
  • An actor can talks, sings, dances, and with hand sign languages
  • Convert Ideas and concepts of plays to customers
  • Display sense of humours
  • Fashion and styles representation
  • Have characters and roles with different emotions display
  • Skills of communication with audiences in verbal, nonverbal acts.
  • He /she can be a moral model to the general public.
  • Reflects the reality of life to audiences.
  • Audiences can experience the different emotions involves as well,
  • Such as fear, joy, peace, sadness, anxiety, happiness.
  • Promotes business ventures.
  • Provides a mean of escape/fantasy
  • Provides entertainment, know ledges, and sense of appreciation
  • Provides information to educate.
  • Actor can be a representation of fame.

This metaphor was useful in helping us understand the system because it shows the characteristics we need to take into consideration when developing the system.

Metaphor for business opportunity[edit | edit source]

If you are really stuck, then one way of making a naive metaphor work is to think about metaphors for the business opportunity (rather than a metaphor for the information system itself. This may be particularly useful when the business opportunity itself is hard to comprehend.

Case study eLivingCampus

Group: Software Engineering 2008

The groups first developed metaphors for the whole project:

  • Coffee cup good content, recyclable, logos, inspirational quote,
  • Encyclopedia: stores information, index, pictures, summaries, searchable, updated regularly, accurate, online and hard copy
  • Living organism: dynamic, inputs/outputs, conditions, intelligent, feeding ideas,
  • A road map: information organised logically according to what you need to know at a glance but also can find find detail, legend and key structure, mobile, translates well to digital (mobile GPS etc), foldable (to highlight area of interest).
  • CD rack: holds lots of information, can be sorted by user, expandable, information can be sampled,

Some of these metaphors turned out to be too close to computing. The encyclopedia and the CD rack, for example, didn't really offer much new insight - they describe any generic computer system.

Perhaps because the Living Campus itself is not something the students had encountered before, we then switched tack, and thought about metaphors for the Living Campus itself. What are the characteristics of familiar businesses (or institutions or processes) that could be used to help think about the Living Campus - then, what are the information needs of those metaphors?


The Living Campus Information Infrastructure project benefited from thinking about information needs of other businesses:

  • Wartime propaganda: selectively positive, well organised, sense of urgency, targeted messages, constant broadcast
  • Olympics: complex network, many different needs, instantaneous integration of results and other media, tailored for and by different markets, pride, competitive, sponsors at different levels, logos embedded throughout
  • Marketing a company: logo, contact details, descriptions of customers, testimonials, showcases innovation, innovation needed in getting attention, case studies
  • Count Calendar (long running NZ farming TV programme): relevance to farming but most of audience not farmers, educational mixed with entertainment, narrative, further information, sponsorship, house style
  • Greenpeace: headline seeking but backed by evidence, moral high ground,
  • Building development: plans, consents, "what is happening here?", engineering modelling, artists' impressions.
  • Museum: mix education and entertainment, what's on show, categories, must be correct (though note importance of user understandings), can be boring, wayfaring, mixed audiences, changeable, house style, interactive, helpful staff
  • Art gallery: (museum +), layout, elitist, events, interpretive information, database, catalogue, collection, openings, storage,
  • Zoo: feeding times, breeding programme, animal and visitor behaviour management,school trip bookings, gift shops, conservation, fund raising, weather, seasonal
  • A&P show: community oriented society, supported by other societies, schools involved, competitions, community participation, outdoors (some exhibit halls), weather contingency, event, showcases community, animals and plants, business stalls, something for everyone, marketing, localised but regional and national structures, unique characters, interactive, committee structures,

References[edit | edit source] last updated 15/2/2006 Viewed 24/7/6 Jackman, R. (2006) Is business war? What military affairs can (and can’t) teach CEOs Viewed 21/7/6 Jefferies, R. (2001) What is eXtreme Programming viewed 21/7/6 Lakoff G. & Johnson, M. (1980) Metaphors We Live By Wake, W. (2000) System Metaphor viewed 21/7/6 Wake, W. (2000) Proven system metaphors viewed 21/7/6