Metaphors are a Double-Edged Sword

In this article over at Boxes and Arrows, Sarah A. Rice discusses the importance of metaphors in helping people understand new products and technologies. She gives the example of Tivo, and how they used the metaphor of the VCR to exlain what Tivo was. Arguably, however, Tivo didn’t see how the metaphors it chose could be both constraining (boxing you in) as well as allowing differentiation and interpretation (same but different).

The VCR has quite a large metaphorical footprint, causing a “language overhang” where people unconsciously use old words to describe new activities, activities which may serve the same end purpose but which are technically/mechanically quite different. Tivo is a great example here, where I’ve heard multiple users talk about “taping” shows on their Tivos. (“Developing” digital prints also comes up a lot.)

Rice describes Tivo as being “wildly popular”, but while Tivos are indeed addictive with the people who actually have one (to the point that they barely watch live TV anymore), they have not gained much market traction. The general category of DVR’s has only become mass market after cable/satellite providers offered them for $5 on top of the regular subscription. Tellingly, the providers emphasized the recording aspect of it, not the pause live TV aspect, which is what Tivo always hyped in their commercials.

How is it that a product which current owners will kill their mother to keep has had such a hard time being explained to those who don’t already know what it is? I think there are a few factors at work:

  1. They used the wrong metaphor (emphasizing the “pausing a tape” rather than “recording to a tape”)
  2. The metaphor wasn’t clear or compelling enough to generate a switch of technologies and the inevitable learning curve/screw-ups of not recording the season finale, etc.
  3. Only the combination of a metaphor and a low monthly price were enough to overcome the other barriers

My sense is that all three of these played a role more or less in individual buyers’ decision making. Unfortunately for Tivo, they have been far outstripped by the generally inferior and harder to use products from the cable/satellite providers. They have been outplayed based on price and customer access. DVR adoption in the US at least is now taking off quite steadily, and unfortunately the originator of the product category, Tivo, is not getting much of the action.

(BTW, Gold star to anyone who caught the metaphor in the posting title about metaphors!)