I learned a great user experience technique last week that could be helpful in many organizations, even among peers who might greet card sorting or other collaborative methods with a jaded eye roll. Metaphor problem solving aids the early design process by relating interface choices to a well-known source model in the real world.
Of course, metaphor and mental models are integral to developing almost any graphical user interface, but this is different. Your source model is not for getting specific ideas about interface design. Think of it more like a checklist.
Start by choosing a familiar business domain in the real world. List attributes of the business. Then map them to your software or website. A partial example:
|Source: fast food||Target: ecommerce|
|Cash registers||PayPal widget, shopping cart|
|Salesperson||Avatar, live chat, affiliate program|
|Condiments station||Choose colors, sizes, free extras|
|Signs showing what's available||Big and clear tabs. On hover, show details|
Not only is this a fresh way to think differently about UI challenges, you might draw on the model to arrive at new features and usable terminology. In the example, the source was fairly well related to the target, but it doesn't have to be. Try crazy sources: how is your product like an airplane, circus, railroad station, or spaceship? Outlandish metaphors can generate requirements and opportunities that you might have missed.
Avoid being too literal or physical with your metaphor. Pictured is a classic example of this problem, the General Magic MagicCap interface for early 1990s PDAs. A too literal execution of your metaphor can be cumbersome to use in the new medium. Imagine if tax software only let you fill in the existing tax forms on your computer for printing. Would that be seen as a true step forward, worth paying for?
Instead think of “magic” ways to reduce steps and exceed user expectations. For example, in online food shopping, it might be nice if the navigation were modeled after familiar store shelves. But it's better to enable search and have the system suggest favorites based on past purchases. Online, your shopping can be faster ... almost like magic.