HCI metaphors – the Windows Recycle Bin

In user interface design it is often thought that creating metaphors and analogies to real life items helps users translate these concepts to computer versions more easily. For example the idea of a computer desktop with files and folders is directly analogous to real life desks with filing cabinets. The idea is that a user who has never seen a graphical operating system before would intuitively understand what a file and folder represent.

Another common example is the recycling bin, where you can drag items into to be deleted (but also recovered if needed). I think the metaphor used is wrong. Why is it called a recycle bin with a recycling symbol? Why it is not a rubbish or trash bin? The word ‘recycle’ means that the things inside it will be used for other purposes. At  low level, yes, the free space will be eventually recycled for some other file, but the user does not need to know this. For all intents and purposes, the ‘recycle bin’ is a rubbish bin, where the user puts unwanted files (the user is not going to reuse/recycle them) and where it is possible to sift through the rubbish to get the original file back. From a users point of view, no ‘recycling’ is happening, that is from an operating systems point of view.

In my opinion everything should be in the user’s point of view, or at least consistent. Mac OSX calls it “Trash” which is far more appropriate. Windows Vista/7 has got even more confused with the metaphor by changing the icon to look like a paper rubbish bin, but still with the recycle symbol on the front. Personally I think recycling is a very ordered affair – you have to sort your recycling into plastics, card, paper etc., and you certainly don’t crumple up paper like you do with a rubbish bin.

Vista’s confused ‘recycle’ bin

Anyway, it’s probably not a big deal since most people are used to the phrase ‘recycle bin’, but I think it’s a bit of a sloppy user interface design. The quote below (taken from Computer Stupidities) does highlight the problem though:

  • Woman 1: “What is that little trash can on the screen?”
  • Woman 2: “My son says that is call the ‘recycle bin’. He tells me when I don’t want a Word document anymore and I delete it, it really goes in there.”
  • Woman 1: “Why in the recycle thingy? Can’t you just erase it?”
  • Woman 2: “Oh no, Word wouldn’t work for very long if I did that, I would run out of blank pages.”
  • Woman 1: “Why?”
  • Woman 2: “Because it cleans the words off the pages, then sends the blank sheets back to Word so they can be used again. That’s why it’s called the recycle bin.”

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