Networking

10 common user questions - and some analogies that help clear things up

Sometimes, the only way to help users grasp a tech concept is to throw them a lifeline to something they already understand. Here are some field-tested analogies from TechRepublic members.

Sometimes, the only way to help users grasp a tech concept is to throw them a lifeline to something they already understand. Here are some field-tested analogies from TechRepublic members.


Once you've had to answer the same question from users a few times, you start looking for shortcuts -- ways to get your point across without having to explain too much. What you need is a good analogy, appropriate and instructive. Clearly TechRepublic members know this. When Toni Bowers wrote last year about how to develop analogies, the related discussion generated 233 comments, which contained an abundance of great analogies and insights about when to use them (and when not to). On the subject of "when not to," there are two main things to watch out for.

First, is the analogy going to work? Analogies attempt to explain an unfamiliar technical concept in more familiar terms, to explain an unknown in terms of something already known. So it's vital that your audience actually knows the concept you regard as "more familiar" (Dcolbert). Explaining that programming a stack in memory is like using a Pez dispenser (Ccardimon) works brilliantly -- unless the user has never seen one. Making an analogy to the library card catalog no longer works for younger audiences (Thordude). Second, even if it's a useful analogy, does your audience really want or need more explanation (Abegeman; Ian.Lockwood)? Or (worst case) are they going to think that you're talking down to them (Mmparab)? Sometimes it's wise to wait until they ask a question -- or admit or demonstrate that they're confused -- before you trot out an analogy.

On the other hand, when the moment is right, nothing beats a good analogy. Here, then, culled from responses to Toni's article, are 10 common user questions and some of the best analogies for answering them.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: Why do I need disk space and RAM?

The most frequently used analogy for this topic is the desk and cabinet metaphor. Quoting Phil: "filing cabinet = hard drive space, desk size = RAM. Bigger desk = more files open to look at once. Smaller desk = lots of swapping files back to the filing cabinet." And from Solutions: "Desk accessories (read: startup items like antivirus, update checkers, etc.) take up chunks of the desktop before you've even started working, leaving less desk surface for you to use for productivity." Another analogy is the kitchen. Iago9999:"I explain that the cabinets hold the dishes you're not using at the moment (hard drive) and the countertop is used for items you are using (memory). This also helps to explain the concept of virtual memory (moving stuff from the countertop to a separate cabinet)."

2: Why do I need more bandwidth?

Explaining bandwidth can be done with everyday hydraulics. Jbartoli: "I compare it to a water pipe and multiple people trying to take a shower." Rouschkateer: "I use the multiple people to one milkshake analogy (many people don't realize they share their bandwidth with their neighbors)." Traffic is another popular analogy. Nchetoora: "Bandwidth can be explained with the highway rush hour analogy ... [or] everyone trying to rush out of a building at once when there is a fire drill." Gater: "Some roads have more lanes than others, meaning that those roads have higher bandwidth."

3: Why do I have to defragment my drive?

There isn't a good real-life analog to defragmentation, but you can get close, Dave suggests it's like "a library with all the books in a long row A, B, C, etc., and then as each book representing a program or service gets taken out it doesn't get returned to its correct place. When you go to look for that book again you may find it, but will take longer to do ...defrag puts them back in the correct order." Going back to cooking, Betageek52 suggests you compare defrag to "... making a cake. If you put each of the ingredients used to make the cake in a different room, it will take forever to get it done because you have to run around the house for each one. Computers need all the pieces of a program together, so they can load it faster." Jdriggers: "I use the analogy of a pool table when explaining fragmentation and when it causes slowness. If I line up 15 balls in numerical order along the rail, how fast can you pick them up in numerical order? OK, now if I scatter them all over the table, how fast can you pick them up in numerical order?"


Analogy vs. explanation

To explain how things get fragmented as well as the need to defragment, MemphisGuy offers a simplified explanation, "purposely leaving out the stuff that causes their eyes to glaze, and using layman's terms":

Let's take the question, "Why do I have to defrag?"  The answer is "You don't. But let me tell you what it does. When you create your first document, life is good. When you create another document, the computer puts it right behind the first one, and so on. The computer doesn't know how you may change any of these documents, so it doesn't leave much space between any of them. When you go to edit or change the first document, if it can't fit the change in the same place, it saves that part of the document somewhere else. That part is a fragment. If you go back and change that document many times, there will be many fragments. Suddenly, one day, you go to open that document and it takes a long time. It's trying to go find all of the fragments" (at this point their eyes get big). "Windows treats its system files no differently from your documents. Everything eventually gets fragmented. Your entire system gets slower. Sometimes, you get errors or restarts for no reason. Now guess what Defrag does?" They all shout out, "IT PUTS THE PIECES BACK TOGETHER." And then I say, "Then your system will run faster, programs may open quicker, etc."

To develop this simplified explanation, MemphisGuy repeated it until his eight-year-old child and a technically inept user both could understand it. (He suggests you could shorten the process by running it by a six-year-old instead.)


4: Why can't I put everything on the desktop?

Jdclyde: "Everyone has a junk drawer, usually in their kitchen. Imagine EVERYTHING you own is in that one drawer. Get up in the morning, go to the junk drawer and look for some clean clothes. Time to eat ... go to the junk drawer and try to find a spoon and bowl. You would never be able to find anything. We organize our computers the same way we organize our lives. If I want a pair of socks, I go to the bedroom (directory), go to the dresser (subdirectory), top drawer (subdirectory). If I want a spoon, I go to the kitchen (directory) and go to the drawer next to the sink (subdirectory)."

5: Why is my Internet connection so slow?

When it comes time to explain networking or Internet problems, a natural analogy is to roads and traffic. NickNielsen likened an overburdened network to "a city street system built for the horse and buggy with dirt roads and no traffic controls. Unfortunately, we now have so many more cars than we had buggies, we are operating bumper-to-bumper. This causes a lot of wrecks (collisions!) that make everything even slower than the lack of signals justifies. Upgrading would replace those dirt roads with a fully paved four-lane grid system with a coordinated traffic signal." Brennj4 suggests thinking of it this way: "A network is a series of roads (cables) joined at intersections (hubs, switches) and controlled by traffic cops and lights (routers). Cars (data packets) leave their homes (sender) and with their destination address in hand (IP address) they set on their way."

6: Why does my graphic look so bad?

Often, it's a question of DPI. Cfbandit has a good analogy for that: "I usually ask people what they know about Impressionist painting. Most have heard of at least Monet and know what I'm talking about. I then ask them what would happen if they made the brush strokes bigger. The usual reply is that the image would be even more blurry. I then ask them what would happen if they made the brush strokes smaller. They usually reply that the image would become clearer.... When they're trying to get a high quality image of a 72 DPI Web photo, I tell them they're trying to get a small stroke print of a big stroke picture. They're usually okay with me showing them how to fix their 'stroke size'."

7: What about viruses and malware?

Subgeniusyeti offers analogies for both the problem and its solutions:
  • "The Path" -- These are the safe places on the Internet. This includes the company site and various well-known news sites, etc. "You know when you've stepped off the path, and although you may not get any malware right away, it's only a matter of time once you stray from the path."
  • "Pulling weeds" -- This is the laborious process of removing malware from a computer, which may contain a number of hard-to-replace documents/programs.
  • "Plowing under" - This refers to reformatting... guaranteed to fix it every time.

8: Network address? The computer's right there

Real-life buildings are a fruitful source of analogies for network address concepts. For example, John explains the difference between static IP and DHCP: "It's like the difference between a block of flats (apartment block) and a hotel. Each has many addresses (flats or rooms) but you only have a hotel room temporarily, whereas you have a flat (apartment) for a long time. What about a hotel guest who stays there for a long time? Well, that's your reservations in DHCP." Kalmano: "When explaining to students about domain names vs. complete URLs, I tell them that getting the domain name instead of the URL is like being invited to a party and being given the zip code instead of the full address." When it comes to explaining ports, Craigpower1 says, "The analogy I like to use to explain the relationship between IP addresses and port numbers is to say that the IP address is like the street address of an apartment building, and the port number is like the apartment number. The street address gets the 'letter' to the 'building' it needs to go to, and the port gets it to the specific apartment." As for security, Dprows adds, "An analogy I use to describe ports on a router is that the router is a big house with lots of doors. We leave the doors closed unless absolutely necessary, to keep intruders out."

9: Why is fixing this going to take so long?

Sometimes, you have to explain the difference between an easy fix and a difficult fix. Techpartner offers this analogy: "I give the business the analogy of an organizational chart of a business, with departments, managers, directors, etc. Adding/removing employees from a department does not impact the whole company (easy bug fix). However, changing the reporting structure and introducing/removing a layer of management affects everyone (big bug fix)." Gitmo uses the analogy of a house: "If the fix involves some new nails in a couple of boards, we can do it quickly. But sometimes I have to jack the entire house up, lay a new foundation, and put the house back in place. That takes a long time, and we then have to make sure that lifting the house didn't cause any problems elsewhere in the house.... Adding a basement to a house is an even bigger job."

10: Why should I listen to you?

When users balk at taking advice from IT, an expertise analogy can help. ITCompGuy uses an auto mechanic analogy. "I explain that I have a key to start my car every day, but if the car runs slow or does not run at all, I rely on an auto mechanic because THAT is his expertise. You can replace auto mechanic with doctor, dentist, pilot, etc., but the important part is that everyone has a specialty." Jay.Philbin, working for an HMO, likes to "compare the end user/PC to a patient (parent/child). When doctors would tell me simply 'my PC doesn't work' and I asked for details, I often used to get remarks like 'You're the expert - you figure it out' or 'I don't have time to deal with this.'

"If the moment seems right, I explain my position through their eyes as doctors and nurses. If a patient were to walk in and proclaim 'I'm sick,' the doctor would ask a series of questions to zero in on his patient's malady. I ask the doctor how he would react to the patient saying 'You're the expert -- you figure it out.' This opens their eyes. I have to triage and diagnose in a way that's similar to their routines. I've ended up with very cooperative end users over the years."

Other good analogies?

What are your favorite methods of explaining technical concepts to your users? Do you use any analogies not covered here? Join the discussion and share your most effective tricks.


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32 comments
rpetitpas
rpetitpas

Leaving out the conduits that carry the information to begin with, I get users to think of the Internet as a big place, open to anyone that whishes to have a stall, he can place it and offer whatever he wants. So there are billions of stalls... carrying whatever crossed the mind of the stall owner, some are amazing, some are bad, in fact they are a full cross section of what humanity is, and we need a way to look for the ones we are interested in, so there is a directory where I can search and go to it, this directory gets updated all the time and there are many of them (search engines). One important concept has to do with the quality of the founded stuff. It is up to the stall owner only and the user has to discern by itself. And a user can get lost for days in that place if he wants....

rpetitpas
rpetitpas

When my users says that they need more disk because their system is slow, I use the house analogy saying that if their closets are full, that does not prevent them to walk around in the house at full speed. The disk is like a closet, you can add more storage, it has an effect if clothes are disordered, in that point I can use that analogy to explain fragmentation if needed. About explaining antivirus, my successfull analogy is that an AV is like a guard that is at the door and check everyone entering against a list of bad guys. And to update the AV is when you give a new list to the guard. And scanning for virus is when you send the guard inside to check for hidden bad guys under the rugs, behind the beds, and so forth.

remoulton
remoulton

I've often used the pipe-hose analogy (especially with firemen). Dial-up is a garden hose, broadband a 3" fire hose and the trunk lines a water conduit. As to the library analogy, it's good. But take it one step further. Fragmentation is more a matter of having to find the book cover (program or file) and then having to hunt all over the stacks for each individual page and put them in order so you can read the thing.

john.dailey
john.dailey

Let's say you're a developer (PHP, Jave, etc.) and a user asks you how to set margins, or layout paragraphs in Word. When you say you don't exactly and they say, why not? You're the "computer guy", you should know. My analogy is, ask the brain surgeon why he doesn't perform the heart operation, he's a doctor isn't he?

PjAware
PjAware

These analogies are really helpful for a newbie like me who is soon going to start his tech support career soon. Thank you for the informative article.

Zeppo9191
Zeppo9191

For years, I've used the bookshelf analogy for defragmenting, using an extra detail not mentioned by Dave. I tell my users to imagine a bookshelf in a library with several sets of encyclopedias, being used by people who habitually put the volume they just used into the first open space they see. I then explain that the defragmenter reorganizes the sets by putting each on its own shelf, and in alphabetical order.

bseng
bseng

I gave a class recently at a local library for non-Internet users. Who is that? Retired folks, mostly. I compared the Internet to the highway system. Both are "public," already built. Then, you build a house which is like buying a computer. To connect the house to the highway you have to build a driveway. to connect the computer to the Internet you have to buy a modem. To use the highway you need a car, equivalent to a browser. To use the highway, you don't need to know how to build a road or a house, you just need to know how to drive a car. So, we demonstrated how to use a browser, and everyone got a turn. Your house has an address, your computer has a Web address. Your neighbors have Web addresses, too. All the businesses, schools, libraries, government agencies have Web addresses, just like they have street addresses. If you know the Web address, you can go see their Website. If you don't, you can ask for directions from Google or another search engine. A security program protects the computer like an alarm protects your house. They liked it, it made sense to them.

user support
user support

One of our employees is looking at applying for another job but does not have experience with creating word processing templates or doing mail merges. This is not the best explanation but I believe it is a start and got me to thinking on how to make it better. I told her that a template would be like making an invitation to a party but instead of making out 10 or more copies individually you put in a place holder for the Salutation and First and/or Last Name of the people you are inviting. The merge part would be to use different salutations and names inserted in the place holders so that you would have invitations to 10 different friends when different. The other explanation is explaining what is a database. I can't remember what I say but I compare it to a phone book with both white and yellow pages. The explanations worked except that after the person understood the concept, she needed help how to perform the actual process.

mikifinaz1
mikifinaz1

I remember a text written about all the back-ass-ward analogies used in the Windows system early on and how they lead to more trouble later. There was a whole section on how the user is trained to name files and how the system names them (both difficult to explain). It would be nice if someone pulled together the major educational works on computers and built a definitive work designed for IT people to teach them how to train less educated end users. An agreed upon use of analogies designed from the ground up to be complementary to further education. This way the user's past experience would facilitate the process.

mwalker
mwalker

GREAT article: I'd like to see more just like it periodically.

Compuhorsy
Compuhorsy

I have recently been told that my emails are too techy. I asked though if there shouldn't be a certain level of expectation of minimal level of knowledge for the users. I said that if a user were to take their CAR to the repair shop, they would know what tires, brakes, and oil filters were and they would not authorize repair for the humming belt pads for the oil pan. I think that given how long we have been using computers and the internet, that people should know the difference between RAM and the hard drive and that that big box is more than just a hard drive. All those Cisco tv ads are not just for us geeks and they would not waste their money if they didn't expect CEO's to have a clue why they want to buy Cisco.

Thump21
Thump21

For 'default' I tell people the computer or software program has made an 'assumption' about what you wanted ... and we all know what happens when you 'assume'; ass-u-me! The next two are for anyone working on large projects, writing software, DBs, web-sites, etc. and the question arises 'why can't we just go back to what we had?" I tell them the 'project' is like a meal --you can't uncook a meatloaf. If the question is "why can't you stop where you are and finish later?", I explain "I'm in the middle of preparing a meal with all burners going. If I walk away now you will not like the result".

SmedleyPoo
SmedleyPoo

I came up with this analogy to help my users understand why not all email gets to its recipient. I equate email with salmon swimming upstream to spawn. With a few examples of why the salmon disappear, it sinks in why the email disappears.

MJGunther
MJGunther

I've been a technical trainer in New York City for some 15 years, and am most proud of an analogy I developed for "Default" -- until I found it didn't work when I trained in branch offices in Texas. In New York diners, they automatically serve grape jelly with your breakfast toast. Grape jelly is the default, automatic, path-of-least-resistance topping for your toast. IF YOU ASK, you can get honey, strawberry jam, or orange marmalade -- but you have to make a conscious effort to get something other than grape jelly. The analogy works perfectly every time in New York. In Texas, I was met with puzzled stares. And automobile analogies don't work too well in New York, since so many people have never learned to drive. (Really!)

Ron_Ellis
Ron_Ellis

One more analogy for defragmentation that I've used with success is to a file cabinet with it's contents dumped on the floor, and then randomly put back in the drawers. It will be hard to find anything and take quite a bit of time unless you put stuff in folders and alphabetize them.

oldbaritone
oldbaritone

Think of going shopping. You see something you think you like, so you try it on. Then you decide you don't like it, and you put it back on the rack. You are absolutely no different than you were before you tried the item on. If you're shopping, that's the end of it. In Windows, when you "try on" a piece of software and then you don't like it, you remove it. But unlike the clothes in the store, there's a good chance that your computer isn't exactly the same as it was before you "tried on" the software. Some small things were changed and not put back quite the way they were. It would be like a sweater you try on leaving "little bits of fuzz" on your clothes. A couple of bits of fuzz is probably no big deal. They may be in places you don't even notice them. And there are even the software-equivalent of lint removers - they're called registry cleaners. They go through Windows and try to find those "bits of fuzz" and remove or repair them. But sooner or later you reach the point where there is so much "fuzz" everywhere that it's just easier to throw out the old-and-dirty copy of Windows, and start with a brand-new fresh one. You won't put the same "fuzz" on the new copy, because you already know you don't like some other program, and you won't try it on again. You can try to keep cleaning and cleaning the old copy, but after a while (usually a year or two) some spots are stained, and other spots are threadbare, and you're probably at the point that you'll be happier with a new, fresh install.

RogMJ007
RogMJ007

Static IP vs Dynamic IP - It's like owning a vehicle instead of renting one each time you run an errand.

fz80ld
fz80ld

FOr Defraging I always use the analogy of a book with no binding. If you drop the book the pages get all out of order. you can still read it but it will be difficult and take a long time. Deffrag, re-order the pages, and you can read the book easily and quickly again.

lars.staurset
lars.staurset

Of course the cloud concept is already an analogy, but how can we explain it in more familiar terms?

JNStarwood
JNStarwood

A good analogy is often helpful. However, it is just as important to know when NOT to use an analogy. People have different learning styles and different modes for receiving information. Some users may be offended or insulted by an analogy. I learned this the hard way during my early years in the IT profession. It is best to consider your audience. How does this user best receive information? What exactly are they asking? If your user has a very direct style, then you might want to avoid an analogy. Of course, knowing your audience may be more difficult when working a Help Desk. Whenever possible, consider your audience. __ Joseph Starwood (www.linkedin.com/in/starwood)

mkite
mkite

RAM/Disk/CPU A very good helpdesk technician told me that she used the analogy of a kitchen to describe the components of a computer: the cabinets and pantry being the long-term storage of food and materials, the recipes and utensils representing programs. The kitchen countertop represented the RAM, that is the amount of space you can use to work with your utensils and ingredients, and the CPU is represented by the cook, how many arms he may have, how quickly he can move. In the years past I've found this a useful analogy.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

Ram I usually use the desk and cabinet explanation, but I describe the files as being pages of a report to be sorted into order, and the bigger the desk the more space to set them out on to be sorted. Bandwidth I usually describe this as being the hallway in a school or college, during the day there aren't many people in the halls, but when the lunch bell goes, it gets very crowded very quickly and you have to slow down due to the crowd, and when the hall opens into a wider hall or the cafeteria, the crowd quickly widens out and disperses, allowing you to speed up. Drive Defragmentation I have two analogies I use, I try one and then the other if they don't understand the first. a. A set of pidgeon holes used to sort mail, the items go in the holes and when one is filled, you place a note on it and put more mail for that address in one of the spares that are elsewhere; and new addresses get added on the end, out of street order. Defragging sees you clear out the holes of old mail and resorts them all into street order. b. A kitchen cupboard and your flat mates don't throw out empty containers, just put them back in the cupboard or fridge. Defragging is when you clean out the cupboard by checking the boxes and throwing out the empties, you find two open packs of the same product, so you put them together in the same container, or side by side; you also sort all the related foods together, cereals in one cupboard, biscuits in another, etc; you also shuffle everything around so that you fill the cupboards up along one row first, so you can end up with all the empty cupboards together. I've not yet found anyone who doesn't understand one of these two options. Slow Internet connection I explain this as being like air traffic waiting to land at the airport, they have to bank up due to so many people wanting to land at once. I also describe the difference between dial up and broadband as the difference between a small single engine propeller plane and a four engine jet plane - the later goes faster and carries much more. Network address I explain a URL is like a name you look up in the phone book (called a domain name server) where you then get the phone number from, the IP address. I explain the URL break up as like the following: street.suburb.state.country and an email address is the name before the address as above. I also point out that some URLs use the equivalent of a number, and floor, etc when they need to. While others use / to show which suite and room in a hotel. The last ones I use many analogies which I personalise to suit the individual, and they include those already used, as well as the car mechanic type, amongst them.

tsudohnimh
tsudohnimh

For Defrag I usually tell people imagine you are buying 100 mini storage units. Over time you end up with furniture in units 2, 26, 49,72-76, & 89. Your stuff is there is just takes longer to get to it all. If you resorted the furniture into consecutive mini-units it takes less time to get to your stuff. Welcome to Defrag.

TheProfessorDan
TheProfessorDan

I like the restaurant analogy when it comes to RAM. If you have a restaurant that is very popular and you want to wait on more customers, you can build a bigger dining room and serve more customers at one time.

Henriquez
Henriquez

I used to work in one, doing what's called "re-shelving" the books. In places with lots of multiple-volume reference books, that's exactly what happens. And they pay people to "defrag" the shelves. :)

bseng
bseng

ITIL has tried to standardize IT practice across the English-speaking world. I don't think they are done yet ;) but theirs may be the best effort to date. This could be a new area for them to address, standardizing the teaching of end-users.

user support
user support

The Helpdesk Institute - http://www.thinkhdi.com/ offers training and certification for this. If you want to take it one step further, consider whether it would make sense to require IT professionals to be licensed like physicians or attorneys. There was an article a few years ago in our legal office whether IT professionals should be required to carry malpractice insurance for dispensing bad advice. I believe the quote is be careful what you wish for.

user support
user support

I love this analogy and it simple and visual at the same time. Thanks!

birtalan.lists
birtalan.lists

I was teaching a group of seniors Intro to Computers. I was going through each of the menu items, and was at the Print command, saying that the default settings were to print 1 copy of the whole document. One brave soul put her hand up and asked, "What does default mean?". After a 30-second silence, I came up with the idea of the factory setting of your car radio when you buy it new from the dealers. Assenting murmurs told me that I had "finally made sense". In subsequent revisions, I have also mentioned a lone programmer, in a cubicle in Redmond, WA, but that's another story.

buntym
buntym

i prefer the best analogy for cloud computing would be electrification..... in early days every industry use to create electricity of their own but due to electrification their work has been reduced to their specifications rather than lookin out for power generation.,,,,

cgaines
cgaines

totally agree! you must always consider your audience. i once compaired surfing the internet without an antivirus to unprotected sex for an elderly woman, she completely lost it on me!

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