Education

Use analogies to explain technical subjects to end users

All the IT career resources harp on building communication skills and avoiding jargon. But how do you get around explaining technology without using technical terms?

All the IT career resources harp on building communication skills and avoiding jargon. But how do you get around explaining technology without using technical terms?

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I got a great e-mail the other day from a TechRepublic member. He (correctly) stated that all the IT career advice out there tells you to work on communication skills -- specifically how to keep the tech-speak out of your conversations with stakeholders and end users -- but nobody tells you how to do that. From the e-mail:

"I, and almost every tech I know, has a difficult time trying to explain their points without getting engrossed in the detail and/or tech-speak. There is nothing that is more dissatisfying within my own career than trying to convince upper management of a solution that we need, especially one they ask for, and find that even at my best, I eventually lose them. I make a concerted effort to avoid technical terminology but the main decision makers in my company have a condition where their eyes roll into the back of their heads as soon as they hear the word computer, except for when broken is the next word in the sentence.

You and others like you often advise not using tech speak when trying to explain a problem or situation. But no one seems to be able to guide people like me in the right practical direction on what to use."

If there is a secret to communicating technical information to the non-technical, it is the use of analogy (a form of communication in which one topic is explained in terms of another, more familiar topic that is similar in a certain respect). In other words, when you need to explain a technical issue, do it in terms of something that falls more into the listener's experience of everyday life.

It's a fact that someone can understand a new piece of information if it can be explained in terms of information that person has already acquired and used. You see a lot of analogy used in court cases when experts are explaining medical evidence to a jury. I use it a lot when speaking to my teenaged son.

Analogies can be used on an everyday basis, as in explaining to an end user why he can't access secure Web sites. You could say, "If the cipher strength of your browser is inadequate, you will not get into secure Web sites." I can tell you right now that that will mean nothing to the average end user. Instead, you can say that not having proper encryption means that that person has security clearance to enter a building but may not be able to get into all areas. In order to do that, he needs to "upgrade his security clearance status" (adjust the encryption). And then show him how to do that. A file allocation table can be compared to a library card catalogue. IP addresses can be compared to phone numbers -- for one phone to communicate with another, both must have unique numbers in the phone system. If a user asks why his browser is running slow, you compare it to a busy highway. Too many users are using the service -- that's like too many cars on a road at rush hour.

Analogies can also be used in higher-level situations, such as the one you describe when you're trying to sell an executive on a new initiative. They're even more useful in those situations since you usually have some lead time and can think about some creative metaphors or similes.

Hope that helps. Anybody else out there have any analogies that have served them well?

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About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

238 comments
lyn
lyn

Back in 1993... I used analogies to explain computer basics to elementary students. Application was paint and brushes, document was the painting. Hot Roll mix was the application, bread was the document.

DWalker88001
DWalker88001

A friend says "Don't use analogies when talking to me. Tell me what something IS, not what it's LIKE." Of course, that's when the subject matter is understood. I once heard the saying "Analogies are like feathers on a snake." [Unneccessary, out of place, not helpful, etc.]

librista
librista

As a public librarian who has to deal with large numbers of users who do not understand why computers slow down, I end up having to explain bandwidth on a regular basis (usually when there are teens in the lower level downloading the Matrix or attempting to play WOW). The one that works so far is telling them that when bunches of people are accessing/downloading/streaming at the same time, it is like taking a shower when somebody flushes the toilet. The blank look tends to go away almost every time.

Gater
Gater

I've tried to sift through the responses to try and find an analogy that I use quite a bit. I didn't see anyone mention using a road map as an analogy. Any road trip takes several turns. Each turn in the road can be a hop in the network or traffic route. A cross-country trip would go through all kinds of different cities which are also hops in the network. If the highway is down you may have to take a detour, so like the Internet, there's more than one way to get from point A to point B. Some roads have more lanes than others, meaning that those roads have higher bandwidth. The speed limit may not be any faster but more cars can travel on the road at the same time. Even though the speed is unchanged, the volume of traffic is increased. ISP speeds can be akin to roads with faster speed limits or more lanes, or both. Connection or speed problems can be akin to a road being blocked, in need of repair, or if it is rush hour and everyone's trying to drive on the road at once so it slows everyone down. There are many aspects of the road map analogy that has helped a lot of people when I've explained different aspects of the Internet and networks in general.

jpglasgow1
jpglasgow1

Sorry to be a blogger, but I think you've fallen into your own trap Toni? Re "Instead, you can say that not having proper encryption means that that person has security clearance to enter a building but may...." In my experience as a professional IT Trainer, I would never use the word 'encryption' when talking to users, or Management you will loose 90% of your audience!!!

jdclyde
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 lives the same way we organize our computers. If I want a pair of socks, I go to the bedroom (directory) go to the dresser (sub-directory) top drawer (sub-directory). If I want a spoon, I go to the kitchen (directory) and go to the drawer next to the sink (sub-directory). Doesn't matter how great your file is, if you can't find it. B-) I will then feed them some organization ideas. Think of a repeat customer/vendor as a directory. Individual projects would be sub-directories. And yes, they are directories, not friggen "folders". :D

dbecker
dbecker

Try as we might, explanations using analogies is like trying to explain rainbows to earthworms [what famous science fiction author wrote that in which one of his books, under what circumstances? Hint: It was used concerning the Martians].

dbecker
dbecker

I was trying to explain Content Management Systems to my wife last night. I've been looking for one which actually load up to my web host and can be configured with a database and everything. Not a trivial task, since either the web host doesn't have the capabilities or the cms fails when it tries to connect to the database of my choice [mysql, postgresql and sqlite -- hey, what happens when nothing works for ANY of the three?]: Bit strings, database server URLs with ports, passwords and global settings et. al. I started to compare cms to a library, but that doesn't quite hack it. Kitchens, brains, print shops -- no go. I finally bit the bullet and explained the difference between entering content without worrying about formatting. Not the best moment in our marriage to be sure, when you can't explain something as simple as cms with an analogy!

brennj4
brennj4

A computer is like a kitchen. The CPU is the chef. He makes it all happen. The RAM is the counter for storing things in use now. The cabinets are hard disk for large and long term storage...... 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.

jgserd
jgserd

What analogy would you use to explain IDE cables inside a tower? All I could come up with is that they're like a blood vessel in the human body... it transfers blood (in a computer's case, information) to the main organs (drives, motherboard, etc.) of the body (computer).

patty in florida
patty in florida

I used to use cooking a large dinner (Thanksgiving) to illustrate how the MVS OS uses swapping, time slicing, priorities etc. To illustrate swapping, I'd say I was preparing stuffing/dressing and I ran out of stock, so I put the dressing aside, did a IO to boyfriend to go to store and pick more up. When he returns, I swap my task back in and finish preparing dressing. Risotto is a non-swappable task. and on it goes....

sivam
sivam

Its good. I struck in the process of preparing a document and presentation. This topic and the comments provided good ideas on using analogies and how effectiently we need to use them.

wizziebaldwin
wizziebaldwin

1) I use water pipe diameters and water throughput to explain network capacity. (DS0, T1, T3 etc.) 2) I use this to explain Directory/Folder (D/F) Structure... Each D/F is like a room with a table and it has 0 or more trap doors on the floor. The table represents where files for this D/F are located. The trap door(s) lead to lower room(s) each with a table and 0 or more trap doors. The top/root directory is like a one room cabin that is th entry point. 3) Memory locations/storage are like numbered post office boxes. 4) Hard Drive capacity using cubic feet. are a few of mine.

skottnbelltown
skottnbelltown

I can't WAIT to print this one out! My developer roommate and I discuss/debate just about anything and I ALWAYS find myself paraphrasing or relying on analogies to try and clarify JUST WHAT HE IS TRYING TO EXPLAIN. He is a creature of rigidity -- a series of yes', nos, if-then logic and deduction -- whereas I have dealt with psychological and behavioral marketing and the like where things are hardly so cut-and-dry. Our latest: he had a TERRIBLE time conceding similarities of functionality, structure and development that computers and brains lend to each other. To try and help him understand my analogy, I tried to incorporate what HE works on into the analogy and, I'll admit, it hasn't been easy. ANYONE CARE TO OFFER/SHARE THOUGHTS ON THIS ONE?! He develops storage replication systems -- our brain doesn't simultaneously copy information for retrevial should we experience an outage or similar malfunction, does it?! Can anyone help out on this one?!! THANKS!

Norm Cimon
Norm Cimon

One that helps with users who conflate the Internet and the WWW is that of an interstate highway. Lots of lanes, only one of which corresponds to the web. It's also a nice way to dovetail into email services and other protocols (lanes) - such as ftp - that they may only be vaguely familiar with. It's a nice jumping off point.

jack
jack

I teach technology and use analogies all the time. Favorites: Single core CPU - cook with pan Hyperthreading - cook with two pans Multiple cores - multiple cooks Subnet - Hotel Host - room within hotel Gateway - hotel front door

ccardimon
ccardimon

Back when I was still a programmer, and contemplating a shift into technical writing, another computer programmer was explaining the concept of a stack to me. I did not understand it, until I compared it aloud to a Pez dispenser. The guy to whom I was talking stopped what he was doing, stared at me, and said, "Exactly. Man, you were made to become a tech writer." And I did.

andym
andym

In my experience, you can explain almost anything techy using a car analogy!

Jim-MN
Jim-MN

"An inappropriate simile is like an iron raft on the sea of communication." -- PhD IT Professor The simile/analogy can be inappropriate because either (a) it is so complex and/or poorly explained that it is harder to understand than the IT concept it attempts to clarify, or (b) it is actually not a good analogy, and even though correct and easily explained/understood, it leads the listener/reader farther from the truth, not closer as it should. Unfortunately, both of these problems are common; presenters need to look very closely at their similies/analogies to ensure they are not only easily understood but actually are good analogies. IHTH Jim

dprows
dprows

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 in.

obi_mark
obi_mark

This is, hopefully, urban legend: User called tech support and said that she tried to copy paste file on a disk and computer reported there wasn't enough room. Then she pasted the shortuct and the file fit. The problem was that when she tried to play it at her friend's computer it reported "file not found error". She complained that it was very weird since it worked perfectly on her own computer. The techie anwsered following: "Madam, the fur coat doesn't fit into your purse, but a note on the paper that fur coat is in the wardrobe does. so if you are at home and read the note that fur coat is in the wardrobe, you will get it from there. It's slightly more complicated when you go to your friend's house, and read that your fur coat is in YOUR wardrobe. You can search your friends wardrobe forever, but your fur coat won't be there.

john.calvert
john.calvert

I was helping a client cut some DVD's from the shared drive and to begin with we had to copy the data onto the computers local drive, he understood that the transfer rate over the network would be to slow to burn the dvd, what he didn't understand is why it took so long and the estimate kept going up and down. I explained that each time Windows reads the file it has to start off by getting information on the file then it begins to copy the file and then it closes off the file, he understood this as well and came back at me with a good analogy. Each file copy is like a plane trip the plane has to take off then it reaches maximum speed and then it has to land again. So one long trip say a 10 mb file will copy much quicker then 10 short trips to the same destination 10 x 1 mb files. Hope I get to use that analogy again :)

Claptrap1
Claptrap1

If you want to learn how to talk to non-techie people, read computer magazines aimed at the Joe public: most magazines have articles explaining various complicated technologies in a simplified manner or using analogies to make a point across to people with varied backgrounds by proffessional communicators (with at least some tech skills). The objective is not to necessarily repeat the article but learn to adjust your speak to the listener. If you are dealing with the same people in you department, I would take a little bit of time to repeat the full article: it may lose you time in short term but enable you to speak more "intelligently" in the long run... Sometimes analogies are great, sometimes they can be more confusing. E.g. explaining the workings of single and full duplex of early modems, my teacher gave us (at high school) an analogy using train track, with train operator that signals to the other end, telling they want to send a train and how long it is and the other responding ready/not ready (lack of communication = data collision); the train is the whole message is the train and data packets the cars - train operator has to check all the cars are there before letting the train in and in right order (error checking). Single duplex is a sinle track so only one train at a time can go, with double tracks 2 trains can travel simultaneously opposite directions. Most students found this helpful but I understood the analogue only after someone explained it to me without it...

chris.aimers
chris.aimers

When i was a corporal in the army reserves (Signals intelligence) I used analogies to explain to senior officers (often IT illiterate) data capture and analysis processes. This was instead of the geek speak my sergeant was using, I was able to get across important information quickly and effectively making it a win-win situation.

ian.lockwood
ian.lockwood

When talking technical issues with non technical people use analagies but also stick to what they need or maybe want to know, most users do not care how their PC works just that it does. VOIP is ace but most people just want a basic handset with dial tone and clear buttons not all the whistles and bells.

timberly.marek
timberly.marek

My most successful analogies relate to cooking. On the one hand, being a female in technology, I really dislike using cooking analogies because it's such a stereotypically female activity. But, on the other, I recognize that cooking is something most people can relate to, at least conceptually even if they don't do it, and it's an analogy that just works. An example of how I used it today was to differentiate between use cases and requirements in the group in which I work. SOmeone asked why we need both and can't just use one. I explained that we can just use one, but often having both gives us the fullest picture of what's needed. He asked why, what's the difference. My analogy was that a use case is like me saying, "I want to bake a cake and this is the process I'll follow and these are the tools I'll use to do it." Examples of processes would be getting the ingredients out, turning the oven on, having a dish handy for the mix, etc. Tools would be the oven, flour, sugar, mixer/spoons, etc. On the other hand, requirements allow me to be more specific by saying that I must be able to cook a basic sheet cake as well as a more complex souffle. That means that my oven needs to have certain height inside, go to a certain temperature, perhaps do convection, etc. So, use cases and requirements are complementary and and one can replace the other, but they're really two different things. I admit -- my analogy wasn't the best but he got it...and that was my objective. :)

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

that don't use analogy to communicate. I mean it's sort of obvious isn't it?

slodaniel
slodaniel

I'm sure I heard it from somewhere else, but the one that works for me in describing the difference between RAM and hard drive space is a desk/file cabinet analogy. A hard drive is like a file cabinet, keeping all of your files. RAM is like a desk in that the larger the desk you have, the more stuff you can work on at once. If you have a small desk, you can take a file out and open it up, but if you want to work on something else, you have to close that up and put it back and take out the other file. If you have a bigger desk - more RAM - you can work on a few things at once. But, you still need to manage the process and not just let things pile up.

mauco
mauco

Whenever I'm trying to convince a client to outsource their IT needs to a professional, I like to use the analogy of either choosing to hire a professional lawyer to represent you in court in a serious case or choosing to represent yourself... they usually get the point.

mike_patburgess
mike_patburgess

It has been my experience to keep it simple and to the point. Senior management does not want to hear how the watch was made. They like to know the cost benefit analysis. "we need this feature (competive position, etc), it will cost this much, the benefits we will get are this, if we don't do this, these are the risks, etc". Reinforce this with numbers (dollars), hard facts. Done! There, no techno-speak needed. If you need to talk techno-speak do so with your peers. They seem to get off on the technical jargon.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

A network that only 12 computers and a single 24-port hub when initially installed had expanded to over 200 computers and 10 hubs. We were looking for approval to upgrade the network from Cat 3 cable and hubs to Cat 5 and Fast Ethernet switches. We had tried explaining the situation to the PTB to no avail. Our new IT Manager explained the situation to the CEO by likening it to a city street system built for the horse and buggy with dirt roads and no traffic controls. Unfortunately, we now had so many more cars than we had had buggies, we were operating bumper-to-bumper. This caused a lot of wrecks (collisions!) that made everything even slower than the lack of signals justified. Upgrading would replace those dirt roads with a fully-paved four-lane grid system with coordinated traffic signals. The upgrade was completed within a month. This is the one that sticks in my mind, but there were many more like it. Very rarely was he unable to explain something to somebody outside IT.

jay.philbin
jay.philbin

As an IT Desktop Tech for a major HMO, one of my favorites is to compare the end user/PC to a patient (parent/child). When doctors tell me simply "my PC doesn't work" and I ask for detials I use to often 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 very similar to their routines. I've ended up with very cooperative end users over the years.

glynn
glynn

I agree analogies make it easier to explain technical ideas to users and have used many in the past. A few years ago when I built SCADA systems, management didn't want to understand the nuts and bolts and you would waste a lot of your time trying to explain the benefits in terms of technology rather than terms of functionality and cost savings.

K_Green
K_Green

Wow! So many great analogies, some of which I've used and some that are great new additions. From all the comments, it seems analogies are as useful to our lives in IT as ping is to network troubleshooting. I've used analogies so much with my (now ex-)wife that she went from a non-techie to someone that frequently has to correct her own company's Help Desk techs. She's also become the defacto tech support for her location. But the most significant development: I can now use actual IT terminology with her to explain complex concepts without the analogies. Here are a couple I have used extensively at work and with others: 1) Wireless network security I explain that there are a number of basic things a person can and should do to secure their wireless network. And each thing they do is like the layers of an onion. Just as a determined person could peel each onion layer to the core, they can penetrate the security layers. But the point it to put in a reasonable number of layers to avoid being an easy target. There is no fool-proof security, but there is reasonabily prudent. 2) Company divestitures and resulting IT seperation I describe it like a bowl of pasta that has to be divided back into its constituent parts cleanly, while two people continue to eat it. At the end, all the sauce, pasta, cheese, meatballs, etc have to be neatly laid out with no mess and you can't stop the diners while you're doing it.

sml
sml

Many of the previous suggestions will work(some are inaccurate), but the articles quote described a person who really needs an extended analogy. Possibly in a slide presentation. In that situation, one needs to think very carefully about the whole presentation's message and use an extended analogy to persuade. This can be done even in the backdrop with images on the slides as one speaks to the solution. However, simple one-to-one analogies can be condescending to high-level audiences. Putting images of tangled cables on a presentation describing a data center improvement can be too simple and obvious to communicate well. In a recent presentation I gave at a conference, my slides used subtle military terms like "campaign", "allies", "reconnaissance", "civilians" and so forth. However, I did not drive the point too far, just used them as a reference. The idea was that the system and processes we put in were complex and addressed many different areas, but the campaign still continued. The presentation was an analogy and used words, quotes, and images to convey the idea.

futch.squared
futch.squared

I use analogies constantly. My main set of analogies, I wrote up so I can just point web clients at 'em: The internet as a small town: http://techdonkey.com/helpful/internet-explained When we're discussing upgrading, I explain a user's computer as a house, with the hard drive being the basement storage area, and the processor being the butler, and the livingroom being the RAM. Every task is done for you at your direction by the butler, who must go to the basement, bring the application or data up, and spread it out on the livingroom floor. Nothing works if it's not in the livingroom. If the butler is old and slow, it'll take a while longer. If the livingroom is tiny, the butler has a hard time moving stuff around, and eventually clogs down. If the basement is small, you can't keep much stuff (documents, applications) in storage. When we're upgrading, do we need to hire a new butler, get a bigger basement, or just make some more livingroom to work in? - Elaine

jamie.jahnke
jamie.jahnke

I explain basic infrastructure (differences between memory and hard drive, what a processor does) as a child with a toy box and a play mat. When the cild (processor is not playing with a toy (file), it stays in the toy box (hard drive). When the child (process wants to play with a toy (file) he is limited to the space on the play mat (memory). If the child (computer/processor) wants to store more toys (files), he needs a bigger toy box (hard drive), if he wants to play with more at one time, he needs a bigger play mat (memory). The analogy is extensible to explain memory leaks (toy fell off the mat), swap files (toys go back and forth between the toy box and play mat when the mat is filled), and as the child get bigger, he can play with more things more efficiently (CPU upgrade). More than one child is a multi-processor environment. It also works because everyone can relate to being a child, some of us still are. Not everybody understands the sports or automotive analogies I've heard for a long time.

it
it

I like the the Wood stove CPU analogy...Usually you get your wood from the forest, store wood in your shed and have some in the woodbox next to the stove. You CPU is like the stove and the cache is like the woodbox and your shed is like RAM, and the forest is like the harddrive. If you had to go to the forest to put wood in your stove it would take to long....thats why we have cache, and ram before the harddrive...

roameri
roameri

jdclyde: That is a great explanation. May be a full list can be made. It would be helpful, especially, for those with above-average intellect who think they are not smart enough to fathom computers. Cheers, j.

dbecker
dbecker

The refrigerator keeps the data fresh. Data which is not refreshed regularly and not cleaned out when no longer needed is like when the veggies and meat have been in too long and spoil. Best put the old stuff in the freezer, which is the equivalent of off-site storage. Don't you just hate it when data goes bad?

dbecker
dbecker

The IDE cables are like the nerve bundles across the corpus callasum which connect the hemispheres in the brain. On second thought....

BudmanH
BudmanH

I'd have to understand a bit more to see why you'd want the intruders in rather than out. :)

ian.lockwood
ian.lockwood

Signals officers and inteligence now there is a radical thought! thank god for us NCOs

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

I can lie about anything on command. :D Unfortunately, Tony, I know of several techs who can't explain complex tech concepts except in technical terms. And most them will tell you they don't understand why literature or composition courses should be required for high school and college students...

Texas T
Texas T

You've gotta love someone that can speak to everyone and get their message across .... I am envious. ;)

kreplatch
kreplatch

Very nicely put...I will use this when explaining this concept to others..Well done!

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

[i]Don't you just hate it when data goes bad?[/i] That fuzzy taste stays in your mouth for days...

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

He was a great manager and supervisor as well. On those [rare] occasions you were able to clear your call queue, he would call to tell you to go ahead and take the rest of the day off (paid! :D ), any new calls will be covered. Great incentive for the support techs...