Leadership

Video: Explain computer concepts to non-technical people with analogies

Bill Detwiler shares field-tested, IT analogies that answer common computer questions, like the difference between RAM and disk space.

Explaining computer concepts to non-technical individuals can be a challenge. But as with most subjects, a clear, concise analogy will often do the trick. During this week's episode of TR Dojo, I share several field-tested, IT analogies from TechRepublic members that answer the following questions:

  • What's the difference between RAM and disk space?
  • What's bandwidth, and why are you recommending I get more of it?
  • What's a network address?

For those who prefer text to video, you can click the Transcript link that appears below the video player window or read Jaime Henriquez's article, "10 common user questions - and some analogies that help clear things up," and Toni Bowers' piece, "Use analogies to explain technical subjects to end users," on which this episode is based.

You can also sign up to receive the latest TR Dojo lessons through one or more of the following methods:

About

Bill Detwiler is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and Tech Pro Research and the host of Cracking Open, CNET and TechRepublic's popular online show. Prior to joining TechRepublic in 2000, Bill was an IT manager, database administrator, and desktop supp...

45 comments
mickames
mickames

The best analogy I've come across as some years ago. An old boss of mine who was brilliant at explaining anything was having a bit of a problem with an aging vicar who had purchased a PC. He couldn't understand it at all. My old boss said to him, "Just think of the hardware as the body and the software as the soul". He could get his head around that.

MercaLoday
MercaLoday

I have been in the IT field since the early 70's and have use analogies from the beginning. They always work as long as the analogy is something they can relate to. The analogies I use with my 80+ year olds are totally different from what I use with my 15 year old nephew. Either way, they are always helpful - and if they are a little funny, it doesn't hurt.

pdickey043
pdickey043

For bandwith I also use an hourglass for the analogy. The size of the hole determines how much sand can go through at one time. Similar to broadband and dialup. The bigger the "hole" the more data that can come through at one time. For DNS, I've always used the analogy of Directory Assistance. Although the Postal Service works as well. If you don't know someone's phone number, you call Directory Assistance, which gives you the number, and then you call it. Similarly, your computer contacts a DNS server to get the IP address of a site ("phone number") and then your browser "calls" it. Have a great day:) Patrick.

cjonesjr
cjonesjr

I have used the desk and highway analogy while teaching computer fundamentals for over 10 years. 99% of the students came to understand these concepts when I use them.

Camjvine
Camjvine

Does anyone have a good analogy for API?

dazip
dazip

could I have a transcript, please? I read faster than the video runs.

radarop
radarop

For RAM vs Hard drive I always use a library analogy. The RASM is the books on the table in front of you that you're using. The hard drive is all those books still in there shelves in the library. The books you have and the more of them you can get opened right in front of you makes your research/project easiser rather having to go back into the stacks every time you need more info.

mullachv
mullachv

This is a ridiculous question. First off, there is no such bifurcation as technical and non-technical - technology is so pervasive that everyone is technology savvy upto some point. Analogies are just that - analogies. They have very narrow similarities and cannot be used to extrapolate and ponder further, and apply further or future rationale. I find it much easier to explain a coconut tree rather than explain it as a tall narrow living elevator made of wood - see my point? I hope your doctor does not use analogies. Einstein famously said something like "Inability to describe something is a sign of lack of deep comprehension". We need to stay away from analogies. Vikram

coderancher
coderancher

One of my friends, who was an electrical engineer, once asked another friend, who was a medical doctor, how the eye works. The engineer had a hard time understanding the doctor's physiological explanation. I intervened in their conversation and explained that the eye works like an analog-to-digital converter. The engineer then immediately understood.

kimbaslair
kimbaslair

love the article especially the last 35 seconds...lol, I find using analogies are the ONLY way to explain technical terms to "household" users, not that they really care what goes on behind the curtain, but I believe it gives non-technical people (who are most of my friends) a better understanding and a more comfortable feeling while using the computer (i.e., why their screen freezes when you have 20 windows open and not much memory, why you need to keep ur software updated, where to put files that you download and where to find them, etc)

jsbeam
jsbeam

These are great but I find that many technical folks (like myself) have to find the analogy that is technically correct. Now-a-days, I find that an analogy that is "close" is good enough to satisfy their curiosity or need. Yea it may not be dictionary correct but they get it.

Techrat, Inc.
Techrat, Inc.

I use these. I know they are not really accurate but even with the simplest user these concepts stick. * What?s the difference between RAM and disk space? Disk space is a box, RAM is how wide the box is open. * What?s bandwidth, and why are you recommending I get more of it? Lanes on a highway, with speed limits and congestion. * What?s a network address? Its like the address on a house and a mailman attempting to deliver.

reisen55
reisen55

I worked for a major hospital chain in Manhattan for 8 months (worst job I EVER had by the way) and medical professionals are computer ill-literate. They have enough on their plate anyway, so when the network itself was slow, I would use the analogy that too much blood is flowing to the brain and choking off the arteries. They got that!!!

Chris Meacher
Chris Meacher

Have used the filing cabinet/desk analogy _many_ times to explain the difference between RAM and Hard Disc space - but usually add that a processor is the number of people working round the table. This helps explain why people with a huge processor (lots of people) and hardly any RAM (small desk) can't get things done - and why more memory (a bigger desk) would be 'a good idea'^TM.

glenstorm_98
glenstorm_98

While analogies are certainly helpful, I find that diagrams as an adjunct to them really cement the concept by making it 'visual'. Even in your video, you showed graphics your analogs. When describing a concept, one seldom has the luxury of bringing up an animation, so I just grab a piece of paper and pencil (or even better, a whiteboard and markers if they're available) and quickly sketch it out. I'm no artist, but I often do find that this really nails it down for folks.

ScottTaylorMCPD
ScottTaylorMCPD

As you could probably discern from the poll results, this idea of using analogies is hardly news, whether to explain computer concepts or anything else. I don't know anyone who wouldn't at least try to explain something by analogy...it's a fundamental part of the human communication process.

The 'G-Man.'
The 'G-Man.'

* What?s the difference between RAM and disk space? Your Brain v Pen & paper * What?s bandwidth, and why are you recommending I get more of it? A busy road and adding more lanes * What?s a network address? Your address to the postman ca deliver your letters 30 seconds flat...

jos
jos

The only thing I had that time was a piece of paper! Writing in "7-years old children style". How great to have so many possibilities nowadays!

michael.thompson0
michael.thompson0

I think these analogies are facile and will not advance the user's understanding in any way. I think they are more likely to lead to further confusion. The examples in the video are easily explained without resorting to the bizarre and banal.

elimarcus
elimarcus

I think that the point at the beginning, about sensitivity to whether a user really wants to hear or learn an explanation, is a crucial point!

Bill Detwiler
Bill Detwiler

In the above TR Dojo post, I share several analogies used to explain technical computer concepts to non-technical people. Original post: http://blogs.techrepublic.com.com/itdojo/?p=1465 Do you find analogies effective when explaining computer concepts to non-technical people? Let us know by taking the article's poll. If you have a favorite IT analogy, post it in this discussion thread.

coderancher
coderancher

An API is like a set of Lego blocks. The OS or platform is like the large green baseplate upon which you build your Lego structures (apps).

cmatthews
cmatthews

Programs in DOS used to use hardware directly and relied on hardware standards and a few access points in the BIOS chip on the motherboard. An API is another standard layer above that, which restricts access to the hardware (where the program just needs to know what to say to the API). My API Analogy: --------------- He's like the technician working in his shop on somebody's PC.. (the program) When he opens it up, all sorts of things come out (including spiders..) declaring to him "this" or "that" needs to be done - and he knows how to do it (99% of the time). When he doesn't, he shouts something profane (like illegal function call in xyz.dll) Hope that helps - CM ------------------------------------------ See it in action: Techies try this on XP: If you use Process-explorer (from Microsoft Technet), open notepad and click file > save as... Double click on notepad in Process-explorer and select the threads tab. Now click the stack button and notice 2 API routines are in use: USER32.dll and comdlg32.dll For a lower level API, try this: Open a CMD prompt and type "label c:" (do not type anything), just go back to Process-explorer) and double click on label.exe. Again, show the threads and hit the stack button and notice that kernel32.dll is waiting for you to type a new disk label with: "GetConsoleInputWaitHandle". (don't forget to go back and use control-c to stop the label.exe process) For Microsoft video's and How-to stuff: http://channel9.msdn.com/tags/sysinternals

Bo Tym
Bo Tym

.... a user who's PC just blew a PSU? "its really quite simple, these things run on smoke and mirrors. If the smoke gets out, it won't work any more."

leifnel
leifnel

It's important to use the appropriate language, which fits to the person you are talking to. Depending of the person you are talking to, analogies might help the clueless, or might distract the non-clueless. The important is to understand where your audience is, which is easier in a one-to-one situation than in written form or a lecture. At least, it's easier to adjust your level, when you are next to your receiver :-)

ricrosen14
ricrosen14

Here is one I use... Them: Why is my WiFi not working good??? Me: WiFi works of radio waves, plain old RF. Them: OK ???? Me: Think of the radio waves as a flashlight, anything that will stop the light from getting through, will also degrade the radio waves. Them: OK! ! !

tehpea
tehpea

I usually say the CPU's the brain, the buses are the veins and arteries, the graphics card is the eyes and the sound card is the ears. I never know what to call the RAM though...

cmatthews
cmatthews

I haven't got this down to an art yet, but I think I'm close without getting out the paper to draw a memory map etc... see what you think.. Maybe I could use another angle? ---------------------------------- I say, "this is just upper management taking control of middle management spreading false rumors and spoiling company moral". (I open the machine to make sure hardware is OK and dust isn't clogging anything..) I ask, "do you want to know why I'm happy when this happens?" (they usually whimper "yes" as I restart in safe-mode to view their event-logs).. "OK, what just happened was the CEO of a company (of programs) just took control of a crisis situation". What CEO? they ask. "Sure, the Windows Kernel - sorry, we call him NTOS - He and his trusty secretary, we call her Mini-Dump, just called a temporary company lay-off - she took some notes. NTOS runs a tight ship, and when-ever management from one department try to pass messages to another department without his consent, he stops the whole show - that's just the way he is - and we should be thankful" (this kind of inappropriate message passing is usually by error and not by design. NTOS views it as his job to make sure nothing bad ever gets written out to the hard disk.) "Right now, I'm on your PC in safe-mode, as Administrator and it's kind of like... I'm attending a company war-room meeting, trying to get some facts about why this happened" "Can you tell me what operations you were doing just before this message appeared?" (Usually there's something to offer, although most users never write down any stop codes...) "OK, more on safe mode - I think it's safe to say, upper management is trustworthy - In safe mode, the only management level programs running are from Microsoft and from this vantage, I can check on other management level programs" (typically the middle managers - the drivers that run the hardware and services that take care of updates and such). - CM

Suresh Mukhi
Suresh Mukhi

Many times, I had to explain this simple concept. I used the following analogy: Hardware: Is your tape recorder or VCR. ( Now CD / DVD player ) Software is the tape ( now CD or DVD ) used to play your favorite song or program.

nick
nick

Anthropologists will tell you that before written language us humans learnt by listening to stories, observation of others and plain dumb doing things multiple times until we got it right. Our brains are adapted to listening to stories and relating new and unfamiliar things to things that we know. So of course analogies are a great way of learning. I like those that you mentioned and will use them. I always use Trucks and cars when someone asks me why I need to spend lots of money on servers. Trucks carry more (of whatever) and cost a lot and aren't as fast, the car (PC) is best when you are only transporting the family or a small load and great for the day to day.

AlexT01
AlexT01

The desk / filing cabinet analogy worked nicely when the poor guy didn't already have to get his head around a 'desktop metaphor'. How about a bedroom floor / wardrobe analogy?

mjd420nova
mjd420nova

The changes in some simple basic electronics terms in the over four decades of learning and working with a huge cross section of exposure the all manner of indusrial, commerical application. Lighting control systems and envirionmental control were the first real tie ins allowing digital control and easily remote enabled. Begining with the term for AC frequencies with HERTZ, which I learned as CYCLES, which makes more sense. SIEMANS, CALORIE, JOULES, Just to start. My youngest son id taking COMPUTER TECHNOLOGY and so far these have come to light and I'm sure there will be more. Basic physics would cover much more and more comprehesive. I began when vacuum tubes were all there was. Quickly the transistor became a new device along with developement of the LED/LCD display device and the digital age was born. You see, the first computers were tube powered and the transistors could be cudely built to operate as gates instead of an amplifier. Suddenly the huge power supplies needed to supply the higher voltages needed to support the huge heat involved in vacuum tube functions was gone. The TV industry endured the changes and became an new market with smaller boards but still seemed to suffer from having to do business inside a case with up to thirty thousand volts and a power supply to support it. Not exactly an ideal way to do things. And then theres all that dust to contend with that is drawn to that electro magnetic presence. Some kind of ride down the forefront.

mccaffsj
mccaffsj

You might try comparing RAM to a whiteboard. It contains the information that you are working on at that moment, and you can write more data as long as there is enough room, or else you must delete (erase or wipe off from the board) some of the existing data. A bigger whiteboard (more RAM) obviously lets you focus on more data simultaneously. If they are curious about the acronym "R-A-M" then tell them it stands for Random Access Memory, and compare standing back from the whiteboard and easily zeroing in on the info they are looking for, as compared to having all that data in a book where you must always search for the data by reading starting at page one and going forward until you find it.

pocjoc
pocjoc

I don't agree with that, the hw is the tape recorder and the tape, the software is the song.

mirossmac2
mirossmac2

The root problem is that desktop, folder, file, memory, bandwidth [where to stop?] are *already* metaphors. Everyone knows what a desktop looks like and it rarely resembles a tv-like screen, and it's the same with all the others. There's more. DOS and CP/M called it a directory [C:\mail] until GUIs started drawing folders - for what is neither directory nor folder. We painted ourselves into a corner here. Could we have renamed them all de novo, not relying on metaphor or simile? 'Bandwidth' comes from VHF broadcasting, where the physics is different, so how about webstream or webway? More?

leifnel
leifnel

I've been working at a webhosting company. Sometimes semi-clued clients added a cname to a site without informing us, and then couldn't understand why it didn't work. So I explained, that when you have your own server, with its own IP-adress, its like having your own house, and the adress is enough, like when people visit the Addams, whether they seek Morticia or Gomes, they come to the right place, when they enter the door. However, on a shared server, a webhotel, its like visiting a hotel by looking up its adress, then asking the receptionist for the room of the person you seek. If Smith moves in with Jones, and puts it in the directory (DNS) whether as a CNAME (I live at the same adress as Jones) or an A (I live at 222 W 23rd St New York NY 10011), visitors will have no luck in asking the receptionist for Smith's room, unless the receptionist have been told about the co-habitation of Smith and Jones. So we, the webhosting company, needed to be told when the clients wanted to add an "inhabitor" to their "webhotel-room" Likewise, just entering the ip-adress will only get you to the reception, not to the room you want. Even the sales persons could understand this analogy :-)

Suresh Mukhi
Suresh Mukhi

Ok, the storage device is the tape. The software is the song, or the movie if it's video.

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