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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