View Full Version : Analogies to Explain Tech to Non-Techies

May 24th, 2010, 06:21 AM
I'm trying to compile a battery of analogies, metaphors, parables, etc. that I can use to explain computing concepts to "normal" folk.

I already have a few, but I'm hoping you guys have some more...

1. Computer Resources (CPU, RAM, Hard Drive)
A computer is like a kitchen at a restaurant.

The computer's processor is like a chef, who works to prepare the food. The faster the chef, the faster food is ready. A dual-core processor is like having a kitchen with two chefs, so two things can be prepared at the same time.

The computer's RAM is like counter-top space. Everything in RAM is easy for the processor to get at, so if you have a lot of counter space, the chef can work on preparing more things at once. If you don't have enough counter space, the chef can't work on as many things. Some programs use a lot of RAM, just like some recipes call for a lot of ingredients, so it is harder to fit more stuff on the counter.

The computer's hard drive is like the cupboards and refrigerator. These things hold the ingredients until the chef needs them. If space runs out, then the old ingredients need to be thrown out to make room for new ones.

You, the computer user, are then the customer who is ordering things from the kitchen. If the chef is slow, or their isn't enough counter-top space, it's going to longer for things to get done, especially if you are ordering a lot of things at once.

2. Operating Systems
An operating system is like a manager.

It's job is to make sure that all of the programs on the computer are doing their job. So, Linux and Windows are just like different managers. They do the same thing, but have different styles of management.

The applications are then the workers that the managers are charged with keeping in line.

You, the computer user, are then the owner of the company who directs the manager in how to coordinate the workers. Sometimes, you need to fire a bad manager if things aren't working out. However, some of the workers might not work well with the new manager if you do...

3. Linux Distros
A Linux distro is like a hamburger at a restaurant.

There are many types of hamburgers you can order, just like there are many types of distros. Each hamburger comes with its own unique ingredients. Some with bacon, others with cheese. Some are triple-decker while others are small. Some come with a fancy toothpick spear, sesame seeds, and parsley, others are just a burger.

Every hamburger has two things in common that makes them all hamburgers: the meat and the bun. The Linux kernel is like the meat of the burger. The GNU tools are like the bun. These things unite all burgers/distros.

You, the computer user, are the customer. Order what you would like and, if you don't like it, send it back and try another. So you didn't like the Ubuntu Burger? That doesn't mean that all hamburgers are bad.


Have any of you guys come up with some good analogies? Also, can you see any improvements I could make to these?

June 8th, 2010, 05:31 AM
I was looking around the interwebs today and I found these:

A video talking about using analogies to help non-technical people understand technical concepts: http://blogs.techrepublic.com.com/itdojo/?p=1465&tag=content;leftCol

And on that page, a link to these two articles:

10 common user questions - and some analogies that help clear things up (http://blogs.techrepublic.com.com/10things/?p=1261)

Use analogies to explain technical subjects to end users (http://blogs.techrepublic.com.com/career/?p=442)

I love this one from the "10 analogies" one:

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).”

EXACTLY! Now I can explain this to my aunt. And my other aunt. And my cousin. And, well, everyone!

Also, I see that the kitchen analogy has been used before (#1). I think it's kind of cool that people can independently come up with the same kind of stuff! :)

June 8th, 2010, 06:44 AM
don't make analogies, just force them to understand what the terms actually mean :-#

June 8th, 2010, 06:46 AM
I agree with Dustin, these analogies are overly complicated and unnecessary if you ask me.

June 8th, 2010, 08:31 AM
I agree with Dustin, these analogies are overly complicated and unnecessary if you ask me.
The way I see it, there's two kinds of minds. The mechanical, and the whimsical. Mechanical minds understand how something works, why it works, and how to make it work in a way they want it to, they're the people usually great at math, science, and technology. The whimsical (I couldn't think of a better word sorry) mind usually traverses off the beaten path and explore the world for what they see it as. They're usually the people who are great at literature, writing, art, and things of that nature. These types of minds exist together by sharing their creations. Even the engineer enjoys a good fiction or sometimes the works of shakespeare, and there's even writers who base their writings on the interests of the mechanical mind. The mechanical mind needs to understand that it's best to explain their expertise in an open world minded fashion such as the use of analogies. The sharing of ideas through the methods of others allows a much better blend of these ideas, and that is the essence of community and human coexistence.

June 8th, 2010, 08:34 AM
My favorite analogy. Regarding wireless communication:
"You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there. The only difference is that there is no cat." (Albert Einstein)

7G Operator
June 8th, 2010, 10:47 AM
I like where your going with this man, its got potential. Break down the walls of elitism and reclaim tech for the masses! ;)

June 8th, 2010, 11:37 AM
don't make analogies, just force them to understand what the terms actually mean :-#


June 8th, 2010, 01:09 PM
Some people don't want or need to know how a computer works, but need to understand some basic concepts for a variety of reasons. Much like people don't want or need to know about how their cars work. Therefore I use analogies, like the following:

I sometimes explain that all a computer does is switch on and off electrical switches extremely fast, like one standing next to a light switch turning it on and off thousands (or millions) of times per second. If your computer has two processors, then one is using both hands to switch on and off two light switches thousands (or millions) of times per second.

I also often describe RAM and hard disk storage in terms of the kitchen sink and reservoir. RAM is like the kitchen sink, your computer puts data in RAM as it is needed, in the same way you put water in the sink as you need it. When the computer has finished with the data in the RAM is it stored on the hard disk, just like water returning to the reservoir when you pull the plug in the sink.

Another analogy I use is to describe why the internet going slow - I often ask the question "What happens when there are too many vehicles on the M25?" "It clogs up" is the reply. Why? Because there is not enough room for all the vehicles to move at the normal speed (especially if there is an accident, roadworks etc.) - in the same way, one's internet connection may not have enough capacity to carry all the packets of data at the same time.

[Note - for those that don't know, the M25 is the orbital highway around London, UK, that often gets very congested, particularly in the rush hour.]

June 8th, 2010, 01:18 PM
Have any of you guys come up with some good analogies? Also, can you see any improvements I could make to these?
An iPod is like a two-way ***hole -- everybody's got one, and vice-versa.

June 8th, 2010, 01:19 PM
Chessnerd, you are a genius, I love you kitchen analogy. Finally I may be able to get my poor mum to understand computers. It is a shame so many meals can only be made by one chef at a time.

June 8th, 2010, 01:37 PM
I took my grandma to her actual file cabinet and opened it up and showed her the real folders and files to explain directory trees on a hard drive. Then I showed her her copy machine and explained the difference between actually copying something from one of her files and cutting a picture out of a file and using real paste to paste it onto a different file. I showed her a real clipboard to explain to her that she would use that to hold onto what she's working on until she's ready to use it.

When she saw something she is used to and realized that's the reason they call things on a computer desktop, files, folders, etc., it really helped her understand things better. I told her that copy/cut paste always works the same whether you're talking about text, graphics, sound, video or whatever. Before that, she was writing down the same instructions for everything she did because she just couldn't get the concept.

June 8th, 2010, 02:15 PM
I like to improvise my analogies. Localize them. Usually wrapping them around recent events.

Pre-planning lines is boring and an intellectual turnoff.

June 8th, 2010, 02:31 PM
iPhone's analogy - the processor is actually a cute blond, who only bakes pastries. She can also only bake one thing at a time. If you ask her to make a muffin while she's baking a cake, she trashes the cake, and starts making the muffin. Also, you think you own her, but she's actually Steve's mistress.

June 8th, 2010, 02:33 PM
Apple analogies should all be related to fecal matter. Poop is clear and concise.

June 8th, 2010, 02:54 PM
Around here most people have yards with a lawn mower or lawn tractor, so I try to use that as an analogy.

Many different companies Lawn Boy, Craftsman, and Snapper for example, each have their own brands of mowers that use the Briggs and Stratton engine. Even though the mowers are completely different, if the same Briggs and Stratton engine is used this allows parts to be compatible between these different brands. And as everyone knows the engine drives the mower, so without a strong, good engine the mower isn't worth much.

For software, Linux is the engine that drives a Linux-based operating system (distribution), so even though Slachware, Ubuntu, Red Hat, etc are created by different companies/groups, as long as they have the Linux engine (kernel) driving them, they have lots of common parts that are compatible between each.

This analogy has worked to help me explain Linux to MANY people, but again it depends on whether or not you're in a community where people maintain their own yards.


June 10th, 2010, 04:29 PM
Chessnerd, you are a genius, I love you kitchen analogy. Finally I may be able to get my poor mum to understand computers. It is a shame so many meals can only be made by one chef at a time.

That was the idea actually. I came up with that because I was trying to explain RAM to my aunt. I later used it to explain RAM to my mom. Now they both understand the difference between RAM and hard drive space, and the importance that RAM plays in computing.

It is a shame that most meals are only designed for one chef when most kitchens nowadays have two or even four, but the people who write the recipes are starting to set it up to work when multiple chefs are involved. So hopefully this won't be the case for much longer...

I like to improvise my analogies. Localize them. Usually wrapping them around recent events.

Pre-planning lines is boring and an intellectual turnoff.
I suppose this is true, however, I find that I often end up using the same ones over and over.

I came up with the kitchen analogy on the spot in my aunt's kitchen and it was very effective, so I re-use it. If I'm struck by an idea, I'll probably use it, but I like having ones on deck so that if I strike out I've got a back-up plan.

June 10th, 2010, 04:58 PM
I like to improvise my analogies. Localize them. Usually wrapping them around recent events.

Pre-planning lines is boring and an intellectual turnoff.

It's got to be tuned to the audience. Using an analogy or metaphor that involves what somebody is deeply familiar with and interested in is what works best.

Grandmas and kitchens are a good example. But what if you have to explain source code, compiling, and binary executables, and you're talking to a guy who works at a waste-water processing plant and coaches youth soccer in his free time? Start in with your kitchen analogy and you've already lost his attention.

V for Vincent
June 10th, 2010, 05:41 PM
don't make analogies, just force them to understand what the terms actually mean :-#

Completely disagree. Any proper scientist will know a whole slew of analogies. Tons of computer algorithms are derived from them, just to give you an example. Plus, there's no added value in avoiding them when there's no need for nuances. If your grandma can relate to stuff in the kitchen running out, why on earth would you start explaining what RAM and CPU and whatnot mean? It'd take far longer and she'd give up trying to understand the simple concept you're trying to explain.

June 10th, 2010, 05:59 PM
I generally use an office space analogy.

Hard Drive = File Cabinet. Great for storing stuff, not great for working from. It takes longer to get stuff from there than from your desktop.

Defragmenting = Organizing a messy file cabinet.

RAM = Desk Space. It holds the stuff you're working on. The more of it you have, the more you can have open at once and the more stuff you can set aside for quick access later. (i.e. cache)

Virtual Memory (windows) or Swap (linux) = Putting stuff in the file cabinet if you run out of desk space.

OS = Person at the desk. They do all the work to manage files, makes sure everything is where it needs to be on the desk, makes sure stuff that needs to get done is getting done, etc.

CPU = The mind of the person at the desk, (with the help of a calculator or other devices). Does all the thinking and processing for both the OS and any tasks that are being done.

January 30th, 2013, 04:37 AM
I haven't seen this one regarding one aspect so I thought I would add it...

Explaining the Windows Registry...
( .. and why it is a good idea to clean it up and if possible defragment it )

I compare the windows registry to a Library's Card Catalog.

All the cards in the Card Catalog are like entries in the registry.
the Registry keeps a list of what every file and program in the computer are assigned to and where they are located, kinda like a master list.

A card catalog keeps a record of all the books in the library sorted by the Dewey decimal system then by authors last name..

If a book is lost or stolen then the card in the card catalog that points to the missing book is a problem.

soo if a file is deleted or a program uninstalled not all of the registry entries are always removed. Quickbooks or MS Office are classic examples..
The reasoning behind this I often explain is that if you uninstalled MS Office 2003 and later bought Office 2007 the on screen greetings may differ in that they may welcome you back to MS Office.

But not all left over registry entries are so tame..

I then explain that a left over registry entry is by all accounts "illegal" and needs to be removed as it no longer points to a file or a location of an object.

then I explain that every time windows boots up it has to read through the registry.
If we delete the invalid entries then it doesn't take as long, as we are cleaning out the 'fluff'.

then I go on to explain that while cleaning the registry is great and certainly healthy that like a card catalog just pulling out cards isn't good enough, we need to slide the other cards in to compact the drawer..

so defragmenting the registry compacts all the empty spaces where we deleted items.. there by making the over all process of booting up and reading the registry notably faster..](*,) your thinking this for all that i just explained.. :-D

January 30th, 2013, 04:57 AM
follow up..

I just thought of....

I have a PC of a customer who wanted me to get Windows 8 to install on his Vista Home Basic machine.. as well as clean it up.
I talked them out of Windows 8 relating it to the issues associated with Windows ME to XP and Vista to Win 7 and now we have Win 8 which is Win 7 with a new face.. soo the next out by history ought to be awesome again.
anyways. it was the customers thinking that cleaning up the computer and putting a new Operating system on it would speed it up!
Having booted the machine up i can certainly see why...
Compaq Presario SR5223WM with Sempron 3600.

I had to explain that changing operating system to a different one would in no way speed things up and in fact may make things slower.

Cleaning the existing Vista up would help immensily if still not happy with the speed then, we could see about adding RAM or possibly a faster CPU.

DUH.. some people.. my turn ---> ](*,)

January 30th, 2013, 04:58 AM
Old thread closed.