Analogies/Metaphors of Technology

At a friend’s suggestion, I’ve started reading Mike Kuniavsky’s book, Smart Things: Ubiquitous Computing User Experience Design. Though focused more on design of future computing, Kuniavsky dedicates an entire chapter to metaphors in computing. The brief chapter provides some great history behind the use of metaphor in computing and also divides metaphors into helpful classifications. What I found most interesting in the chapter was the observation of how metaphors and analogies have impacted the user experience, for better or worse. Yet, what I found most encouraging was that Kuniavsky opens the chapter with a nod to the same reason I based The Ultimate PC Primer on analogies and metaphors — that they’re a helpful way to bridge the known with the unknown.

Metaphors are widely employed in technology and learning, but how does one select the most effective analogy or metaphor? Here are a few tips to keep in mind when using analogies to explain technology:

1. Pick good a good analogy that can “go the distance.”

This might seem obvious, but as I said in 4 Quick Tips for Explaining Tech to Parents (and other non-techies), not all analogies are created equal. The best analogy will match all, or nearly all, aspects of the technology concept being explained. By contrast, a mediocre analogy might illuminate one aspect, but confuse others. Ted Nelson has noted that the naming of the PC’s “clipboard” — the invisible location where a piece of information cloned by the Copy command is temporarily stored — is such an example.

Consider the “clipboard” on the Mac, PC or XWindows.  It’s just like a regular clipboard, except (a) you can’t see it, (b) it holds only one object, (c) whatever you put there destroys the previous contents.  Aside from that, IT’S JUST LIKE A REGULAR CLIPBOARD IN EVERY OTHER RESPECT– EXCEPT THERE AREN’T ANY OTHER RESPECTS!

Although the above is a quote from Nelson’s own site (which suggests he is against use of metaphors overall), I happen to agree with Ted on this particular metaphor. Drawing a correlation to a physical clipboard may not have been the best choice, which is exactly why I didn’t include a depiction of a physical clipboard in my “Copy-Paste” illustration in The Ultimate PC Primer.

2. Piggyback/daisy-chain if necessary.

Don’t expend all your brainpower searching for your “precious.” Depending on the breadth of the topic needing explanation, there is rarely one analogy to rule them all, and that’s okay. You can use several to build the complete picture, if needed. When using multiple analogies, they all should work together. Don’t leverage analogies that will have conflicting aspects. Again, as I noted in 4 Tips for Explaining Tech, don’t make analogy spaghetti, make lasagna. The hardest part of writing The Ultimate PC Primer was coming up with a few main analogies that could carry through the entire book, represent most of the personal computing experience, and not contradict each other.

3. Know when it’s time to restrain your use of metaphors and analogies.

I’ve commented previously about the failed “Microsoft Bob” experiment, and in Smart Things, Mike Kuniavsky also discusses a failed piece of software that attempted to leverage a similar approach in its user interface design. Software that takes metaphor and analogy too far often isn’t well received. Similarly, explanations that are loaded with over-abstraction may cloud more than clarify. Analogies only go so far. An example, scenario, or story will often help carry the explanation further if needed. For instance, if your learner wants a quick overview of the concept behind Facebook, then a short analogy may be fine. (“It’s like having your own personal classified ad section to which you can publish whatever you want, whenever you want.”) But if the learner expects a deeper explanation of the technology, then greater consideration of an overarching analogy is required, and a scenario or narrative may also help. In my opinion, this is where explainers like Common Craft really shine as they often ground their explanations in a fictitious scenario. Though setting up the story make take a little more time than trying to jump right to a tactical explanation, it’s worth the investment. That’s why I spent the words in The Ultimate PC Primer to set up several stories to help “tee-up” and extend my analogies.

4. Remember your audience, and tailor to them, if possible.

With The Ultimate PC Primer, I knew I was writing primarily for older adults. As such, the stories, examples, and analogies I chose were ones to which an older audience  could readily relate… not because they’re old folks but because they grew up and grew familiar with a different set of technologies. I wanted to make a connection to things with which they were conceptually familiar and of which they would be completely unafraid.

To find an analogy for young kids you need to get into a child’s world and mind. What do they think most about? What do they understand well already? How do you see them explaining things to their peers or parents? What seems to resonate most with them?

Remember, whomever your audience is, your goal should be to identify something common enough to be readily understood. You will likely need to research and test your analogies. Since I’m not in the reader demographic, I had to do this repeatedly while writing The Ultimate PC Primer just as I would if I were creating something for children.

Have your own tip on or experience with leveraging analogy or metaphor? Add a comment.

If you want some ideas on explaining personal computer concepts with analogies and stories, pick up a copy of The Ultimate PC Primer. And for those who want a deep dive into metaphors in computing design (as well as other smart things), take a look at Mike Kuniavsky’s Smart Things. Based on what I’ve read so far, I’m looking forward to the rest of the book.

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2 Responses to Analogies/Metaphors of Technology

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