Outrageous part two – how to explain a browser

behind the scenesThe other day I wrote about how many people don’t know what a browser is. It wasn’t about how ignorant they are. Not really. It was about how hard those of us who train people must work to help people know what they really need to know.

In response to that post, I received many thoughtful comments. I realized that many of us who are inside technology struggle to help normal people understand. I decided to look at some threads I found in the comments that are helpful for anyone deciding how to explain ideas.

(Note: Links are to the comments. From there you can connect to the commenters websites).

1. Avoid the word

GR Hansen said, “why does it all need to be explained?” He used the metaphor of not needing to know how a car operates in order to drive. This thought ran through several other comments. The teaching starts with what you need to accomplish rather than the tool.

2. Analogies

  • A window to the internet (wahoofive)
  • A television to see the internet  – a wonderful extended metaphor (Justin McCullough)
  • A telephone – another great extended image (Ben Manevitz)
  • A tool you use to go on the internet (Curtis Roberts)
  • “If you think of the internet as a series of tubes…the browser is what lets you take a snapshot inside those tubes…” (Ron)

Each of these starts with something the audience knows about. You may remember that one of my frustrations the other day was using a computer to explain a computer. For people who have never been taught about computers, that doesn’t work. Depending on the audience, each of these provides a starting point.

3. Examples of brands

Several people gave examples of kinds of browsers: AOL (which, as Dave Peckens points out, counts even though we know it is an entity built on top of a browser. Juno is in this same category), Firefox, IE, Safari, Opera, Chrome and so on.

The advantage to using examples is that it allows people to connect to what they already know. Many of us know brands before we know what it is a brand of. (Right or wrong, that’s how it is).

4. Definitions

  • “simply another program, used to connect to the internet” (hal-brown)
  • “The software is the software in your computer you use to look at the Internet.” Jeff Yablon
  • “Software on your PC that connects you to the internet, like Microsoft Internet Explorer or Firefox or Opera or Google Chrome or Apple’s Safari or Netscape.” (Mark Brimm)

The advantage of definitions, depending on the context, is that they invite conversation in a factual way. For those who need to know what a browser (or anything else) is as well as what it does, going beyond the analogy helps.

5. Audience

Several people talked about specific conversations with specific people:

  1. My parents
  2. My uncle
  3. My friend

The best translating comes when you have enough of a relationship with people to know what they know better than they know technology. This knowledge allows you to adapt to them, and to decide whether it matters whether they even need to know what a browser is.

6. Attitude

What impressed me is that this group of people wanted to help people understand.  Even when there was a “people gotta know the basics” sense, no one was mean about it. Instead, they wanted to help people figure out how to get to the basics…and they understood that people are people.

Addie talked about a friend who uses an iPhone but doesn’t understand a couple basics of connecting to email.  She goes on, “Few minutes later, she tells me she use to write software in the early DOS ages… makes me realize just how easily you can get lost if you don’t stay up to date when technology changes.”

As Nick Desbarats says “I have to agree with hansenhouse. People should not be mocked for not knowing things that they don’t need to know about in their lives. I don’t know anything about cars, but I use them every day. Does that make me a moron?

Mark Brimm points out that these people are far from morons:

But then again, some of the very people who don’t know what a browser is can do other incredible things on the other end of the human spectrum that you and I may not be able to comprehend, like make incredible art or climb Everest. I think this is just the price of a diverse human population with unique abilities and interests.

7. Bonus point

And just to understand how big the question is,  SherwinRocks sends us to “What is a Browser” from google

Thanks for your comments

This was a wonderful experience. As I said the other day, I will keep exploring how to talk about technical things for a non-technical audience. And I’ll write here. But for those who don’t read comments, I wanted to let everyone see what was said.


6 responses to “Outrageous part two – how to explain a browser

  1. I don’t know why I’m so surprised that so many people don’t know what a “browser” or browser software is. I’ve been seeing URLs posted everywhere since about 1999 and just assumed everyone knew they need to type that URL into the browser address bar… And then the magic of the internet and servers takes over to deliver the experience they’re hoping for.

    Should we (geeks) be capitalizing (more) on this simple knowledge?

    I’ve taught a few Internet 101 classes and must have gotten lucky that the participants already had a general knowledge of use.

  2. Way back when, I used to teach computer classes for senior citizens. The first session of the first class, I held a keyboard up in the air and showed them what was the same as a typewriter and what was different. No one had done that for them before. During those classes, I made up a whole raft of explanations in plain language.

    I come from a long line of teachers, and I realize that teaching isn’t easy, and it’s not automatic. It is a skill you can learn and improve through study and practice.

  3. Becky – 26 years ago when I started teaching someone how to use a PC, the first thing I told her about the keyboard was exactly what you did. I didn’t know much myself, but that was a good beginning. I still don’t know all of the language (what’s a URL? oh, it’s that name that I type into that little box that takes me to information about a specific business or organization). The words we use depends on the audience we’re talking to.

  4. I read the “part 1” post with interest because I spend a lot of time translating geek-speak to “normal” language for my clients, especially where it ties into new media.

    Sometimes when working via phone it can be a challenge to do something as basic as talk someone’s eyes away from their browser’s search box to the address box to type in a specific URL, much less explain a general concept like a browser.

    For most cases I think analogies are the best starting places. Start with a comparison to something they know and work from there. Besides, where browsers are concerned the average person really just needs to know which app to click on to connect to the web anyway.

  5. Great followup to the original post.

    Jon, Did the responses help move you forward in your quest to explain what a browser is? I hope so.


  6. absolutely, Dave, there is an opportunity. Because it is “so simple”, “no one” takes classes, learns the terms, is taught.

    Becky, you got it. The only computer course I ever took, I taught. And I used Alphabits cereal to explain bits and bytes.

    Nancy, you have experienced the struggle of having someone assume you know without taking the time to explain. I’m sorry.