One of the most powerful tools at our disposal for demystifying complex subjects is the analogy. When we work with analogies, from simple comparisons to skeuomorphic design (digital designs that mimic real world objects), we help people learn faster, retain information better and longer, and reduce confusion.
So, why don’t we use these tools more often? I suspect the answer is in part because we don’t fully understand the subject ourselves, so finding an apt comparison is difficult. Sometimes I’ll find myself halfway through an analogy and there’s suddenly a wide divergence between the thing I’m trying to explain and its counterpart – something I didn’t anticipate because I didn’t understand the source subject well enough. Other times, analogies don’t work because we’re comparing one confusing thing with another; referencing a niche subject (like, say, Call of Duty) falls flat if the audience doesn’t have the reference frame.
That said, we should attempt the power of analogy as often as practical. Doing so will make our communications easier, and it will enhance our own understanding of a subject. Let’s look at an example, the key metrics in web analytics. In web analytics software like Google Analytics™, we have four fundamental units of measurement:
What’s the difference? When should you use which metric? These units of measure are basic to web analytics, but if we can’t explain them clearly to someone else, we won’t be measuring the right things. Analogies to the rescue!
Suppose you’re sitting in your favorite chair reading a physical newspaper. Some pages, you circle things with a pencil that you find interesting or that you want to remember for later. Weirdly, you tear out each sheet of the newspaper after you’ve read it and put them in a pile next to your chair. So far, so good, right?
Everything that catches your eye in the newspaper, everything that you circle – those are the equivalent of Google Analytics events. They’re little actions you take as you read that indicate you’re interested in something, and you can do one or many of them on any given page.
As you read each page, that’s the equivalent of a Google Analytics pageview. As you read a page, you’ve viewed it.
That pile of pages you clipped out as you read the paper like a weirdo? That whole pile of pages is the equivalent of a Google Analytics session. During the time you were reading your newspaper, whether it was one page or many, you made one pile of clipped pages. In Google Analytics, whether you browse one page or many on a website, for the time you’re there, that’s a session.
And you are the user, the person doing all this, whether it’s a newspaper or Google Analytics.
So, which metric should you be using? With this analogy, it’s more clear that each metric measures something different.
- If you wanted to know whether a particular item on a page was interesting or not, you’d measure events.
- If you wanted to measure just how many pages your customers browsed, perhaps to determine which pages on the website were the most popular, you’d measure pageviews.
- If you wanted to measure whether a visit to your website was productive or not in terms of conversions, regardless of how many pages the user looked at, you’d measure sessions.
- And if you wanted to know how many people did something, you’d measure users.
That analogy of a person sitting down to read the paper and clipping out pages is something you could demonstrate in person, in a meeting room or on a video call. It’s tangible, and that analogy helps clarify what web analytics metric you should be using for which context.
That’s the power of a good analogy. Instead of getting bogged down in technical stuff, you simplify it to a frame of reference that your audience understands and in doing so, you move them closer to making decisions with the right information.
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