The Knee is the Achilles Heel of the Leg: Thoughts on Analogy

Ogg tries unsuccessfully to communicate with the Maria-tron 6000 unit.

Ogg tries unsuccessfully to communicate with the Maria-tron 6000.

My friend and I were at a Golden Nugget Pancake House a few weeks ago. After ordering the Denver omelet, she started talking about moving into her new, much smaller apartment. She was particularly unhappy with the living room. She folded her paper placemat in half and set it in front of her. She placed the mustard bottle in the middle of it to represent her couch; sugar packets placed around the bottle represented chairs. She put fork and spoon “bookshelves” along two of the placemat’s edges, and finished by trying to force her spoon in the lower right corner where it overlapped the edges of the placemat. “See?” she lamented, “There’s no room for the media cabinet.”

It was an effective analogy. I clearly understood her problem, mapping my idea of “living room” and its standard contents effortlessly onto to the contents of a restaurant tabletop. This kind of mental mapping is a tool we’ve all used, at some point or another, to communicate concepts and ideas through a computer interface. Our livelihoods depend on our ability to create and understand analogies, and on the ability of other people to possess this skill as well, but never fear – humans make analogies so often and so easily that they are unexceptional to most of us. Understanding analogies is a sort of sound barrier the artificial intelligence crowd – specifically the branch devoted to creating a computer that can be made to “think” like a human – can’t break. Computers have a terrible time with analogy, which is why we’re all still eating eggs and complaining about our sitting rooms with our human friends instead of our Maria-tron 6000 droids. But how did we develop this ability?

Many cognitive scientists propose that our brains are able to understand analogies because understanding analogies helped the genes of our ancestors survive. The first caveperson who had the idea to make a plan to ambush wild game by drawing a map in the dirt with a stick must have been some sort of “cave-Einstein.”

Consider the following:

Setting: Four homo sapiens crouching in the Patch of Very Long Grass looking at a map OGG has drawn in the dirt with a stick)

OGG: (pointing with a stick to one of the scribbles he has drawn) Bunga, you and Thak hide behind Very Large Rock, here, behind (OGG points to a second scribble with a long nasal protuberance) wooly mammoth. Then come out from behind Very Large Rock, jump, wave spear in air, and make big sound – frighten Wooly Mammoth. Gred and I stand here (OGG points to a third scribble) by Three Big Trees, kill wooly mammoth as it run by.

THAK: Okay, but next time let’s call this “Ruse.” Save valuable time.

OGG: No, me no like, “Ruse”. We call it, “Strategem.” Sound more classy.

THAK: Who die and make you the largest and most hairy one?

BUNGA: (rolls eyes) Me update thesaurus after hunt.

OGG: Thak, sometimes me think you homo neanderthalensis.

OGG: (moves into position behind Three Big Trees. Yells.) Gred? Why you still in Patch of Very Long Grass?

GRED: (yells) You say stand behind third scribble. You say third scribble is Three Big Trees.

OGG: (yells) No, third scribble only representation of parallel relationship between similarities of two disparate items to facilitate comprehension.

GRED: (trampled by a Wooly Mammoth) Augh!

Clearly, none of our consumers are related to Gred, as he was unable to produce offspring after “the mammoth incident,” all because he couldn’t understand Ogg’s dirt scribble analogy. But asking consumers to mentally map the physical process of purchasing an item from a store to manipulating pixels of light on a screen is asking a lot, even of Ogg’s descendants.

Finding the right analogy isn’t always easy. Not all analogies work well. Some are good (helpful) and some are bad (confusing). Locating and purchasing a humidifier replacement filter with a Sears mobile app is probably not enough like photosynthesis for that analogy to work. And although our creation of a bad analogy does not cause our supervisors to, “release the mammoths,” it may spell the difference between profit and loss, or customer satisfaction and dissatisfaction.

As technology and everything else advances, new analogies will be created every day. Our consumers’ minds are full of random concepts just begging to be stitched together for them, by folks like us, to make their lives better. But how do we know when we’ve created a good analogy? I’m pretty sure the role I played having breakfast in a greasy spoon will not map to the role G. Gordon Liddy played in the Watergate burglaries, but until that breakfast, I wouldn’t have thought a spoon would map so easily to a media cabinet. What’s a Homo sapien to do?

Of course, an excellent way to decipher what’s being understood in the consumer’s mind is through user testing. But that’s another blog post.



One Response to “The Knee is the Achilles Heel of the Leg: Thoughts on Analogy”

  1. Karol Czyrka →
    May 2, 2012 at 8:31 pm #

    that’s why I think rough/quick sketches work so well for getting early feedback. the human brain gets what those sketches are saying; it can connect the dots, fill in the gaps