Category Archives: Explainism

Explaining Lessons From the Front Lines of Dog Rescue

My wife and I spend many of our Saturdays helping out a with a dog rescue group’s adoption events. Volunteers bring 25 or so adoptable dogs to a Petco in a busy strip mall, line them up in crates outside, and meet the public.

It’s quite the spectacle, and it attracts a diverse crowd. At one extreme, we talk to potential adopters who have researched dog breeds extensively and browsed our Web site to make a list of specific dogs they want to meet. On the other end of the spectrum, we talk to shoppers strolling by who’ve never even heard of dog rescue.



Dog explainists at work. The “Low Prices!” are on dog food, not dogs.

I’m fascinated (if occasionally frustrated) by the people on the confused end of the scale because they’re such perfect explanation test cases. If you don’t know anything about rescue, the sight of two dozen yapping dogs in crates on the sidewalk must be bizarre. I imagine you don’t even know where to begin to make sense of things. Meanwhile, the only explainers around — the volunteers — know so much about dog rescue that it’s hard for them to empathize with your confusion. There’s a huge understanding gap.

Typically, the confused people dive right in with questions. Occasionally, someone will ask, “What’s going on here?” but more often, the first question is something specific like “How much does that dog cost?” or “How do I get a dog?”

When I first started volunteering, I would just answer the questions as they came. But pretty soon I realized some people were only getting more confused, and more convinced I was nuts. My answers didn’t make sense to the questioner because the questioner wasn’t starting with a blank knowledge slate. They had already filled in a few key gaps with assumptions, based on their own guesses.

In the case of dog rescue, confused people typically make one of two incorrect assumptions:

  1. We are operating a business, and we make a profit by selling these dogs.
  2. We are trying to get rid of these dogs as quickly as we can. (i.e. we are a “free puppies” ad on a larger scale.)

If you believe either one of these things, our policies are going to seem counter-intuitive. Adopting a dog from our group involves filling out a six-page application and going through a rigorous week-long screening process — not exactly the behavior you would expect from a money-making venture or a “take my dogs, please” operation. And our adoption fee is more than you would expect to see in a Craigslist puppy ad. When you start with a misconception, it seems like we’re going about things all wrong.

So, I learned to drain these assumptions before pouring more information in. I learned that just about everything I say will be misconstrued unless I explain my motivation first.

In other words, I learned to answer the ideal initial question, instead of the actual initial question. No matter what the actual question was, my opening spiel now goes something like this:

“We’re an all-volunteer non-profit group, and our mission is to find homes for dogs in need. Many of these dogs come from overcrowded county animal shelters or shut-down breeder operations. Some were abandoned by their original owners. We spay or neuter them, give them all their shots, treat any problems and care for them until they are adopted. Since these dogs have had a rough start in life, we spend a lot of time making sure the adopters and dogs are a perfect match.”

If there’s still head-scratching, I may get into statistics on how many dogs have to be euthanized every year because of overpopulation. Despite Bob Barker’s best efforts, a lot of people don’t know anything about this.

Once someone understands what our motivation is, the details of our process and policies make much more sense, even if the whole thing still seems kooky.

This principle applies to most explaining situations. For example, if you’re pitching a business idea, the details are likely to be confusing unless you thoroughly explain the basic purpose of your business first. Your audience is likely to fill in their own rationale for the business, which may not line up with the actual rationale. The details and baseline assumptions won’t match, and confusion will flourish. Or consider how you explain technology. Unless you lay out a machine’s function, details of how the various pieces operate won’t make much sense.

It’s a handy rule. Before you dig in to the specifics, scrub away all incorrect assumptions and clearly explain your motivation. First, answer the best question an audience could have asked, then answer the questions they did ask.

Scott McCloud Explains Google Chrome

I was very happy to see that Google hired Scott McCloud to help explain Chrome, their new Web browser, in comic form. McCloud’s Understanding Comics and two follow-up books are explaining and comics masterpieces. If you want something explained right, he is a very fine choice indeed.


However, the new comic ends up being uneven, in an interesting way. There are brilliant moments, but other sections are confusing and flat. The problems stem from the choice to have Google engineers, product managers, et al talk about how the product works and what their thinking has been as they developed it. According to McCloud the script actually came from the engineers:

I helped conduct interviews with about 20 engineers who worked on the project, then adapted what they said into comics form. Some paraphrasing, lots of condensation, and one or two late drop ins, but basically it was a very organic adaptation and I had a lot of latitude.

This approach seems to have led to a few problems:

1. There are too many speakers. I lost count of total talking heads, but McCloud says 20, and I see seven in the first seven panels alone. Each is introduced only with small text by their picture, listing name and occupation (e.g. “Been Goodger, Software Engineer”). Many are indistinguishable from each other, which largely defeats the purpose of having real people walk you through the product at all. If this were a documentary, you would expect to hear from a small number of key people, and you would expect to get a sense of how they related to the product. If this were an essay or press release, you would expect a small number of quotes and you would expect the writer to explain who each person is before quoting them. A nonfiction comic should go about this its own way, of course, but it’s still important to establish identity when you quote somebody.

2. Many of the speakers end up being poor explainers, at least to a general audience. For example, this panel is unnecessarily jargon-heavy, and there are no definitions provided:

Google Chrome comic panel

I wonder if McCloud considered putting himself in the comic, as in Understanding Comics and it’s follow-up books. He could be a non-techy advocate for the reader, helping the experts explain themselves by rephrasing their points and asking follow-up questions.

3. Pulling from the transcript makes the comic text-heavy and comics-light. McCloud’s books make full use of the comic form, keeping things lean and clear by hitting every concept with a perfectly balanced combination of essential words and pictures. Some sections of the Chrome comic do this very well, but others feel like an illustrated transcript. The art doesn’t have a chance to carry its share of the load.

All that being said, it’s fantastic that Google chose to explain Chrome this way. To me, the shortcomings are fascinating, because they show just how original an approach this is. There aren’t any tried-and-true standards on how to do such a thing, and I applaud McCloud and Google for charging ahead. I hope they do it again and push the form further.

[Link]

[via Extraface]

Let me explain

I’m a sucker for a good explanation. A well-timed, well-crafted explanation can spark brilliant ideas, lead you down a new career track, or help you solve a gargantuan problem.

Bad explanations are real trouble. A bad explanation at the wrong moment can block a train of thought, steer a promising project off course or shut your mind off from a subject forever.

To me, a “good explanation” is a clear, satisfying and true presentation of what makes something — a concept, a principle, a machine, a process — the way it is. For example, a good explanation can be an illustration of how the pieces in a machine work together, a primer on tricky scientific principles, or an essay arguing a psychological theory. It doesn’t have to be comprehensive in detail. For most subjects, that’s not feasible. It just needs to paint a complete picture.

When you explain something well, you understand what your audience already knows and pick your definitions, examples, analogies and illustrations carefully to build on that. You employ just-in-time delivery of information. You add a new fact only when your audience already knows enough to put it in context. Most of all, you establish a foundation of understanding.

This foundation is why good explanations are so wonderful and crucial to me. I’m terrible at holding onto facts until I have a foundation to build on. Technical jargon evaporates into the air if I don’t understand the guts of a machine. Numbers mean nothing to me until I see how they fall on a larger scale. If you want to see me really stupefied, try explaining the rules of a card game without giving me the ultimate objective first. It all sounds like Peanuts parents to me. I’m an extreme case — my blockage of out-of-context information verges on learning disability — but I think this quality is generally true of anybody. Even an imperfect model of how something works makes it much easier to gather more information.

There are many, many things you just won’t get until somebody does a good job explaining them to you. So it’s no exaggeration to say that human progress (personal and species-wide) depends on good explanations. That’s why it troubles me how often people jump into relaying information without establishing a foundation of explanation at all. It’s common to see TV news anchors cheerily distribute facts without providing any sort of larger context. Business life is rotten with PowerPoints that rattle off figures and acronyms without making an argument for anything in particular. Many general interest technology sites bombard the reader with tricky terminology, but skimp on defining what it means.

One reason for this is that crafting a good explanation often means going against the grain. News stories are supposed to be short, because TV watchers and newspaper readers supposedly have no attention span. Business jerks agree that business means getting down to the bottom line and sounding important. And of course only noobs need to stop for definitions. Taking the time to lay out a good explanation means asking for deeper attention from your audience and acknowledging that not everybody knows everything already. It’s rarer than it should be, so we should sing its praises when we see it.

Hence, Explainist.com, a celebration of explanation. Full credit to Explainist co-founder Dave for the brilliant name. Here we go.