How Can I Explain How a Machine Works to a Jury?

Many attorneys have been faced with the challenge of teaching a jury how a complex machine works.  This challenge is common in intellectual property disputes, but also appears in personal injury litigation and other matters.  In cases such as these, juror comprehension can be difficult to achieve due to lack of familiarity with the subject matter, as well as the overall complexity of the machinery.  Ultimately, your best bet is to help your audience form an appropriate “internal representation,” or mental model of the subject.

What Jurors Need to Understand a Machine

Machines often have multiple, partially obscured parts moving simultaneously and rapidly; this speed and complexity poses a learning challenge to jurors, who can become overwhelmed.  So, when tasked with teaching jurors about a machine, you’ll need to address the two most basic questions: “What does it do?” and “How does it work?”

If not handled carefully, these fundamental queries can quickly derail your litigation strategy.  The good news, however, is that there are scientifically proven methods to facilitate jury comprehension of how a machine works.

What Might the Jury Already Know About the Machine?

Cognitive research suggests a learner’s ability to engage with topics such as how a machine works is affected in a significant way by prior knowledge, which falls into three sub-categories:1

  • General “domain” knowledge about a subject, such as physics.
  • Specific knowledge about the topic at hand, such as a carburetor or turbine.
  • Misconceptions/false knowledge about the general subject or specific topic.

Dealing with these challenges is complicated in that each juror will likely have different levels of prior knowledge and varied amounts of interest in the subject.  The rewiring of any pre-existing, incorrect information may be another uphill battle.

To overcome this problem, you must provide context, as well as introduce vocabulary and concepts.  This is sometimes called “pre-training,” and it is often aided by a combination of graphics, movement, and language: a truly multimedia presentation.  Such an exhibition engages what could become a lackadaisical jury and primes them to learn the more advanced material later on.

Can the Jury Learn the Subject Matter?

A second important aspect to consider is the jury’s spatial visualization ability.2  In this case, it is their aptitude to form a mental image of a machine, and then transform it (e.g., imagine it from different angles and set its parts in motion).  Similar to prior knowledge, each juror may possess this skill in varied degrees.

As before, a multimedia presentation is an effective solution – but how do you structure the information in a way that facilitates meaningful learning?

In a previous article we examined the concept of meaningful learning and how graphics and animation support deeper juror comprehension.  In the case of understanding how a machine works, the juror needs to be able to form a mental model – or “internal representation” – that is sufficiently accurate and detailed to support your narrative.  The juror must also integrate this mental model with his or her prior knowledge in order to fully understand and retain the concepts.

A complete mental model of a machine typically consists of two categories: Configuration and Behavior.3  Each category has its own set of characteristics, as illustrated below in Figure 1.


Figure 1. Components of a mental model.

This teaching strategy is further illustrated in the following case study, which revolves around how a railroad machine functions.  Because 3D animation can depict realistic structures and events, our demonstratives could relieve much of the jury’s mental strain of having to imagine what the actual machine looks like and how it works – and this approach allowed us to directly address the mental model components above.  Note also the use of bright colors and on-screen movement to keep viewers engaged.

1. Configuration.  We depict the shape of the machine’s parts and their spatial relationships in detail, overlaying highlights and labels to make identification easy (Figure 2).


Figure 2. Showing configuration (shapes and spatial relationships of parts).

2. Behavior: Kinematic.  We show how hydraulic cylinders push and pull on metal plates (Figure 3).


Figure 3. Showing kinematic behavior (how the parts move).

3. Behavior: Dynamic.  In this case, some of the most relevant forces at work revolved around the control box and how pressing and releasing its buttons affect other parts of the machine (Figure 4).


Figure 4. Showing dynamic behavior (forces that cause movement).

4. Behavior: Function.  We educated the jury on what the machine is designed to do by pre-training them on parts of railroad tracks and one aspect of their maintenance, and then showing the machine’s role in maintaining the tracks.  A brief close-up of the machine at work is shown below (Figure 5).


Figure 5. Showing functional behavior (what the machine is designed to do).


These brief examples demonstrate an intentional design effort to help viewers easily form a holistic mental image of the machine – giving them the tools to answer their fundamental questions, “What does it do?” and “How does it work?”  When you assemble these components into a linear narrative, as you can see in the fully realized video, it provides a clear and engaging demonstrative.

With this knowledge well in-hand, the jury is more likely to follow you as you build your case – and this approach offloads a good chunk of the mental heavy lifting to your graphics professionals.  Let us help you design your multimedia showcase the next time you need to explain how a machine works to the judge and jury.

By: Shannon Gilley – Senior Designer/Animator





1Hegarty, Mary, and Sarah Kriz. “Effects of Knowledge and Spatial Ability on Learning from Animation.” Learning with Animation: Research Implications for Design. Ed. Richard Lowe and Wolfgang Schnotz. New York: Cambridge UP, 2008. 3-29. Print.


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