Based on a survey done globally I have been tasked with writing a help guide to cover scenarios and situations - for a cloud app I created. But I don't understand what the difference is between a scenario and situation. I feel like they are all scenarios but when on global calls the pair keeps coming up. Is there any difference in this context?

9 Answers 9


In my experience, "scenario" is used in a written guide as in this example:

"In this scenario, the user is trying to create a new record for a client who is already in the database under a misspelled name. How could this user avoid adding the second record?"

A "situation" is more fact-based on a real series of events leading to the event that needs to be resolved. I generally would not use "situation" in a written guide because (IMO) it is supposed to be representative of a set of facts used to train or guide a group of people, not provide anecdotal examples...

...unless I wanted to intersperse real-life examples and then I would use "situation". For example:

"A recent real-life example of this issue was reported by our help desk when a client couldn't generate an XYZ Report after the upgrade. In that situation, Tech Support should suggest...".

  • I think this is the best explanation so far. Do you think that it would warrant having these as sections in a help guide? Would people be confused? We need some Brits to way in here because a big client base is UK and Ireland. Feb 20, 2014 at 23:05
  • I'm sure as others said here already, it may be a cultural difference in use but I could see a section of sample scenarios but not a section of situations. That's coming from my solely US experience though. Feb 20, 2014 at 23:09

I believe a scenario is considered one of several possibilities.
As in "what would we do in this scenario or that one?"

A situation is a current set of circumstances.
As in "how will we get out of this messed up situation?"

In battle a general might plan for several scenarios, but if he doesn't plan for the right one, he may find himself in a sticky situation.

You can still say "how would we deal with it if we ended up in this situation?" or "how did we find ourselves playing out this particular scenario?" but we're still sort of using them the same way. We're imagining the future scenario is concrete (a situation), even though it's still only a possibility, and we're imagining the current sitiation as one of many (a scenario) even though it is now concrete.

I hope that last paragraph made sense?

The word situate can also be used for placing things relative to each other. For example you could situate a table next to a chair. I think this isn't really the usage you're interested in, though.


From the OED:

Situation -

a. Position of affairs; combination of circumstances. Also in mod. usage, with premodifier, and designating: (a) the state or general circumstances of something at a particular time, as coal situation, etc. (and which is acknowledged to change from time to time); (b) a particular state of affairs or occasion existing independently, as standing credit situation, crisis situation, etc.

Scenario -

  1. A sketch, outline, or description of an imagined situation or sequence of events; esp. (a) a synopsis of the development of a hypothetical future world war, and hence an outline of any possible sequence of future events; (b) an outline of an intended course of action; (c) a scientific model or description intended to account for observable facts. Hence, in weakened senses (not easily distinguishable from sense 1a transf. and fig.): a circumstance, situation, scene, sequence of events, etc.

The over-use of this word in various loose senses has attracted frequent hostile comment.—R.W.B.

Technically a situation would be a given circumstance to which one reacts. So you could have a hostage situation but not a hostage scenario. The scenario is the thing which is done in response to the situation or the intend course of action. So you could plan a scenario in which you would have to respond to a hostage situation.

In an etymological sense this is supported - situation comes from the Latin situs or 'site' (as in a geographic location) whereas scenario comes from scena or 'scene' (in the sense of a play or drama). So a situation is a singular location / combination of properties at a point in time whereas a scenario is a series of events that follow logically within a causal frame of reference (like a scene in a play - connected but distinct events).

However, as the OED editors note with much chagrin, the usage of the two terms has become so blurred that a functional distinction between the two is often impossible.

  • 2
    I'll go with this. OED specifically say imagined situation in their scenario definition. Although both words are often used synonymously, "hypothetical" is certainly one aspect that I associate more strongly with scenarios. Feb 20, 2014 at 23:54

The distinction is VERY subtle. And they're frequently used interchangeably.

The scenario is the underlying setting. Essentially the background.

The situation can mean the same. But, it also can mean what is going on at the current time (especially with regard to physical location of items). It implies a certain temporal or spacial understanding of the conditions at hand.

What's the scenario here? Sir, last week rebels broke into the compound and stole a bomb. They have threatened to blow up the world supply of novelty glasses with nose and mustaches attached.

What's the situation? The rebels are threatening to use that bomb to blow up the the world's Hello Kitty pencil case supply. We have a man on the inside. He is disguised as a giant panda bear. He tells us …

  • I am tasked with having my team writing a Help Guide. Nothing is going in the guide during the "current time". I do understand this variance but don't understand how these are different sections in a Help Guide. Feb 20, 2014 at 20:13
  • In a help guide, you are likely to help with situations, not scenarios.
    – David M
    Feb 20, 2014 at 20:15
  • I agree - I am not saying scenario is a better term. I just want one term. I can't imagine my tech writers having to go through the list of "topics" and try to decide which is the situation and which is the scenario. Feb 20, 2014 at 20:17
  • Just switch all to situation. Scenario is a background. It's unlikely that you will have to deal with a scenario.
    – David M
    Feb 20, 2014 at 20:18
  • But they want them separated based on them being different things to them - hence my question. I am not saying they are different. Feb 20, 2014 at 20:18

This sounds like an instance of someone being repetitive and redundant. In this case, it seems to have been contagious. The words of course often have different usages and connotations, as you will see if you check out a dictionary, but in this context I don't know what the distinction could be.

It's possible that something is meant by this distinction, but without more concrete information about your situation/scenario, it's difficult to tell. For example, one possibility could be that scenario refers to a certain state inside your app, whereas situation is referring to the real-world circumstances of the user.

  • One of my questions on our last call was "Can't we just lump the situations with the scenarios?" And one of the people said, "We would rather keep the separate for easier reference." It is either a cultural thing or I am getting played. Feb 20, 2014 at 20:15
  • Haha. That is classic. I don't know what to tell you. Perhaps there is some technical meaning that your coworkers have agreed to use, chosen at a meeting you were not invited to. Feb 20, 2014 at 20:16
  • This is on a call with 20 people in every region of the world. There seems to be some honesty in wanting this. I am lost in translation. Most of these people are native English speakers but not all. Feb 20, 2014 at 20:18
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    I would just ask them to clarify. The specs for the help guide have obviously not been specified in enough detail. Feb 20, 2014 at 20:19
  • No I will but was looking to get some insight before I go in and ask them why these things are different. We will see if anyone can come up with anything. If it is valid, it still lends itself to a good prank. Feb 20, 2014 at 20:21

"Scenario" is fancy and specialized. People may use it when they mean "situation," just to sound fancy. This would be similar to the way people use "usage" for "use" and "visitation" for "visit."

"Scenario" has the connotation of a scene. This could be a physical scene such as a battlefield or a theater stage (hence the use of "scenario" in wargaming), or it could be a coming together of certain events, people, and things, as in a scene in a novel. As in a wargame or a fictional scene, we're interested in the flow of events that led to the scene. As in those examples, there's the connotation that we're planning for the possibility or listing various possibilities and comparing them. There's usually something at stake, which you care about and want to plan for.

In any case where these connotations are not present, use "situation." For example, if I'm walking my dog and she poops on someone's lawn, there's no connotation of a flow of events or of planning, or of anything big at stake.


A scenario is a process. (Sometimes described very generally, eg "As a user, I want to be able to compile my program.")

A situation is a state of affairs at a specific point in time. ("The server is in small pieces scattered across the floor.")

"This situation is the result of a scenario involving a broken compiler, a frustrated user, and a hammer..."


Actually in fiction, film, and writing I have understood a "scenario" to mean how a "situation" relates to the plot (and the scenario may be the shortest abstract of what the plot in a story is)-- and how the "scenario" plays out regarding the situation and plot. So situation and scenario are mingled together now in some circles of English or its related fields. (grad. writing student)


A Scenario is a written outline of what happens in a scene or sequence of events regarding the plot in a film/movie or play. Synopsis or situation describe the scene literally and how the components of the setting relate to each other and the plot. http://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/us/definition/english/scenario

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