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Complex or Complicated:
The Importance of Developing Common Language

“While shared understanding may always be an asymptote, striving for it is the mark of designer as facilitator.” – Erik Dahl (@eadahl)

“Precise language is lost if all don’t share the subtleties of meaning…” – Will Sansbury (@willsansbury)

The Need for Common Language
Common language has to be developed for almost any collaborative project to work. As soon as you have a team, instead of a person, communication becomes the cornerstone of everything you do. Pairing works much better once a common language is developed; without it, two people will sit together, but work independently. Once they develop a common language, a shared understanding, they work together, relying on each other’s strengths and compensating for each other’s weaknesses. That’s when you see the artifacts begin to go away and things get made, instead of just planned.

The responsibility for achieving a shared understanding should be paramount to everyone involved. Unfortunately, it often isn’t. Frequently, people are blinded by what they would like to push as an agenda, debilitating their communication skills instead of consolidating views to a better solution.

As a result of the empathy inherent in most UX designers, diplomacy is often tried until a common language is developed, unconsciously. Occasionally, the UX designer will stop at diplomacy, since it works and neutrality can produce results that are “good enough.” But if teams can find a way to speak at the same level as your audience and each other, they have a better opportunity to generate great results.

Sometimes you have 30 seconds to do this, and sometimes you have days. Sometimes it takes moments to find a communication style that resonates, and sometimes it takes years. No matter how long it takes, a UX designer should focus on achieving common language, first, in any setting. No matter the task or relationship at hand, your use of language can help set the tone for a successful conversation, leading to a successful solution.

Ubiquitous Language
Ubiquitous language is noble, but focuses a great deal on coders learning the language of the domain they are currently being immersed in. It’s a great applied practice toward coding, according to the nouns and adjectives that the domain (subject matter) experts use.

Unfortunately, this model is very focused on two types of people: programmers and non-programmers, and it’s written from a coder’s structured, logical perspective. It’s chock-full of great advice and practices, but for a UX designer, facilitating communication across the client, visual designers, content strategists, business analysts, financial consultants, product owners (and on and on), this is a first step. UX designers need to understand domain before the conversation begins. The real challenge comes in making sure that when we’re talking about “music,” that we’re talking Brahms, and not Bad Religion. Or vice-versa.

Common Language is similar to ubiquitous language from a “lofty goals” perspective, but less structured, and is much more prevalent in conversation and in visual cues. Ubiquitous language is a great start toward speaking about the same “things,” but it’s stiff and wanting, since it lacks a focus on what those “things” mean. An unfortunate side-effect of Ubiquitous Language is the well-intentioned convention of naming classes and routines based on domain terms. This works really well as long as there are no mistakes. Errors in shared understanding have the potential to create a coding system that attempts to re-educate the subject matter experts, based on the reality driven by the way the terms have been used in the Domain-driven model, devised by the technical team. This, in turn, alienates the business and many creative stakeholders. As a last resort, you end up relying heavily on infrastructure, programmers and those rare dual-language speaking project managers to “bridge the communication gap.”

It makes sense to close the gap rather than bridge it. Closing it is more of an art, than a science, but one that can be learned, applied and institutionalized. However, it has to be planned from the beginning.

Storytelling & Cultural Cues
Beginning at the beginning usually starts with a story. This is the best place to immediately begin the creation of a mental dictionary for the team. Someone has to explain what they’re looking for; who the audience is, what the feature is, what the problem statement is. Something. Encourage the stakeholder to elaborate. They may not be the best story-teller, but you can get a story out of them by asking questions. The more questions you ask, the more terms you’ll hear. The more descriptions they’ll provide. Take note of the words they use and how they mean them. If there’s any ambiguity, circle back on the words and find out what the meaning is.

Storytelling is great as long as the person telling a story is using metaphors that aren’t lost on the audience. As a cultural device, stories have long closed the distance between groups in society. But stories can go horribly awry if the cultural implications for the audience or misunderstood by the storyteller. The best diplomats try to understand other cultures before trying to sway them. There are so many hooks, phrases, and words that carry weight and meaning with people. In the United States, we have three words for soda, depending on where in the country you are and there are some people who literally do not understand what the words mean when referenced from another region.

As ambassadors, we push for a certain culture but in order to effectively do that, we need to understand the culture that currently exists. We learn a new language and adhere to it in order to blend in with the culture and affect positive change by gradually introducing new terms and specific, distinct meanings to existing terms to the team’s mental dictionary.

It’s also important to keep tone and body language in mind. Things to think about as you communicate:

  • Human Resources employees are the only ones who think that pedantic, lilting-tone speech is soothing. (edit: I realize not all HR employees speak in such a manner. My favorites have always been the ones who didn’t speak so.)
  • Kindergarten teachers talk to parents the same way they talk to their students (and parents don’t like it)
  • The Welsh think you’re flipping them off unless your peace sign is done palm-out
  • Crossed arms tend to make people feel like you’re not listening to them
  • People from India point with their middle finger. They’re not insulting you.
LEGO Minimalist by Jung von Matt

The importance of cultural cues in establishing common language; how many of these mean something to you? (LEGO Minimalist by Jung von Matt)

Matching Your Communication Style
Everyone communicates differently based on who they are, where they’re from, what they do, how much experience they have. How do you recognize what to say, without compromising your passion? As UX professionals, we spend countless hours learning to understand our users to determine the best way to present and design an experience or interface. It follows suit that we should style this same approach in how we communicate in speech and writing with our teams, by identifying and adopting a common language.
So how do you find a way to speak a common language? I don’t believe in magic bullets. But I do believe in selective targets.

Taking written note of vocabulary and defining it as the team uses it helps. This can be an actual shared document, or you can just use it as guidelines for yourself, and rely on the mental dictionary. The shared document is much more transparent, while the mental dictionary model is much more incognito. In true “Undercover UX” style, the second method is likely your best option to expand the common language between two or more parties if you’re in an organization that doesn’t have an established culture or practice surrounding user experience, or hasn’t yet matured their user experience practice to include associates.

A requisite tool is to update your own vocabulary. Re-use words that you were previously unfamiliar with, after establishing what they mean to the person who initially used them. Re-use them repeatedly. Explain words as you speak to make their meanings more distinct. Not just the first time, but the first several times.

It’s critical to remember that common language isn’t just the words you use. It’s tone, style, volume, and cadence, also. It’s color, contours, and negative space. Every interaction you have, all points of collaboration with your team, will become part of your common language. You have to be prepared to response to personality types. Be prepared to respond to varying leadership levels/styles. Be prepared to immerse yourself in a multitude of personal cultures and have the flexibility to move between them in order to better communicate your message. Your goal is to establish a shared understanding, a shared culture, among your team.

Language is amazing. It provides us the richness to communicate, but we all have a different level of mastery. It provides us also the ability to conflate meaning, juxtapose ideas, and generally screw up relationships through miscommunication.

We struggle with language among UX, arguably the most empathic group of professionals that exists, because so many people are convinced they are right about the terms and definitions. We let academic musings that establish more concrete meanings among our “domain,” color the way we speak to our co-workers, who grew up on finance. While trying to embolden the meaningfulness of our chosen profession, we risk alienating our allies across the table, by assuming they share the same distinction between “complex” and “complicated” as we argue for why there’s no need to further simplify this particular interface, since according to Tesler and Norman, this would be appropriately complex.

In a perfect world, everyone would strive for shared understanding, but they don’t most of the time. Your business analyst likely won’t leave the meeting and look up Tesler’s Law. The VP likely isn’t going to ask you to elaborate on the distinction you’re driving to justify the complexity offset. We’re “cultural ambassadors.” (Hat-tip to Erik Dahl) Our job is to visit the different cultures that co-exist within the multiple dimensions that occur in a business and learn their languages. It’s incumbent on us, as facilitators, to bring those dimensions closer and closer to a singular existence. There’s a responsibility inherent in being a UX professional regarding diplomacy, but we can be passionate without being pissy or pedantic.

By developing a common language, our teams gain both a better communication culture and our team achieves better understanding of User Experience for our audience.

Information Architecture & Communication

There’s no formal, respected education track to becoming an information architect.  The most widely-held is Human Computer Interaction, but the role of an information architect tends to be filled by people from a variety of backgrounds who have seamed together along a few common threads.  Most prevalent among those threads is a conscious or sub-conscious need to create organization out of chaos.  That chaos most often is in the form of the client.  Or, more specifically, the personalities composing the client’s team.

Executive management committees, secretary turned art director for a day, programmers, brand managers, and the list goes on.

The challenge, of course, goes far beyond meeting the stated goals of the project.  Information architects have a stringent sense of duty to get the job done correctly, despite constant protests to do things the “wrong way.”

Information Technology will insist things can’t be done “that way.” Brand managers will require the use of specific icons as bullets because it’s part of their brand manifesto (for print design).  Executive committees will be paralyzed and horrified at every concept with the potential to offend the board or CxO.  There already exists plenty of reference material of the “Secretary Art Director,” so I’ll skip the examples on that.

The other common thread typical of good Information Architects is the ability to communicate well.

The conversation is the point.  The outcome of the conversation is the point.  If you’re doing the right thing as an IA, you’re spending more time talking to stakeholders and points of contact than you are reflecting on, or producing, your work.  Effective communication is the crux of IA.  You can’t proceed with your work without these critical discourses, no matter who the conversation is with.  What’s more important than your diagrams is being an effective communicator, both as a sender and receiver.

As an IA, however, you’re also decoder and encoder, having conversations on multiple technical levels, multiple business levels, and even multiple social levels.  As an IA, you’re the interdisciplinary expert who can speak intelligently about design, layout, computer science (as programming and hardware), business, analysis, ergonomics, library science, taxonomy, brand image, and marketing.  To make matters worse, you have to speak to audiences within nearly every one of those disciplines, plus executives, who have spent the bulk of their career focused on their singular path and convince them that you know more about the topic than they do, which is why you’ve done things the way you have, with their direction.

By the same token, there’s a delicate balance to maintain in your ability to listen patiently, record and review even what seems to be the most inane natterings of your client team.  This is critical to the success of your project.  You cannot and must not reject ideas out of hand simply because the person you’re talking to “doesn’t comprehend what you do.”  Despite your comparison to their brain being similarly sized to a dinosaur’s (insert note/reference to Will Ferrell’s Land of the Lost), good ideas can come from anywhere.  Any idea can be implemented.  Because your experience and yes, “best practices,” say it shouldn’t be done in general, it does not mean you automatically rule it out for the current project.  Ask questions. Review the answers in your head.  Re-state the questions; ask new questions relevant to the conclusions you’ve made.

The ability to effectively communicate is a critical skill to most everything in this world worth experiencing.  A successful Information Architect relies on two-way communication and can’t do their job without the ability to effectively communicate on every level.  You have to be able to send and receive.  Artfully.

Effective Interpersonal Communication

From the time I began working at fifteen years old until the onset of my career at the age of twenty-five, I held a multitude of “jobs.”  During these experiences, the most critical skills I took away were all centered in effective communication.  In order for communication to be effective, there are three abilities one must be willing to embrace: to modify your communication to your audience, to retain your composure regardless of the situation, and to exercise comprehension by reiterating what has been told to you.

In the early years, while working in music retail, I learned quickly that I was required to interact with customers who communicated in different ways.  I was unable to expect everyone to conform to my style of communication, so the ability to adjust to theirs was crucial to the tasks at hand.  This was especially apparent as the gentleman who comes in looking for that old Dave Brubeck Quartet album will have a much different demeanor than the teen coming in for the new Green Day CD.  This lesson, the ability to conform my style of communication to my audience, was a critical skill that I developed and practiced every day as I communicated with those who have vastly differing personalities and backgrounds.

Sometimes, in times of duress, it is easy to become exceptionally agitated.  One thing that my prior experience in the restaurant industry taught me is to keep a level head at all times.  At all moments, a restaurant is an organized chaos of barking orders, running food, and constant shuffling behind the scenes while the front end of the restaurant is a friendly experience for the diners.  Being able to maintain composure has done more than elevate the perception others have of me; it has helped to keep me focused and able to continue effective communication.  If you fall into the pitfall of stress and allow it to permeate your ability to think rationally and speak effectively, you lose not only the respect of those working with you, but also the ability to logically reason through the task at hand.

The last skill I learned, although arguably the most important, is reiteration.  I also learned this in the restaurant industry simply by virtue of both being a cook and a server.  I had to repeat what others were saying in order to demonstrate understanding.  It was several years into my career in the IT/website industry, when I began to realize that this still applied.  It was no longer a matter of applying what was requested in terms of food, but any task.  This was an invaluable lesson I learned when working with my employers, employees and clients.  The simple process of repeating what has been spoken to you decreases the likelihood for error tremendously.

These three abilities are what comprise any individual’s ability to effectively communicate in business relations, both internally and externally, with clients.  Nothing can replace the ability to adjust one’s own communication style, retain composure, and reiterate what has been spoken to you.