User Communication (cont.)

In a previous post, I began a discussion about communication. That post focused on errors in communication in the first 2 portions. This post will focus on errors that arise on the tail end of the communication process (parsing through and extracting info from the transcription, and extracting the original entity's meaning).

As before we'll use examples. This is a three-step email that I sent to a doctor that needed help sending a message with a link to a mailing list. Apparently this greatly differs from sending an e-mail to a regular person somhow. Here's what I wrote:

1) Create a new e-mail message to "list@domain.tld" (no quotes). This address will then forward your message to the people on the mailinglist. This forwarding action happens automatically behind the scenes and requires no actions on your part.

2) Type the body of your e-mail as you normally would. The link that needs to be placed in your message is shown below. Feel free to copy-and-paste it into the message.


3) Hit send.

For some reason it still couldn't be done. What is it about the above that's difficult to understand? Based on what I said, could you send a link to the mailing list in question? Please leave any appropriate feedback.

My last example in this thread is a conversation that I had with a recently hired supervisor. I was trying to explain what happened behind the scenes when a submit button was pressed on one of our patient registration forms. After discussing the database save and the other web component that displays what is recently entered, I moved on to the printouts and how I would like to replace these with an email message. This is because the print subsystem keeps losing the ability to communicate with the printer in question. This is also going to be worse when I move the server into our network's DMZ. At this point, I noticed a funny look on her face.

"What's wrong?" I asked.

"I don't understand a word you just said," was the response she mouthed, inaudibly.

Now, I know she knows what a database is (After all, her first question to me when she joined our team was "Why don't you just use SPSS for all your databases?"), so I tried to get in her head and figure out what caused this misunderstanding.

"I just don't understand why all that happens before the user submits the page," she finally told me.

"Before?!" I asked.

Apparently, the past tense and the fact that "the information entered" was used wasn't enough to clue her in.

"It doesn't happen before, this happens after." I replied.

"Oh, ok, it makes sense now."

I started this thread with four steps, but one thing this whole experience has taught me is that context matters most in communication. If you can't transcribe your idea in the appropriate context, your message has no hope for success.


User Communication

It's been a while since I posted...

I want to share some interesting communication examples I have experienced over the last few months. First, a quick refresh. The task of communication requires the following steps to occur:

0) An entity must conceive an item they wish to communicate (usually done in their mind).
1) This entity must transcribe this item into a medium that can be understood by others (e.g., print, video, web, etc.).
2) Another entity must parse through the medium and extract the transcription (i.e., read, watch, surf).
3) This entity must then extract from the transcription the original entity's meaning.

Now, some people will say you need another "confirmation" step where the second entity confirms with the first as to the true meaning of the message. You could also go into a long diatribe which covers understanding. However, I just want to focus on these four things.

Our first example was picked up during a bioinformatics symposium. This was a note left in my hotel room from the maid. Here it is below:

Now, what did she transcribe (write)? Is it "all or the Plug in ale being use behind to T.U"? WTF does that mean? This has got to be a problem between steps 0 and 1. However, thanks to the extracting abilities my informatics background has taught me, I can decipher further. Here's what I think she originally conceived:

"All of the plugs behind the TV are being used"

Now, I was able to come to this conclusion because of the context of the note. It was placed on top of the power supply I had left in the room. I had also disconnected a plug for a lamp so I could power up the supply. However, this conclusion is radically different from what was transcribed (in haste I hope) on this piece of paper. What conclusion would others arrive at without that context? What did you think it said? Many just gave up and pointed out the idiocy of this person. My wife made out the words "plug in" and "behind" and joked that she was requesting butt sex. I think though this is a good example of how delicate the communication process is. It's amazing how the same sequence of words can mean different things to different people. Sadly, this person forgot that when you write something for another person to read, you need to write it in a way so the other person can understand.

Example two is a alphanumeric page I got from our receptionist. I can't digitize the screen so here's my transcription of the message she left (minus the identifiers):


Yeah...she wants a printer? Unfortunately for her, I don't have any. Here's what her page really meant:

The two printers where I am won't print when I use a certain program.

The only way I figured this one out was with a face-to-face. Now, I did start off by asking what she wanted a printer for, but she didn't catch the jab. But how in the world can you extract the original meaning from that?

What I'm trying to convey is that communication is very much a two-way street. You can't just jot down anything quickly and expect someone to "get it." You have to know your audience and use terms they can understand (and/or terms that are syntactically valid for the language you are using). Hopefully, this post has made you more aware of this fact and you'll strive to produce better messages.

Next post, we'll look at the other side of the pie. When you have Steps 0 - 1 correct, but something's messed up on steps 2 & 3. I hope you'll join me for that.