In communication there are always several layers of meaning involved. Thankfully, deciphering those comes naturally to us. We have learned to pick up the cues that hint at what is left unsaid, just as we have learned to interpret the words that are being spoken in our mother language. Hence, when we hear “it’s freezing for crying out loud” upon entering a room, disgruntled faces about and the door behind us wide open, there is a decent chance we interpret that as a direct order to “close the damn door” before those words are uttered.
Linguists even divide their field into subdisciplines that deal with the rules of meaning as they apply to the different layers. There is the domain of semantics, dealing with the meaning of speech items as they are put together to form meaningful sentences, and the domain of pragmatics, dealing with the meaning of utterances that arises out of the context they are used in. Pragmatics can easily be confused with the social aspects of meaning, but there is more contextual information bearing on communication than just the roles that speakers have in a communication situation. The social aspects of communciation alone are so rich a subject that there are linguists who specialize in them. Sociolinguistics is yet another domain.
Each of these layers can be analyzed to discover rules that govern how we understand each other. Doing so we can find good reason to choose one verbalization over the other when we compose our message. We can even look for cues on how to use visualization as a communication tool much like words. Doing so we can expand our arsenal of communication tools and sharpen our understanding of how we convey meaning. So the next time you read that you must include a call to action in your presentations, think about whether there are other ways to go about this than telling people to “shut the damn door.”
In communication intent matters not. Only what is perceived is communicated. Yes, when the sender of a message picks up the signal that the recipient understood something the sender did not mean to say, there are ways to remedy the misunderstanding. But the more layers of media are entered into the mix, the harder it becomes to fix a communication problem.
I recently had an abysmal experience, when I tried to follow a webinar through a service called GoToWebinar. There was an invite posted in my twitter feed to attend a lecture about communicating (I am not kidding) featuring the ever so awesome Nancy Duarte and I was all fired up. I registered with the service on the page that the invite link lead to and received a confirmation email shortly after, telling me to do two things.
1. Click on a link that would allow me to join the webinar at the scheduled time.
2. Dial a phone number to join the conference call.
While this might seem unsuspicious enough to people who are used to conference calling, this already was a red flag for me. There is hardly a reputable service in Europe where you need to dial in to complete a registry process. In fact, the EU had to introduce some legislation to combat the droves of scam artists that lured consumers into dialing numbers at outrageous rates. So while I did not doubt the legitimacy of the service, because it was recommended by peers, I was hesitant to call a number I did not know the going rate, nor was there any indication how to even reach it correctly from outside the US. I could only guess it was a US number, because I knew the company was US based, by the way. No country code or any guide for foreigners was provided.
There’s always the trusty computer speakers I thought. No need for me to chime in, listening alone would be cool enough. But upon a Java applet starting up opening the webinar dialogue and the screen for the visuals there was no sound on my side. Browsing through the help section of their homepage it stated on several places that attendees should enable either voice over IP in the dialoge box or call in using the provided number and access code. There was the phone number I wished to avoid calling displayed on my dialogue box, but in spite of what the knowledge base said there was no check box to enable the computer speakers.
I decided to type a question in the dialogue box, even though it did not specify whether those questions would be directed at the person giving the webinar or some staff monitoring the chat box. I still do not know, because I never received an answer. Time was ticking away, Nancy browsing through her slides, but without sound there was no point following the webinar, so I decided to contact tech support to see if they could help me. Even help me to connect to the conference call, I just wanted to hear Nancy speak.
This is where things turned ugly. I meant to be as helpful as I could, after all they might learn something from my inability to connect and improve their service. For all the chance of me being stupid and overlooking the obvious they still might learn how to deal with idiots like me and make their experience smoother. Bear in mind that there is hardly a thing that can alienate a person as quickly as sabotaging their attempts to help you. Which is exactly what the company’s knowledge base did.
While I tried to write a post that was as specific as possible for them to understand my problem as a Europe based newb not knowing how to get audio access to a webinar, I opened the knowledge base in a second tab, to query for international calling and related information - to no avail, by the way, even though they have international help desks with phone numbers for non US-callers, there is no mention of how to connect to a conference call from outside the US. Unbeknownst to me, triggering the search query in one tab activated the search in the original tab as well, deleting my carefully written help request. Not cool.
I was too impatient to write the whole thing again, so I merely asked for help the second time around, mentioning that the design of their help section was less than helpful. I got no reply (to this day) and after looking for information on their homepage in vain and fiddling around with the settings of the Java applet to no avail I finally quit. A dialogue popped up to ask me if I would consider paying for their service and if I had any comments on the experience. Again no mention was made whether this feedback was directed at the person giving the webinar or the staff of the service. So I tried to be helpful one last time.
And got cut short. The form did not tell me there was a character limit, but there was. I was so fed up with the whole broken user experience that I wrote a snide comment and tweeted about this. I even looked up their handle in twitter - I could not find it at first glance on their homepage - and included them. Within two minutes I got a reply, asking me to write a mail describing my experience to their staff.
Picture a satellite moving in orbit, slowly gathering energy, aligning with some place in the americas and carefully shooting a gigaton of radiation in the foot of some poor chap named Glenn.
If you ever read this, Glenn, I’m sorry. You were just the person who got the wrong end of the stick when communication broke down. I am sure that all the people at citrix are great chaps, in fact I trust that my peers have good reason to turn to your service, but my subjective experience only spiralled downwards ever since your first message clearly was not directed at me. I am not American and don’t know how service numbers work there. I never used conference call. Don’t assume I know what you need me to do. Explain it to me and make it simple.
I trust that in this post you might find several issues you can adress to avoid communication breakdown, regardless of where you work. The success of communication is decided in the mind of the recipient. Make sure you establish some common knowledge instead of assuming it is already there. Oh, and if you need people to call a landline for free from outside of the US, there might be a way using Google voice.
It’s always good to learn from some one elses mistakes, so if you want to avoid mine, please bear with me. There is a lesson to be found in the following story.
I recently tried to explain the concept of immersion in a Prezi. There was a little contest on their homepage and I thought: “Hey, they are asking what people think about Prezi + iPad and you wanted to explain a concept that is a feature of the user experience for both. Why not create a contest entry about immersion?”
To me immersion is a key defining feature of great interface design and I think the one thing that both the iPad with its touch interface and Prezi with its zooming interface can bring together is the elimination of borders between users and content.
No more mouse fidgeting, but a responsive interaction with virtual elements on a screen by touch is one powerful user experience. The technology fades into the background and you feel connected with the content to a point where the interface feels as if there was none. Freely zooming around in a virtual environment can be an immersive experience by itself, bringing both interface designs together should be a homerun.
Bummer. Prezi only accepts swf or pdf as vector files. No scalable vector graphics, much to my dismay. Worse still, swf import is a tad buggy. I manage to create a decent looking scalable virtual world stacking pdfs with matching backgrounds on top of each other - mind you, there is no transparency support in pdf. Apart from a typo and suboptimal typesetting I finalize the project just in time to beat the deadline. Then my mac dies on me. Here’s where insult is added to injury:
When I check my submission on a different machine, all of a sudden the experience is much less convincing than before. The closer I zoom in on the pdf objects the less fluid the zooming and panning motion becomes. The embedded movie looks jagged. Instead of being invisible the technology makes watching the Prezi almost unbearable. Surely not very immersive.
I can only assume that embedding several pdf on top of each other is a resource hog. Even though it looked good on my tricked out machine at first, it does not really work on every kind of hardware. And immersion only works if you do not get distracted by any glitches in the matrix.
So the moral of the story: Unless you control for every step of the way of your delivery, there is always an open flank for murphy’s law to catch up with you. Unfortunately nature always sides with the hidden flaw. Keep that in mind when you try to innovate.
Here’s the Prezi in question. Your experience may vary.