Friday, November 02, 2007

Challenges When Communicating Designs

Tuesday evening I gave a talk about the challenges software developers face when communicating design ideas. I started by making the connection between telling others about designs and storytelling. Effective designers need to tell good stories. And the tone and means by which we communicate design ideas should vary depending on the reasons we have for telling a particular story, and our audience's background and expectations. Perhaps we need to educate newcomers or explain our design to get constructive feedback. Maybe we want to convince others to take some specific action or “buy in” to change. Regardless of motive, we need to communicate about our designs in compelling and engaging ways.

At the beginning of my talk I asked attendees to write down their most challenging communication problem. I figured it was a fair exchange: I’d get direct feedback from about their problems, and two lucky attendees would walk away a book. Looking over their feedback, I’d categorize them as

Communicating to others who are not like me
“Communicating across domains (UI design to SW) or cultures (US to India)”
“The hardest communication was when I had to present a design to a group that does not specialize in my area.”
“As an embedded software engineer, the rest of my team are hardware engineers so they have neither the training in software methods nor the software mindset.”
“Communicating technical design to non-technical people.”
“Communicating to a non technical customer.”

Getting others to appreciate the important bits
“One of the most challenging aspects of communicating a design is educating the receiver of the design on design paradigms. This is especially true when the person is not familiar with or comfortable with object oriented design/analysis.”
“As a developer working in an agile environment, I often receive partially-conceived designs, sometimes as little as a single Photoshop mock-up. It’s easy to spot short comings, but difficult to communicate them. I sometimes end up implementing a feature just to illustrate its problems.”
“I sometimes have trouble getting others to understand why a simple solution is insufficient when the other person has very limited time to understand the problem.”
“To clearly point out the subtleties and nuances of the most critical or pivotal aspects of the design—what’s really important.”

Gaining common understanding
“Vocabulary/definitions”
“Definitions [that] are not the same for the same term.”
“Just getting to a mutual understanding of the idea has been an issue for me.”

Story telling mechanics
“Communicating at the right level. What can we assume, what needs to be explicit.”
“Knowing what to put down.”
“Keeping the explanation simple. Explaining only the parts which are needed. … Pulling your imagination into paper.”

Most designers could tell far more about their designs than they should. We also could benefit from practice telling coherent stories and ensuring that the important parts get emphasized. If you have insights on how to effectively communicate design ideas or design communications challenge you’d like to share, I’d love to hear from you. Over the past year or two I’ve been working on effective design communication.

I also want to announce that I’ve put together a new one-day course, The Art of Telling Your Design Story. I’ll be teaching it publicly at OGI’s Center for Professional Development in Beaverton, Oregon, November 30th. The day before I’m offering another new course, Practical UML (if I called it Impractical UML would anyone sign up?). Design stories don’t always need formal UML notations (in fact, one of the challenges is communicating subtle ideas to non-technical folks). ButI’ve seen UML so disabused that I want to give developers some straight talk on how to effectively communicate using UML at different levels of detail (and show some nuanced design ideas effectively).

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