Does Your Workplace Suffer From The Product Vernacular?

I was on a call today that really opened my eyes. There was nothing unique about the call — I wasn’t even the primary presenter (and probably not even considered a primary stakeholder). The call was just a simple product update for our sales team. On the call, we were discussing the status of a product’s beta trial that will be starting in the near future for our US market. My boss, who is English, was giving a rather simple, straight-forward update. Too easy, right? Well, at least I thought it was simple…

My boss is a fantastic human being, and an exceptional Product person. He is incredibly intelligent and is seemingly omnipotent regarding our various software products. I truly admire him and his work — essentially, I want to be him one day. He’s charismatic, well-spoken, and despite being completely saturated with people’s requests, always seems to get his work done. Now, just to clarify, I’m not saying all of this to brown-nose (well, maybe a tad) — the guy is not even a LinkedIn user as far as I know, so it’s very unlikely he’ll ever read this. So, why am I adorning his character with all this flattery?

Today, I witnessed a guy who I absolutely admire commit one of the biggest mistakes we as product people make far too often — and worse yet, he was called out on it.

As my boss wraps up his charmingly beautiful sonnet composed of technical prowess and product expertise, the call is left in cricket chirps — and possibly little-to-no, “awe.” A somewhat annoyed voice from within the virtual conference room breaks the growing awkwardness of the silence with a simple question: “So…what does that all mean?” After a short outburst of laughter (my boss included), another voice jumps in saying, “Yeah! Speak English!” That was possibly my voice. The point here being that even the “greatest” product people fall into similar bad habits, especially regarding how we communicate.

I believe the value of any good product person derives from their ability to communicate.

For awhile now, I’ve been preaching the importance of communication in the workplace — specifically within the realm of product and technology. Yet, I hadn’t really listened to my own “sermons” until being on that conference call today. In a role that requires exemplary communication skills, why do product people consistently get lost in translation? Everyday I dial into the same technical meetings to hear the same voices talk in the same technical lingo, and I too find it difficult to keep pace with at times. Same as in our products, our communication should be straightforward and easy to understand.

I like to think I’m a decent communicator. Coming out of college with almost no technical background, I’ve had to spend [nearly] the entirety of my career learning how to take technical, complicated ideas and craft them into non-technical explanations — mainly so that I could understand for my own personal use. However, being young and relatively new to the product side of things, I catch myself constantly using the product vernacular in my communications — regardless of who my audience is. The only reason I can really think of for speaking this way is, “ Wow, I bet I sound like I know what I’m talking about right.” Unfortunately, my non-product/technical colleagues haven’t the slightest idea what I’m talking about — I’m generally decent at keeping the technical jargon out of client facing communications. I’ve even been in conversation where technical minded people can’t even understand each other because their speech is so saturated with the lingo. That’s just embarrassing.

That’s why I’d like to suggest that product people start removing the product vernacular from their daily conversations — specifically when addressing non-technical colleagues. It’s amazing how carefully you’ll pick your words when you can’t just fall back on the common product terminology — words like “blocked,” “revert,” “production,” etc., come to mind. I believe the value of any good product person derives from their ability to communicate. I’ve stated it previously, a product manager’s job is to communicate to others in a way that gains buy-in for their product. We often get so automatic in our communication that we leave our audience confused and uncertain. However, improving our communication can’t just stop at our verbal/written conversations. We should also be actively enhancing how we communicate through the usability of our products.

When contemplating usability for a feature or new product, I always fall back to the concepts created by Steve Krug in his book, “ Don’t Make Me Think!” — the title really says it all. In the book, Steve argues that we should be building products that are so simple to use, and navigate, that our customers get from point A to point B instinctively with minimal “clicking.” That’s seems pretty common sense. Yet, everyday I find myself clicking around these various websites, web apps, etc., and I find myself lost in their product’s wilderness. Most of the time, it’s because the interface is not communicating to me in a way that I understand in order to effectively navigate the product. Even my own product has historically suffered from this. To combat this, we’ve made significant efforts in our design to better communicate to our end-users how they should interact with our application, which has resulted in creating a more meaningful and engaging experience for them. Yet, despite our efforts, we’re always trying to find areas to improve. In my opinion, the UI is the primary — and best — place for us to continuously communicate with our users, so we need to make sure we’re clearly defining its components in a comprehensible, recognizable way.

In conclusion, product managers have to get better at communicating in ways that avoid technical jargon. While we tend to understand the meaning/definitions of our product vernacular, we often leave our users and stakeholders in a shadow of confusion, and even worse, self-doubt. Even the best product managers fail too communicate at times, so it’s safe to say we all need to be cognizant of our words; adapting our language to the appropriate context for the audience we’re addressing. By improving our ability to communicate technical concepts without a technical vocabulary, I’d bet good money we’ll start seeing positive results in our interactions with our colleagues outside of the technical teams — and most importantly, positive feedback from our users.

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Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com on September 5, 2017.