I don’t understand!

Some thoughts on language, design, and umbrellas

I design things for people who are experts in domains that I sometimes find very confusing (here’s looking at you, infrastructure procurement!). Recently, while wading through jargon, I couldn’t help but think of the gavagai problem.

The gavagai problem is a fun experiment that comes from analytic philosophy. Its basic outline goes like this:

You are walking through the woods with a speaker of a foreign language, trying to help them with a problem. A rabbit meanders out of the bushes, and your companion points at it and says, gavagai.

You initially assume this means ‘look, a rabbit’.

…But other translations would be compatible with all the evidence he has: “Look, food”; “Let’s go hunting”; “There will be a storm tonight” (these natives may be superstitious); “Look, a momentary rabbit-stage”; “Look, an undetached rabbit-part.”… [source]

At this point, you have a choice. You can nod, and guess, and hope that it means ‘let’s go hunting’, and not ‘there’s a storm tonight’.

You can proceed to make a lot of assumptions based on it meaning ‘let’s go hunting’.

In fact, you can even outdo yourself, and create a comprehensive range of spears and darts based on your guess.

You can return to the native speakers with your rabbit-hunting gear in hand, and present it to them proudly.

You can observe their perplexed expressions and impatient gestures at the sky as raindrops fall and you hear the first clap of thunder.

You can realize that they probably wanted an umbrella instead of a spear.


But remember, you have a choice.

You can ask your companion what ‘gavagai’ means.

And you might not understand, but that’s okay; you can ask again.

Or, if they don’t speak your language at all, you can ask someone to translate.

You can keep asking questions. When they tell you that ‘gavagai’ means ‘fkdtflcjhil’, you can ask what that means as well.

You can keep asking what ‘njhectr’ and ‘jdgiidet’ and ‘errvkhr’ mean.

Until you get all the way to ‘there will be a storm tonight’.

And then you can go make an umbrella and some rain boots.

Designing for unfamiliar domains can be remarkably like this.

Someone points at something. Except it’s usually a bit of Oracle software, or an accounting spreadsheet; far less often a live mammal.

They utter a foreign phrase.

You can take several meanings from it. Is that what’s the thing is called? What it does? How it relates to something else? An inside joke that’s gone entirely over your head?

You can guess, and run with it, and make a thing, and show them.

…but you will probably end up with a spear instead of an umbrella.

But, again, you have a choice.

You can step away from a ready answer and ask questions. All the questions. Even the ones that seem incredibly dumb.

You can be humble, and readily acknowledge that you have absolutely no idea what gavagai is, and let others teach you.

They are usually quite happy to, or to point you to someone else who can translate.

And then you learn. And over time, you start speaking their language, and understanding their problems.

And then you can do the thing that you’re supposed to be doing. You can use your tools and the things that you’re an expert in to make the things other people are experts in amazing.

You can make things based on what their problems actually are.

This is remarkably hard; it’s hard to be a beginner, and it’s hard to say “I don’t know”.

But that’s the thing; good design isn’t about being right. It’s about doing the right thing.

It’s about stepping back from all the solutions and figuring out what the problem actually is.

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