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Evade Illusion of Shared Understanding with Visual Thinking

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that is has taken place.”

George Bernard Shaw

Many businesses these days are built upon three main pillars: their customers, operations, and technology. Very often, these entities are quite similar to actual free-standing pillars in that they’re in dire need of a means of solidifying their respective foundations through cohesion and proper alignment.

Enter the Product Manager, which despite their somewhat fluid role supports and connects those pillars, bridging lines of communication and managing expectations. Because of that, it comes as no surprise that Product Management as a whole is gaining in popularity.

But what is it that makes a good Product Manager so effective? What are they doing that we can learn from? Well, among their various tasks and responsibilities, it’s their laser-focused approach to fostering an environment where those pillars are completely in sync and their understanding of purpose, expectations, and work processes are in complete alignment.

The sooner this shared understanding is achieved, the greater the savings in costs, time, and sheer frustration. Where the burden incurred from the exchange of emotional and political turmoil is lessened, while the trust shared between partners is increased and others aren’t questioned but rather supported.

With all of that said, reaching that state isn’t easy and requires fundamental changes in how teams and individuals approach communication. It entails being in tune with how misunderstanding can present itself and how far its impact can actually stretch. Oh, and it can stretch big time.

Costs of Misinterpretation

But communication is easy, no? You talk, they listen. They talk, you listen. Mutual understanding is accomplished. Job done, right?

If that’s the case, why do so many teams find themselves needing to revisit their mission goals each quarter? Or how do we find ourselves arguing whether or not a Slack message was read and understood properly enough? There are simply so many instances of how shared misunderstanding can rear its pesky little head, each with its own inherent cost.

Nothing brings those costs to the forefront better than software development, the seemingly all-too-susceptible victim of communication breakdowns. That’s because software development highlights how far our understanding of the underlying concepts goes beyond the meeting room, ingraining itself into practical, systematic applications.

A popular example of this is naming conventions. For instance, how methods and variables are named, and subsequently understood, cascades through the established hierarchy and network of dependencies creating a domino effect that can potentially result in a muddled system. Even worse, the more hands that are in the cookie jar, as they say, the worse those cascading effects can be.

Netscape engineer, Phil Karlton, touched on this when he said:

‘There are only two hard things in Computer Science: cache invalidation and naming things.’

- Phil Karlton, former Sotfware Designer at Netscape

If truth be told, the second most troublesome issue a software engineer faces is not even related to technology, but rather one dealing with communication.

If you think about it though, what an individual chooses to name a method, variable, file, etc. is really just a reflection of their own internalized process of understanding an intended function and then being able to communicate that with team members and/or clients.

“By giving a name to a concept, we make the concept concrete by defining the assumptions, the behavior, and the responsibility of the concept. A concept with a name is contained and no longer vague. That’s why naming is important: it helps to communicate a concept to another person (which can also mean your future self).”

Rick Mak, CTO at Oursky & Skygear

Even with something that’s seemingly so innocuous, we can see just how hard it is to actually reach a shared representation of intention and understanding and how potentially harmful that can be.

Yet, with all of that being said, if the case for fostering proper, agreed-upon alignment is so strong, what’s preventing us from making this a living reality? Where do we start to look for flaws in our communication that hinder that reality?

Frame of Reference

To better understand the source of the problem, let’s take a step back. As a Product Designer by trade, I use many visual assets to communicate intention. From storyboards to low-fidelity sketches, I’m attempting to approximate the mental models of the user.

The user’s mental model, or the representation of how something works in their mind, is not a sufficient frame of reference for mutual understanding. While a vital component, it’s insufficient because it fails to take into account the mental models of other stakeholders.

The model that has to be presented should act as the central point of discussion and the catalyst for debate. This is primarily because changes to it will ultimately affect everyone involved, whether that be members of the technical, business, design, or customer experience teams.

“I believe design is a collaborative process. In that sense, design is political. It is a sort of discussion. And the designer’s role is to help facilitate the discussion. The traditional tools of drawing and prototyping are remarkably helpful in this role.”

- Hugh Dubberly, formerly leading design teams at Apple and Netscape

The fact of the matter is that the existence of a shared, unified understanding isn’t automatically generated at a meeting nor can it be verified by simply hitting milestones. It’s hard-won, requiring a conscious approach to communication. One where individuals attempt to actively see things through another person’s eyes, fostering omni-perspective cooperation.

Accomplishing that level of cooperation demands that team members be more objective in their approach. For instance, when you present an important issue to your colleague, it’s important to try to frame it in a way that might help them better understand your perspective, giving it more context and tangibility.

Yet even if you account for multiple frames of reference, shared understanding still demands ongoing effort and most importantly, It requires an optimized distribution method.

Distribution of Meaning

Did you know that psychologists say the most thoughts we can hold within our head at one time is about six or seven? When you consider the complexity of the majority of the systems we work with, it’s nearly impossible for anyone to hold a consistent, accurate representation in their minds at all times.

Because of this, we tend to focus on concepts we’re comfortable with, rather than putting energy into those that are important but can be new and hard to grasp. We employ what Daniel Kahneman defines as a “Mental Shotgun”.

In his landmark book, Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman concludes that people intuitively jump to conclusions because they replace one problem with a simpler version of it, in order to come up with a solution that matches that problem. This happens instinctively and instantly.

Because of that, in order to get an accurate view of both the big picture and the details (i.e. the forest and the trees), while working to avoid the start of cascading miscommunication, it’s more effective to first dissect a concept into more digestible units and then disseminate them. Whether it occurs virtually or physically, that process allows others to better hold onto that concept by making it easier to create the necessary connections and relationships without jumping to conclusions.

Going a step further, the ability to acquire that information and help it stick can be amplified through the use of Visual Thinking. This is the creation and utilization of visual artifacts, be it sketches, drawings, or diagrams, that transcends verbal explanation by utilizing our natural cognitive abilities.

Through them, the manner in which we think becomes more tangible and open to discussion with team members. This is the Theory of Distributed Cognition in action, where thinking with your brain and objects in the world is not a subjectively better way to think; it’s your natural predisposition.

It helps to move those internal/mental representations out of our heads and onto a canvas, either figuratively or literally, therefore freeing up our processing power. Details from our head can then be more properly externalized via mediums such as low-fidelity sketches, mind maps, or concept diagrams.

Visual Thinking vs. Doodling/Sketching

That’s not to say that everything visual enhances our understanding in the same way. Far from it. Think of it in terms of written communications, where we employ hundreds of different formats each conveying something different. This same parallel exists for visual components, where each visual communication has its own use and function.

For instance, let’s take a look at how visual thinking differs from something less structured, like doodling and/or sketching. Practically speaking, most people illustrate using doodles or sketches and through them, they’re attempting to convey more of the shallow, macro-thoughts that exist at the top of the mind. Conversely, the activity of visual thinking attempts to dig in deeper, purposefully working towards a resolution.

Most doodles and hand-drawn mockups are superficial and only conveying the basic meaning, while visual thinking involves integrity and completeness.

- Moses Kim, UX writer, and researcher

Despite their differences, both have their place, much like a penned cover letter complements a resume. Doodling is especially useful for graphic recording, exploring, and testing ideas on a more personal, private level. By design, its outputs evoke a temporary, unfinished state. On the other hand, visual thinking is the visual evolution of an idea. A living conceptualization that is “complete” once interest parties are happy with its promise. Yet it’s safe to say, a quick sketch is often times the seed and/or catalyst of a more robust output of visual thinking.

Full of tools, concepts, and techniques, visual thinking is a vast realm of mediums and applications that are trying to help us better distribute our cognition across the myriad of processes we work within each and every day. By doing so, they’re not only improving our work processes, but redefining them.

Visual Thinking In Practice

Created back in 2011, Miro is a software tool that helps foster a visual-based, collaborative process through its virtual, feature-rich whiteboard. Within which, users can access various “canvases” where they can actively collaborate with and learn from each other in real-time.

Miro comes equipped with plenty of ready-made templates that reflect many of the standard frameworks used for guiding conversations and organizing information. These cover all activities in the product development lifecycle, including research, ideation, design, and strategy.

Distributed teams, especially, can greatly benefit from its free-flowing means of communication, transforming what “normal” communication means.

“While the majority of collaborative tools offered a preset workflow and linear narrative, we tried to build a fluid structure that empowers the stream of thoughts which often results in brilliant ideas and unusual project’s directions. But it turned out that an online whiteboard has even more potential than a real one. We weren’t just copying a physical experience — we were enhancing it to fundamentally change how people work.”

Andrey Khusid, CEO at Miro

In addition, Miro’s form of visual thinking has helped provide a certain level of expression that mitigates communication barriers that can exist between remote and non-remote employees. Paul Harrison, Design Lead at Wipro Digital, provided his experience using Miro for aligning their distributed team:

“Being able to communicate easily and effectively has allowed us to create a virtual Project environment, our actual Project Wall, where together as a team we collaborate and communicate as a virtually co-located team.”

“This approach has led to openness and transparency for the whole team and stakeholders, which creates trust and a shared sense of responsibility that enables us to speak with open, radical candor where we deliver faster with more accuracy.”

Paul Harrison, UX Architect & Design Lead @ Wipro Digital

Visual Illiterateness

With that said, if visual thinking, like that on display with Miro, can vastly improve shared understanding and overall productivity, why are we not all visualizing on a daily basis? The answer is simple.

Think back to your childhood and your time in school. Excluding those breathtaking science dioramas you made and those afterthought art classes you took part in, visual thinking, as a skill, was not an active part of the learning process in most public schools.

“Our entire education system evolved to believe that pictures are like training wheels: They’re useful only to get us started reading — and drawing should be discarded the moment we’re able to write.”

- Dan Roam, bestselling author of five books on visual communication

Because these skills weren’t developed over time, most people feel uncomfortable using pictures or diagrams to explain ideas. They might be scared of being perceived as too analytical, given the inherent challenges of reading diagrams, or maybe even not serious enough because doodles or drawings may be cast in a more casual light. Heck, more often than not they’re just plain worried of their art being judged more on its style than its substance.

Paradoxically, the absence of constraints might be the biggest factor why people are put off. There are no limits, no official vocabulary on how information can be represented so the visual elements being used can end up being impenetrable to anyone other than their original author. If everyone can’t understand what’s being communicated, there’s no room for shared understanding.

But there’s no need to fret. Believe it or not, the demand to develop this skill is so strong that there are people like Dan Roam who are devoting their life to teaching visual thinking. By doing so, they’re giving the practicality of visual thinking as an asset more credibility, while providing a viable means of becoming more adept at it.

Evolution of Shared Understanding

Looking to improve your visual literacy or ability to put thoughts to paper? In her book, Pencil Me In, businesswoman and specialist in the area of design thinking, Christina Wodtke, put together a shortlist of what she believes to be the most useful visual thinking methods, listed in a natural progression:

  1. Mind maps, to gather your thoughts
  2. Concept maps, to organize your knowledge
  3. System maps, to map the system
  4. Mental models, to plot out and communicate a user’s understanding
  5. Concept models, to communicate a new way of interpreting a complex system

This progression represents how shared understanding evolves in two distinct ways:

  1. From internal thought to external communication, through methodical examination, organization, and consolidation, producing the most useful representation at the end.
  2. From first exploring the field (mapping), then transitioning towards exploiting the best opportunity (modeling).

Since each of those mediums essentially tell a different “story” and serves a different purpose, you can work and expand upon those in a manner that befits your particular needs and/or goals. Through that process, if you’re ever not completely confident about the clarity of your idea at a particular stage, simply move back a step and fix what’s not working.

Below are examples of the five components of Wodtke’s visual thinking progression:

Mind Map

Concept Map

System Map (Enhanced Causal Loop diagram)

Mental Model vs. Concept Model

It’s Time to Evolve

Product Managers and Product Designers will often make the claim that achieving a shared understanding amongst their team is one of the biggest challenges they face. But this challenge is one that’s all but self-made, deriving primarily from a lack of creative space where ideas can exist in a malleable, tangible form.

To quote bestselling author, Dan Roam, “Words can be used to describe anything. But that does not mean words are the best way to describe everything.” Visual thinking gives individuals and teams that space, that canvas, to better utilize their natural cognitive abilities and a means of better communicating in an omni-perspective manner.

All of that amounts to a collective working process that can better manage complexity and marry an individual’s understanding to the group’s shared one. One that is more objective and extrospective, capitalizing on advancements in technology and visual thinking methodologies.

Created with help of copyeditor Raymond Welch