Get Real: The problem with using a lot of words and not really saying anything.

We’ve all been there…

You’ve just listened to a presentation filled with loads of concepts, data, and jargon. The presenter asks if there are any questions or comments. Someone says something about slide 9 having a typo. Another person raises an arbitrary concern that’s really just a plug for their own project. The rest remain silent.

The presenter smiles and thanks everyone for their time. The meeting is adjourned and the assumption is that all parties now have a shared understanding of the material.

And yet they don’t.

You know they don’t. They know they don’t. The presenter even has a pretty good idea that they don’t. But the meeting is finally over and you can all get back to that thing you need to finish before the end of the day.

How does this happen? Why are we trapped in this cycle? I have a theory: It’s because we are far too reliant on words. Yeah I know, words matter. But they’re also notoriously unreliable.

Words are not concrete, but rather an abstraction of real life. If they were concrete there wouldn’t be 2,000+ languages spoken today; each one having been uniquely abstracted from a shared, concrete reality.

Words are also too easy. Anybody can fill a presentation deck with words and make it look like they accomplished something. But it takes significant energy and rumination to move past the abstract and articulate something concretely. It also requires something better than words.

Systems Thinking & The Importance of Diagramming

It’s been said that if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it well enough. It’s a great sentiment, but how does one go about properly understanding something? The first step is to adopt a systems mindset and embrace the fact that “our world is made up of interconnected and interdependent systems.” — Dr. Leyla Acaroglu.

Systems are inescapable. And the field of Experience Design exists to serve systems, whether we acknowledge it or not. Be it workflows, journey maps, user networks, etc. Make no mistake, we are designing for and within systems.

“But I care about the user,” you might say with your chest puffed and left eyebrow cocked. Great. Is your user alone on an island with zero dependence on his or her surroundings? Of course not. Your user is one component of a complex system. One element in an elaborate equation.

As designers we are constantly stepping into new spaces and having to make sense of systems that are completely foreign to us. And the best way to make sense of any system is to diagram it.

di·a·gram: a simplified drawing showing the appearance, structure, or workings of something; a schematic representation.

The workings of something… That term doesn’t get tossed around as much as it should. It raises a very interesting question; do we truly understand the workings of our systems or are we just pretending that we do by using a lot of words? The process of diagramming forces us to answer this question by separating the abstract from the concrete.

Without properly diagramming a system, our understanding of that system is often a complicated mess of concrete and abstract ideas (usually represented by a lot of words). This is a problem because what is abstract is often subjective, ambiguous, contradicting, and unreliable. If we aren’t careful to draw that out, the same will be true of our understanding of the system.

Example: The Human Circulatory System

Let’s take a look at a system we’re all intimately familiar with; the Human Circulatory System.

An overview of the Human Circulatory System might look something like this…

But is this a system? No. This is terminology. Terminology is used to describe the system. Terminology is abstract. And because it’s abstract, it doesn’t tell us anything about the appearance, structure, or workings of this system. So let’s focus on what is concrete…

Purpose: The purpose of this system is to circulate blood through the human body. This is critical… Blood is the focus of this system. If we don’t maintain that focus, there’s nothing stopping us from diagramming the entire human anatomy.

Elements: As we can clearly see above, there are many different terms for the elements of this system, but when you break them down, there are really just two core elements; Blood Vessels and Organs.

Functions: There are four functions that these elements can perform; oxygenate blood, pump blood, carry blood, or process blood.

States: There are two states in which blood can be; either oxygen-rich, or oxygen-poor.

Blood Flow Direction: Last, there are two directions that blood can be flowing; away from the heart, or toward the heart.

Now we have some very objective categories, and we can use these to properly frame this system. For example, we all have an innate understanding of our lungs. But when we use the term “Lungs,” what does that really mean in the context of this system?

Objectively, “lungs” are an organ that oxygenates oxygen-poor blood in this system. Of course that sounds like a mouthful, but avoid the temptation to oversimplify this just for the sake of convenience. Convenience comes at the cost of properly understanding.

What about a “vein?”

And an “artery?”

Starting to get the idea? When we focus on these concrete elements, we can begin to properly diagram this system.

Even if we strip away all of the terminology, we can still get a sense of how this system works with just a few key items explained; it’s a network of organs and blood vessels, moving blood through various states of oxygenation and use.

No words required. In fact, the Circulatory System offers a great example of words being unreliable: 85% of the time the term “artery” implies a blood vessel that is carrying oxygen-rich blood (red), and “vein” implies a blood vessel that is carrying oxygen-poor blood (blue). But there is one pair of blood vessels where this pattern breaks down and the terminology is actually opposite than the rest. Any guess where that occurs?

Answer: The Pulmonary Vein and Artery, which connect the lungs and the heart together.

This is essentially the sub-system that is responsible for recycling, or oxygenating, the blood. So it’s the one place in the system where the terminology essentially contradicts itself. In this case, the concrete category that is driving the terminology is the direction of blood flow (away/toward heart), rather than the oxygenation state of the blood.

This type of synthesis requires a lot of work and critical thinking, but if done correctly can prove invaluable; allowing teams to focus on solving problems rather than constantly relearning domain knowledge. But when we neglect to do this heavy lifting up front, the burden doesn’t magically disappear. It gets pushed downstream, manifesting itself in the form of unproductive meetings, redundant conversations, and far too many words.

Get real. Do the work. And focus on what is concrete.