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Where communication fails

onde falha a comunicação

Over recent years, I have come to discover that most organisational problems are essentially due to ineffective communication between people. Even in the area of User Experience (UX), whose focus is Human-Centred Design (HCD), even those professionals who are most sensitive to the needs and frustrations of “others” are not immune to the most common communication problems.

But in the end, what lies at the heart of this entropy? How can we communicate better with our co-workers, managers, professionals from other areas and even our customers? To what extent is interpersonal communication one of the most important soft skills for UX Designers?

The communication process

Communication is the process by which information is conveyed between two or more people by means of verbal language (written and spoken) and non-verbal language (body language, word intonation, symbols, etc.). According to the communication theory of Roman Jakobson, communication involves different components.

  • Message: the idea that one wants to convey. A message can have various meanings, with one central meaning.
  • Addresser: responsible for conveying the message. The way that the message is conveyed depends on the addresser’s interpretation.
  • Addressee: the one who receives the message conveyed by the addresser. The message can have different effects on the addressee.
  • Context: the scope to which the message refers.
  • Channel: means by which the message is conveyed.
  • Code: components comprising the message – signs and rules.

Communication is considered to be effective when the meaning and intent of the message, as expressed by the addresser, are understood by the addressee.

Noise in communication

Any communication process is subject to noise, which can easily compromise its effectiveness. This noise can be related to the person who sends and/or receives the message (personality, state of mind, experience, sociocultural values, etc.) or to outside conditions that end up influencing the components of the flow. All of these factors make communication a fragile process that is difficult to control. Furthermore, the more people and channels involved, the harder it will be to convey the desired message.

There are many obstacles to communication in our day-to-day work routine, related not only to the specific setting of the profession and the environment, but above all people – their interpersonal communication abilities and their individual traits. These obstacles become even more critical in professions centred on people – such as those who do research and testing with users (User Researchers, UX Designers, Service Designers) or who manage these kinds of projects (UX Product Managers).

Here are some of the most common situations and difficulties.

  • Not knowing how to listen: we fail to listen for many reasons – because there is a lot of noise in the workspace; because we have other things on our mind; because we find it increasingly harder to concentrate; or simply because we are not interested. Knowing how to (truly) listen requires effort, attention and motivation. Julian Treasure, in TEDGlobal “5 ways to listen better” (2011), said:

We’re becoming impatient. We don’t want oratory anymore, we want soundbites. And the art of conversation is being replaced – dangerously, I think – by personal broadcasting. (…) The fact that we are losing our listening is a serious problem. This is not trivial. Because listening is our access to understanding. Conscious listening always creates understanding.

  • Difficulty in communicating clearly: the ability to organise a discourse in a simple, objective, targeted manner with proper intonation is not always easy, particularly when we have had little practice, difficulties with expression/diction, when we find ourselves in stressful situations or when we feel we are being judged. An overly drawn-out or confusing discourse may result in a misinterpretation of the message, a loss of focus by the addressee or disinterest, and may even convey insecurity or incompetence with regard to the issue at hand. In the context of an interview or user test, it is important to ask questions or give specific instructions in an appropriate tone. Otherwise, we may confuse the person. In an interview, the person may feel ignorant or that they are wasting their time – and then give answers which are out of context, too long or too hurried. In a test, the person may feel lost, and do the opposite of what we want in a task.
  • Failure to adapt the communication: the way we perceive and assimilate information is an individual process. Everyone has different motivations, interests and degrees of knowledge. There are also different learning styles. Some people tend to be more verbal, visual or motor-based. Any failure to consider the personal traits of the addressee of our message is well on the way towards a misunderstanding. This aspect is truly important, and affects all areas of the user experience in a universal manner. Keeping in mind the person’s background, mental model and the type of language familiar to them are some of the aspects that a UX designer should pay attention to.
  • Use of too much technical jargon: all areas and specialisations have their own terms and expressions. The problem arises when, on multidisciplinary teams (or even UX projects), the addresser’s discourse is not at the level of the addressee(s), whether unknowingly or due to a lack of awareness, a lack of information or simply a lack of consideration. This may lead to a subjective interpretation of the message, frustration or misunderstandings.
  • Doing several things at the same time: it is hard to do two or more tasks simultaneously, let alone effectively. For instance, it is quite common for us to be doing something on the computer while also speaking to someone (while also talking to another person on the company chat). In research work with users, it is also advisable to have two people present – one to moderate the interview/test and another to observe and take notes – or alternatively, consider the use of recording (audio, video) with proper authorisation, or be sure to maintain visual contact, interspersed with the taking of notes (or provide a synopsis/debriefing at the end of the session).
  • Physical distance: working remotely can be highly advantageous to the company and to the employee, since it allows for flexible and efficient time management. However, physical distance can be a barrier when ideas need to be discussed or problems need to be solved together. Getting people together is much easier when they are working in the same space, especially at companies. Remote meetings require a greater synchronisation effort. The same applies to interviews or tests with users, which are oftentimes done remotely. In addition, certain elements of non-verbal communication are relevant, and can be diminished in certain channels.
  • Use of too many devices, tools and discussion groups: while it is becoming increasingly easier to get in contact with someone, it is also becoming more difficult to focus our attention. A large percentage of our work day is spent reading and answering emails, speaking in different conversation channels and in person, via teleconferencing or voice calls. Working tools, whose goal is to assist us in our work, can also complicate things even further the more diverse they are on a given team, especially in the area of UX, where there is an entire plethora of applications coming out on the market recurrently. All of this, together with constant and fragmented distractions, results in a massive loss of work efficiency and impaired communication processes.
  • Personal interpretations and fragile egos: this is, perhaps, the most difficult thing to admit, and also the most difficult to solve. We all have an ego – an idea and image of ourselves that we want to protect. The problem is when our ego takes up too much space from a professional standpoint. Receiving criticism about our work in an assertive manner is not the same as receiving a personal critique. This difference becomes more difficult to distinguish when we are feeling somewhat insecure, when the criticism comes from someone in a position of power or influence (such as a supervisor or customer), or simply when we do not sympathise with someone. The result of the personal interpretation of these criticisms may include defensive responses and attitudes, distrust, malaise and frustration on both sides. This aspect should be borne in mind not only at our organisation, but also with the people involved in our UX projects, such as customers and stakeholders.
  • Hierarchical model: the larger or more complex a hierarchy at a company, the harder it will be to express an idea or opinion in a genuine manner. Added to this difficulty are bureaucratic processes, established social rules and less accessible people. Inevitably, much important information is lost. Hierarchical models can also be a challenge in UX projects when problems must be troubleshot, which means questioning the status quo.
  • Vague or non-existent governance model: even worse than a complex governance model is one that is vague or non-existent. Sometimes such a model even exists, but is not properly communicated. Not knowing whom to report to, when to report, or reporting in specific situations is one of the worst things for the communication and health of a company. In a UX project, knowing the customer’s governance model is essential – not only for communicating with professionals in given stages, but also for identifying people who can be our allies in communicating the goals and importance of UX activities in projects.
  • Not prioritising communication: in the endless stream of our daily tasks, there are issues related to communication that can easily take a back seat. Not only do these include phone calls, but also backlogged emails and unanswered messages. Procrastinating in contacting a dissatisfied customer can result in losing this customer. In addition, inadequate feedback and follow-up by managers and supervisors with their employees can have negative consequences, from a lack of motivation to leaving the company. In the area of UX projects, a lack of guidance and explanation about the reasons behind certain activities can leave the customer either frustrated with the required time and investment or with unrealistic expectations about the expected results.
  • Not communicating important information: holding back information that is important to the rest of the team, the company or the customer, even by simply forgetting or due to other barriers associated with the environment, can have negative impacts on the flow and efficiency of work. Much information is thus lost or repeated unnecessarily.

How can we communicate better?

As we have already seen, communication can be difficult in a work setting, and does not depend solely on us in order to be truly effective. However, there are things that everyone can do to ease the process. After banging my head a bit, reading some books and articles, watching some inspiring TED Talks, and receiving some wise advice from those who have been down this path before, I will now offer some recommendations for better communication. I also recommend watching the TED Talk by Celeste Headlee, “10 ways to have a better conversation” (2015), which served as a reference for many of these ideas:

  • Know how to listen: this is the number one rule! We learn more when we keep quiet and listen to the other person than by talking. Truly listening is actually quite hard. Knowing how to listen means being present, i.e. being focused on the other person. In a conversation, it means listening to what the other person is saying without distracting ourselves with dozens of other issues at the same time, or simply being concerned about what we will say next. To quote Celeste Headlee:

Stephen Covey said it very beautifully: Most of us don’t listen with the intent to understand. We listen with the intent to reply.”

The possibility of distraction is very high when we are interviewing someone or moderating a test with a user. These are activities that require proactive listening, but also a focus on goals, which are learned with practice.

  • Keep an open mind and do not judge: personal beliefs are not universal truths. Instead of trying to convince the other person that our opinion is right, we will have better chances to learn and evolve if we listen to, and embrace, other experiences and points of view. One of the principles to be followed in a UX process is precisely this: listening to various voices with regard to a problem – the voices of the customer, the market and the user. This is the only way to build solutions tailored to reality.
  • Give feedback, if appropriate, at the right time: whenever someone does something wrong or falls short, or it is important to bring this to their attention, we should look for the right time to do this, preferably in private and always in a straightforward manner. Along these lines, we should consider the extent to which our feedback may be important to the other person. Not everyone is open to the opinions of others. This can become particularly delicate when we are in a lower hierarchical position, less experienced at the company or simply younger. In summary, this should be carefully considered on a case-by-case basis. In user tests, it is important to know what type of feedback we can give and when, so as to avoid negatively influencing performance. For example, if someone asks us a question, posing the same question back to them, exploring the reasons for their doubt or asking them to continue as if they were alone are moderation techniques that can be used, without leaving the person frustrated and lost.
  • Communicate; do not show off: this is one of the difficult points. In a more or less conscious manner, we frequently want to share our experiences and accomplishments, and there is nothing wrong with this. The problem comes when we focus too much on the “I” and stop listening to what the other person has to tell us because we are overly concerned with what we want to say.
  • Develop empathy: “empathy” is a commonly used expression, but I actually believe there are few who truly understand its meaning. According to Sarah Gibbons (2019), empathy is the ability to fully understand, mirror, then share another person’s expressions, needs and motivations. It means putting yourself in someone’s shoes and trying to understand their situation, considering the individual nature of their experience. Empathy is essential, not only with the users of our projects, but also with our co-workers.
  • Develop self-knowledge and self-control: it is perfectly natural for us to find it harder to communicate in certain situations compared to others. There is always someone who we would rather avoid. One thing is true: we cannot change other people. But we can learn how to manage our emotions better. To do so, we must determine which circumstances make us the most uncomfortable. In the case of people we want to avoid, we can analyse past conflicts and try to determine which aspects of these interactions made us uncomfortable and why. If we are aware of our weaknesses, it will be easier to find strategies to cope with possible constraints, whether in a work setting or in a UX project.
  • Give context: whenever we address someone, we should not come on too strong, especially if the person is completely off topic. Context is important, but it should be brief and objective. It is also important for us to give context in a firm manner when we present a question to someone, especially when we already know that the person we are addressing tends to be impulsive and impatient, to avoid less than appropriate comments. Contextualisation is very important when interacting with stakeholders (to have their support) and with people who are part of our research.
  • Always communicate a problem to the right person: the sooner a problem is brought to light, the easier it will be to solve. Postponing this type of communication can have a snowball effect – before we know it, we may be dealing with a monster! We should inform the people in charge first, and as soon as possible. Involving other people is not recommended, and can only make the situation worse. Along these lines, when communicating with the person in charge is not possible, it is preferable to send an email and, if necessary, report to the next hierarchical person in charge.
  • Be honest and humble: it is preferable to admit that we do not know and therefore can learn, in lieu of pretending to know and jeopardising our reputation and that of the company. It is also preferable to say something when we disagree with something – provided that we do so in an assertive manner, of course.
  • Be clear and objective: at work or even in a UX project with research, time is precious, especially for those who have many operational tasks, who manage teams or who have many things to deal with. The likelihood of someone else retaining our message is much higher when it is clear, concise and objective. Furthermore, we will be more effective, and perceived as such, when we get straight to the point. Along these lines, speaking in a highly pompous manner does not make us more intelligent (to the contrary!) in the eyes of others.
  • Find things in common: this is one of the secrets of a good conversation, and also a strategy to implement when we are having trouble making a connection with another person. Sometimes, it is possible to find things in common. Other times, we must find a way to accommodate another person’s interests. This does not mean pretending to be interested, but instead trying to learn about something new.
  • Write down what is important: this is a golden rule! Whether at the end of a meeting, in a telephone conversation or even during idle talk, whenever an important matter or decision is at hand, we should always send an email to the other person, or leave a record in the appropriate platforms. As regards our research work with people, it is truly helpful to take written notes about the most important information while interactions are occurring or immediately afterward – it can save lots of time, even when we have audio/video recordings.
  • Use the appropriate communication methods: as with the governance model, knowing which channels to use for each situation is another aspect that should be clearly established at a company. If the issue is unclear… use common sense. Important issues – communicate in person and write down, or send by email. Sending documents – use the company email. Asking a co-worker about a job-related issue – official company conversation platform. Talking about sports or going out the day before – wait for a break to talk in person or via private chat 😛

Communication and User Research

Interpersonal communication is one of the most important soft skills for UX Designers, especially as regards user research. If our area is focused on people, in order to know and truly understand their needs, motivations and frustrations, we must be able to listen and be present.

Many of the issues addressed throughout this article apply to the methods used in user research, particularly in interviews, focus group sessions and user tests. Unfortunately, although it is a well-known topic, it is hardly addressed in schools compared to other subjects involving theory and technology. As such, UX-PM certifications can be beneficial, both for those just starting in this area, as well as for those wishing to expand and improve their skills in applied communication for the business world and user experience.