On walkabout in life and technology

Hiltmonism - Talk to Drivers, Not Mechanics

How many people really know how their motor vehicle works, or even care to. Very few.

But they all drive.

And when their car breaks down or makes a noise or that ridiculous engine light comes on, they need mechanics. Nobody, except other mechanics, understands the explanation of whats wrong with the car. And therein lies the problem.

Mechanics need to learn to talk to drivers, not mechanics.

Techs are the Mechanics

Technology people are perceived to be painfully shy. I guess its a movie meme. They are not. Just observe a bunch of technology folks get into it on a topic they understand. You’ll never get them to stop talking, arguing, jousting and challenging. Mechanics are speaking to mechanics.

Technology people are also perceived as disconnected, strange, different, hard to speak to and harder to understand.

Unfortunately, this is not a meme. It’s true.

But not because techs are disconnected, strange, unintelligible folks. Or painfully shy for that matter.

Its because techs simply communicate differently to the way their audience does. And since techs do not speak to people the way they normally prefer and understand, this perception is supported by the evidence. Which makes it real.

Mechanics are speaking to drivers as if they were mechanics.

In business, successful technology teams understand this disconnect and learn to speak to their audience, to talk and relate the way their audience in the business does.

Successful mechanics speak driver-to-driver as fellow drivers .

Mechanics vs Drivers

Lets take a look closer at tech talk (the language of the mechanic) vs audience talk (the language of the driver) to see why this disconnect exists:

1. Techs talk in details, the audience talks in generalities. As a result, techs talk too much about the detail of what they are explaining and either confuse or bore the audience. Who cares that brakes have linings that soften, wear out and burr; but we all know when they squeak. Techs need to adopt necessary generalizations to address their clients properly and to have a shot at understanding them.

2. Techs also get lost in being accurate and pedantic, something the audience never does — they have better things to do. Whether there are N items or N+M items makes a difference to techs yet makes no difference to the audience. For a mechanic, the engine timing, tuning, air flow and seals are critical, for the driver, having a working car is all that matters. Techs need to loosen up and focus on how it will be used and not how it works. The tech and the client can always come back and drill down into the details later.

3. Techs use specific language to communicate, our audience uses common language and relies on context or experience to share what they are taking about — and understand that the right terminology does not matter as long as the core points of the conversation are understood. To a driver the doohickey is rattling, to a mechanic, that could be anything and the rattle a symptom, a result or something else! We techs get confused when the language is not our own, missing the gist of the conversation, which is what the audience wants us to understand. Techs need to learn their language patterns, and to focus on the gist of what is being said, on what the client is trying to say, not to imagine what the client may mean or what may be happening and what they just missed the client saying while doing all that imagining.

4. Techs explicitly express assumptions, the audience barely registers that they are making assumptions in conversation. Mechanics feel the need to explain the purpose of tappets and push-rods and how they react to different octane fuels which have different explosive properties, and that is why the car pings and feels sluggish. The driver wants the car to just go well. This one is hard for techs learning to speak to their audiences because they need to know what assumptions the audience usually makes. Working with your audience, listening to them interact, and asking them questions is a good start.

5. Finally, techs seek rigid exacting perfection, its necessary to make correct digital programs. The audience thinks and lives differently in an analog world where things change, move, shift, adjust and make — or fail to make — sense in unusual ways. Techs need to understand their audience’s analogue nature, senses, rate of change and direction, finding ways to communicate and adjust in analog while still operating in digital space.

Seeing the Signs

Its easy to spot the signs when this communication breaks down. If the audience starts to repeat itself, if the eyes glaze over or slow-blink, or they start pacing or making impatient motions, then the communication has failed. Just picture a frustrated driver trying to explain to a mechanic what is wrong with the car.

It works both ways. If the tech rambles on too long, finds themselves needing to say somethings, stops listening, or says “I understand” just to get rid of the audience, that too is bad. Just picture a mechanic detailing all the possible moving parts that could be the rattling doohickey to a puzzled driver!

Keep in mind that, unlike mechanics, techs do deal with different audiences. Each audience is vague or detailed in its own way, uses its own terminology, has its own assumptions and its own measures of success or failure. Each different audience has its own norms. Yet none of these audiences has the time or patience to discuss or learn all the dark details. They may seem different, but they are all essentially drivers.

The tech team needs to understand this about their audience to become part of it. They need to know how to speak to each audience in the language they understand, using the terms and levels of accuracy the audience expects.

To talk like drivers to drivers.

Mechanics can be Drivers too

The tech team needs to know what to tell their audience, and most importantly, what not to tell them . Explaining how a program or technology works, what an error message means, why something cannot or does not work, why this one case in 100 is possible and needs to be solved now, is interesting to techs, and not at all interesting to the audience. Drivers want a working vehicle, they do not need an explanation why it’s not working.

The tech team needs to know when to shut up. To the audience, perception being reality means they build their own mind-model of how a thing works. Letting them live in their own model is hard for techs because we need to deeply understand our own models and assume, incorrectly, that others do too. The driver does not need a lesson on internal combustion engine thermodynamics when knowing it turns on and makes a “vroom” sound is good enough.

And finally, the tech team needs to know when to speak up. Especially when the audience draws the wrong conclusions. If the driver is operating the vehicle incorrectly or using the wrong fuel, the mechanic needs to find a way to reach them in a way the driver can understand. The tech team needs to know how to effectively communicate the issue without going into boring details or terms, and draw the audience back in, regain their trust and understanding.

Talk to Drivers, not Mechanics

Finding that balance, the balance between detail and vagueness, between the correct term and the common one, between enough information and too much information, between saying more and shutting up is hard for tech teams.

But a good team can find this balance as long as it knows what the communication issues are.

And how to deal with them.

To talk to Drivers as Drivers, not Mechanics.

I use this Hiltmonism, “Talk to Drivers, not Mechanics”, to remind me and my team how to listen and communicate with those we design software for and how to build better product in the future. After all, great product is what they want and need too. We all need to be somewhere.

Oh, and to make the tech team seem a little less weird, strange and alien.

Click to see other Hiltmonisms in the ongoing series.

Follow the author as @hiltmon on Twitter.