Get an Edge With Visual Communication

tiny diagram

Having trouble working through complex concepts?  Struggling to get a “simple” message across?  As human beings, we are all pre-wired to absorb visual communication.  You should take advantage of that to give yourself an edge when it comes to communicating.

Thinking in Pictures

Guy Kawasaki did an interview last week with Dan Roam, author of The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures.  There are eleven good questions with detailed answers, so it is definitely worth a read.

Whenever we hear a pitch or evaluate an idea, we go back to first principles and try and understand why something might work.  If we believe the explanation of why something might work, we’re much more open to the possibility that it will work.  Here’s part of Dan’s answer to Guy’s question about how and why using visuals to communicate can be effective.

Recent breakthroughs in vision science have indicated that there are multiple “vision pathways” along which the signals from our eyes travel into and through our brains. Each pathway keys off different visual cues in the environment–one pathway looking to identify the objects around us, another understanding where they are, another determining how many there are, another watching for changes over time, etc. This process takes place in parallel, breaking the entire visual world down into discrete elements that we initially process independently, and then only later “see” in our mind’s eye as a whole.

Dan Roam, interviewed by Guy Kawasaki

The basic idea is that we can perceive solutions to abstract and complex problems visually.  Visualization becomes a compelling vehicle for communication too.

Visceral Examples

Instead of writing a long string of words to describe the power of communicating visually, we’ll give you a couple examples.

One of Guy’s ventures is a company called Alltop, the goal of which is to find the valuable search results and present them to you.  Alltop is acknowledging a weakness in the search results created by algorithms – whatever the ranking mechanism, it is imperfect.  Alltop’s goal is to eliminate the pain of wading through useless search results to find the “nuggets” of useful results.  Does that explain the idea sufficiently?  What if you looked at this picture, from Guy’s recent blog article, showing a drawing by Dan of the concept described in this paragraph.

There’s a company called Slydial that allows you to make calls directly to someone’s voicemail.  A few minutes of poking around their website will give you an idea of what they do.  If you also read the FAQ and watch the videos, you can infer how it works too.  Or you can just look at the following drawing:

slydial process

[click for larger version] * Note – depending on your age, the weird boxes are either obviously reel-to-reel recorders, or they are apparently happy robots that are excited to record your message for you.

Instead of calling someone in hopes of leaving them a message (because you don’t want to talk to them), you call Slydial, tell them the number you want to reach, and record a message.  Slydial then calls the voicemail of the person and replays your message directly into their voicemail.  In some cases, the person’s cell phone will even show a “missed call” from your number.

Whiteboards Rock

I’ve been heard to utter the phrase “I can’t think without a whiteboard.”  Whiteboards make for great visualization tools.  In my presentation at ProductCamp Austin, after a quick sojurn through my meager slide deck, we switched to the whiteboard.  With me at the whiteboard, the entire room was able to create an example Ishikawa diagram, first exploring an example problem with a concept map, and then building the associated ishikawa diagram.  The combination of collaborative teaching and visual expression and learning was very effective.

There’s an entire industry, now, built around electronic whiteboards.  Ten years ago, I was at a client using a copyboard – a whiteboard that would rotate the screen (like those old cloth-reel towels in restrooms) and a scanner built into the side of the whiteboard would copy what you had drawn, printing out a black and white copy of your diagram on thermal paper (the kind that used to be in fax machines, and that curls up after printing).  Five years ago, I was able to use an electronic whiteboard that detected the location of (and color of) the markers you were using.  It would detect when you were pressing down to write, triangulate the position of the pen, and create a digital copy on your connected computer.  Now those devices can be used interactively too – you can use a projector, pointed at the whiteboard, share the drawing real-time with remote viewers, and probably any number of other uses.

This matters, because you want a way to capture and share the drawings you create.  If you manage your information and communication well, it’s like slingbox + tivo for whiteboards.  View them any time, anywhere.  If you’re a product manager or business analyst, this gives you an easy way to embed drawings and diagrams within the traditional requirements artifacts.  Electronic copies of the drawings can be incorporated where they are needed most – leveraging context and providing clarity for your readers.  They dramatically help you when writing for an audience that does not have the context you have when creating the document.

Data Visualization

This is yet another incredibly valuable area of study – visual presentation of data.  Networks, connections, values, trends, everything can be visualized.  Check out this article from Smashing Magazine if you want to open pandora’s box into the current cutting edge(s) of data visualization.  If you’re a data-geek or a visualization-geek, my apologies.  This article will suck you into a black hole of great visualization ideas from which you may never recover.

Requirements Visualization

The only reason for documenting requirements is to communicate those requirements.  You can do it with text, or you can do it with analytically-saturated text, combined with gripping and clarifying visuals.  Make sure you have the following visualization techniques in your communication toolbox.

What are your favorites (and why)?

3 thoughts on “Get an Edge With Visual Communication

  1. Pingback: Bas de Baar
  2. One visualization technique that has helped me in understanding complex subjects (especially the inter-relationships of various components of a system) is mind maps. The great thing about this technique is that once a practitioner understands the concept, he/ she can invent their own symbols, color codes etc. and use them in their mind maps. He/ she need not worry too much about learning a new set of symbols, codes, rules etc. I found that creating mind maps helped me in remembering the topic longer and was quite useful in generating new ideas about the topic. We ought to try mind maps more.

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