Jumping Communication Gaps

Jumping Communication Gaps

To make communications as effective as possible, it is essential to improve the likelihood that the receiver can jump the communication gaps that are always present. The sender needs to touch into the highest level of shared experience with the receiver. The two people should provide constant feedback to each other in this process so that they can detect the extent to which they miss their intention.

Modalities in Communication

Imagine a simple discussion at the whiteboard. How many communication mechanisms are at play? Consider these 11:

Physical proximity

Standing about one meter from each other, the people detect minute visual cues, tiny movements of eye muscles to overall muscle tension.

The speaker may move closer to indicate aggressiveness or enthusiasm. The listener may move closer to indicate interest, agreement, or the desire to speak; or, the listener may move away to indicate fear, disagreement, or the need to think privately for a moment. The speaker and listener manipulate their relative distance to express various emotions and stages of agreement, disagreement, aggressiveness, trust, and distrust.

The signals vary across cultures and personalities, but the signals are both present and used.


The people notice visual parallax, or 3D information.

The parallax shift of the visual image is lost when the same people talk over a video link, even if they are similarly close to the camera and screen.


Smell is one of those senses that is unimportant to some people, very important to others, and important but subconscious to many.

One person reported that she can often sense sublimated fear and distress, probably through sense of smell. It certainly is the case that those cues are available at the whiteboard and are lost in remote communications.


Many people use kinesthetics (sensation of movement) to help them think and remember. The speaker might use it to help construct a new explanation or to help improve the building of a question.


One person touches another on the shoulder to mean "Don't feel threatened by this discussion" or perhaps "This is really important" or "I have something to say."

Touching is part of the overall manipulation of proximity and personal space. In some cases there are objects to touch whose feel is important to the conversation.


In the simple use of language, a speaker emphasizes points with colorful adjectives, exaggerations, metaphors, and the like.

Besides that simple use of language, the speaker uses pitch, volume, and pacing to differentiate and emphasize ideas in a sentence.


People communicate through gestures as well as words, often making a point by gesturing, raising an eyebrow, or pointing while speaking.

The people may wave their hands to make shapes in the air or to accentuate the speaking. They may raise an eyebrow to indicate questioning or emphasis.

Again, they use pacing to differentiate and emphasize ideasfor example, moving rapidly over obvious parts of a drawing and slowing down or pausing for effect at less obvious or more important parts.

A person also draws on the whiteboard to present (particularly spatially oriented) information for the other to consider. The drawings may be standardized notations, such as class or timing diagrams. They may be loose sketches. They may even be squiggles having no particular meaning, whose sole purpose is to anchor in a public, static location the thought being discussed for later reference.

Cross-modality timing

One of the most important characteristics of two people at the whiteboard is the timed correlation of all of the above.

The speaker moves facial muscles and gestures while talking, draws while talking and moving, pauses in speech for effect while drawing, and carefully announces key phrases in time, while drawing lines between shapes.

Cross-modality emphasis helps anchor ideas in the listener's mind, enhancing the memory associations around the idea.

Drawing otherwise meaningless squiggles on the board while talking gives meaning to the squigglesmeaning that the speaker and listener can later refer to.

Low latency

Because the two are standing next to each other, watching and listening to each other, the round-trip time for a signal and a response is very small. This allows real-time question and answer, and interruptions:

  • Real-time question-and-answer. The receiver asks questions to reveal ambiguity and missed communication in the speaker's explanation. The timing of the questions sets up a pattern of communication between the people.

  • Interruptions. With the very fast round-trip times available in face-to-face communication, the listener can interrupt the speaker, asking for clarification on the spot. During the course of conversation, the speaker may be able to tune the presentation to fit the receiver's background. The listener can give the speaker feedback in the middle of the expression of an idea, perhaps through a raised eyebrow or other nonverbal modality. The speaker can then adjust the expression on the fly.

Trust and learning

Through modalities and rapid feedback, two people are likely to develop a sense of comfort and trust in communication with each other.

This is comfort and trust of the form, "Oh, when he speaks in that tone of voice he is not actually angry, but just excited." The two find ways to not hurt each other in communication and to know that they will not be hurt in the communication.

They build small emotional normalizing rituals of movement and expression to indicate things like "I'm starting to feel attacked here" and "You don't need to, because this is not an attack on you."

Those rituals serve the people well over the course of the project, particularly when they can't see each other during the communication. At that juncture, touching into the shared experience of these rituals becomes crucial.

You see an example of the need for these normalizing rituals in the amount of airplane travel going on:

Flying Places to Be There

A senior executive of a video communications firm returned to San Jose from London. It was her second trip in 10 days, each being for a single meeting.

The astonishment for us was that she obviously had access to state-of-the-art videoconferencing facilities and yet felt that she could not conduct her business over the video link. Her meetings still required the lowest-latency, richest, multimodal communication possible: "in person."

We decided that it is easy to start negotiations over the phone or Internet but difficult to bring them to conclusion that way.

Use of a shared, persistent information radiator

The whiteboard holds the drawn information in place, while words dissolve in the air. The people can all see the board, draw on the board, and refer to the board just minutes later in the conversation.

The Impact of Removing Modalities

What happens when you remove some of those mechanisms and go to other communication settings?

Remove only physical proximity

With people at opposite ends of a video link, the visual and temporal characteristics should be very much the same as being in person.

Somehow, though, they aren't, as witnessed by the video communications executive who still flew to London for single meetings.

My teammates, in Lillehammer, and I, in Oslo, often found that we made design progress only when we took the train trip together. Even walking to the train station together was a more effective design environment for us than talking over our video link.

Remove the visuals (use a telephone)

Removing visuals also removes cross-modality timing. You lose the drawings, the gestures, the facial expressions, sight of the muscle tone, proximity cues, and the ability to link speech with action.

Remove voice (use e-mail)

With this, you lose vocal inflection, the ability to pause for effect, to check for interruptions, to speed up or slow down to make a point, to raise your tone or volume to indicate surprise, boredom, or the obviousness of the transmitted idea.

Remove the ability to ask questions (but possibly reinstate one of the above modalities)

Without the questions, the sender must guess what the receiver knows, doesn't know, would like to ask, and what an appropriate answer to the guessed question might beall without feedback.

Now, the sender really doesn't know what the receiver needs to hear, where the communication gaps are too wide, or where the shared experience lies. (This, of course, applies to me, communicating with you. How many wordswhich wordsdo I need to spend on this idea?)

Finally, remove almost everything

Remove visuals, sound, timing, kinesthetics, cross-modality timing, question-and-answer, and you get . . . paper.

How surprising it is in retrospect that most projects require documentation in the least effective communication format possible! The person who is trying to communicate a design idea must guess at what will work for the reader, does not get to use timing, vocal, or gestural inflections, and gets no feedback along the way.

With this view in mind, it is not surprising that the busiest and best project team leaders say:

"Put all the people into one room."

"Don't give me more than four people; that's all I can get into one room and talking together."

"Give me printing whiteboards, and keep all the rest of your drawing tools."

"Make sure there are whiteboards and coffee corners all over the building."

The above are standard recommendations among successful project leaders, who count on using the highest communication mode: people, communicating face to face.

The discussion of communication modalities matches the findings of researchers, such as McCarthy and Monk (1994).

Making Use of Modalities

The graph in Figure serves to capture the above discussion visually. In the graph you see two sets of situations: those in which question and answer are available and those in which they are not.

Effectiveness of different modes of communication.

The horizontal axis indicates the "temperature" of the communication channel. Warmer indicates that more emotional and informational richness gets conveyed. E-mail is cooler than audio or videotape, and two people communicating face to face is the hottest channel.

What we see in the graph is communication effectiveness rising with the richness (temperature) of the communications channel. Two people at the whiteboard are using the richest form.

The graph provides an idea about how to improve the effectiveness of archival documentation:

Videotaped Archival Documentation

Have the designer give a short, 5- to 15-minute description of the design to one or two colleagues who are not familiar with the work. These one or two will act as ombudsmen for the viewers of the videotape. While the designer leads the discussion, the colleagues interrupt and ask questions as they need to.

Videotape the discussion.

At the end, capture and print the examples and drawings used in the discussion, to act as mnemonic anchors of the discussion.

You might consider posting the talk online, where others can access it using hyperlinked media.

Lizette Velasquez, of Lucent Technologies, reported that not only had she already used that technique with success, but she added that I had forgotten something important:

It is also important to mark and index places where "something interesting happened."

While much of the discussion proceeds at a relatively slow pace, occasionally a question triggers a flurry of significant discussion, and the viewers will want to refer to those sections.

Several people report that they have videotaped talks on their project, but we are missing experiments telling us about this technique in actual use: how to set up the room, how long the discussion can be, what sort of person should be used for the ombudsman. Most of all, I am still waiting for someone to perform this experiment and then, six months later, reflect on whether this was a good idea and what would make it better.

If you are willing to try out this experiment, please let me know these details: what you did, what happened, and what you thought about it months later.

As a thought experiment about the utility of the graph and the experiment, consider the book Design Patterns (Gamma 1995). This book is excellent but difficult. I still have trouble understanding the patterns that I have not yet used. I suppose that others have similar difficulties. Imagine that instead of trying to extract the meaning of the patterns from the book, you could see one of the authors explaining the pattern in a video clip. The authors would, of course, rely on tonal inflections, gestures, and timing to get the idea across. I'm sure that most people would understand those difficult patterns much more easily.

The lesson is that we should try to move team communications up the curve as far as possible, for the situation at hand. We should rely on informal, face-to-face conversation, not merely tolerate it. face-to-face communication should become a core part of your development process.

There is a second lesson to pay attention to. Sometimes a cooler communication channel works better, because it contains less emotional content.

Cooler Communications Needed

A project leader told me that her team deals better with her when they speak over the phone, because she is too aggressive with her emotions in person.

A married couple told me that they communicated in a more "even" and less emotional level over the phone than in person, just because the face-to-face setting flooded them with visual and emotional cues.

Hovenden (2000) describes a meeting in which a senior designer ruined a meeting's original plan by standing up and taking over the whiteboard for the rest of the meeting. In this case, the lack of anonymity created a social ranking that interfered with the intended meeting.

Bordia and Prashant (1997) describe that brainstorming improves when social ranking information is hidden from the participants.

McCarthy and Monk (1994) remind us that e-mail has the advantage of allowing people to reread their own messages before sending them, thereby giving them a chance to clarify the message.

Thus, warmer communications channels are more effective in transferring ideas, but cooler communications channels still have important uses.

Stickiness and Jumping Gaps across Space

You can see, at this point, how the team of Russian programmers got low cost per idea transferred ("The Russian Programmers" on page 13). Sitting in a room together, they got convection currents of information, osmotic communication, face-to-face communication, and real-time question and answer.

So why did they need to write use cases at all?

The answer is: To give the information some stickiness. Information that is recorded on paper has a sort of stickinessor permanencethat the information in a conversation doesn't, a stickiness you sometimes want.

The person who went to Russia with the use cases wanted to make sure that he did not forget what he was supposed to cover in his conversations. He wanted to make sure that after he explained the use cases to the Russian programmers, they could subsequently read the use cases, understand them, and recall the information without having to ask him again.

The use-case writer, knowing that the use cases were only game markers to remind them of what they already knew or had discussed, could balance the time he spent writing the use cases against the time that would be spent discussing other material. He could decide how much detail should go into the writing.

Large, sticky, revisable shared information radiators are often used by people to achieve greater understanding and to align their common goals. Figure and Figure show a useful mix of whiteboards (static information radiators) and people (dynamic information radiators).

Two people working at a shared, sticky information radiator.

(Courtesy of Evant Solutions Corporation)

Dynamic and static information radiators at work.

(Courtesy of Evant Solutions Corporation)

Both whiteboards and paper are particularly good static information radiators and can be written on by all parties, making them shared, sticky information radiators.

Until recently, archivability and portability were still problems with whiteboards. If a discussion results in really valuable information being placed on the whiteboard, no one dares erase it, and the group can't archive it. This slows the archiving of valuable information and shuts down the board for the next use. As Ron Jeffries put it, "If you never erase the whiteboards, you might as well write on the walls."

A colleague, Mohammad Salim, responded to this situation by covering all the walls and hallways with rolls of butcher paper so that people could literally draw on the walls wherever they were. He said, "If you have to take time to walk to a workstation or find a blank whiteboard, you just lost your idea." He continued, saying that when a section of paper gets full, to just roll it up and date it. That way all discussions are archived and can be pulled out for later examination. In his description of finding rolls of paper for later examination, he made use of the fact that humans are good at looking around, as discussed in the last chapter. He also worked hard to reduce the cost of invention and communication while preserving archivability for later discussions.

A number of people report that they are using digital cameras in conjunction with software that cleans up the image ("Whiteboard Photo" at www.pixid.com is one that they refer to). Printing whiteboards continue to be very practical. Often, people start a discussion thinking the outcome will not be significant but see at the end that the whiteboard holds valuable information. With a printing whiteboard, they can simply push the Print button if they wish.

Different information radiators are suited for different sizes of discussion groups, of course. A piece of paper works for two or three people; a whiteboard works for perhaps a dozen.

Recalling these differences will serve us well when we consider methodologies for different projects, in the next chapters.

Sticking Thoughts onto the Wall

On one project, the business analysts were frustrated because their work was growing more and more interdependent. At that time they had no way of holding their thoughts in clear view, and still, while planning their joint work.

We held a discussion about cooperative games, game markers, and stickiness. The people saw that creating a large, persistent and revisable display of their mental territory would help them do their work. One of them immediately posted a picture of the domain on the corridor wall as a starting point.

They worked on it over the weeks, experimenting with representations of their concerns that would allow them to view their mutual interdependence.

There is an interesting and relevant aside to mention about this group, having to do with expectations and citizenship. For reasons I won't go into, this team of business analysts thought they were supposed to work in the XP style and that XP prohibited them from writing things down.

Notice four things about their situation:

  1. They misunderstood XP. It does not forbid people to write things down.

  2. Their citizenship was so strong that rather than be poor citizens and write down their thoughts on the domain model, they chose to be good citizens and not write down their business model at all!

  3. Actually, they knew that the project wouldn't succeed if they really wrote nothing down. So they each clandestinely wrote pseudo use cases and other notes, which they passed to the programmers. They still did not create a domain model for themselves.

  4. By writing down those notes, they subverted their own (mistaken) interpretation of the official process. I find this situation particularly interesting, because they were at war with themselves about whether to be good citizens and follow the process (at the expense of the project) or to be good citizens and protect the project (by violating the process).

What was significant in the end was that they posted an information radiator on the corridor wall, on which they scribbled individually and as a group, to give their thoughts and decisions some stickiness.

Jumping Gaps across Time

Finally, let us look at communicating across time and the twist that lies in store here.

You might expect, after the preceding discussion, that to preserve information across time you would definitely drop reliance on face-to-face communication in favor of paper, audiotape, and videotape.

However, on long-running projects, it turns out to be critically important that the chief architect stay around! This person's contribution is to keep memories of key ideas alive on changing development teams. Once again, people are used as the archival medium!

Individual people transfer information effectively across both time and space. As an IBM Fellow put it, while talking about technology transfer, "The way to get effective technology transfer is not to transfer the technology itself but to transfer the heads that hold the technology!"

 Python   SQL   Java   php   Perl 
 game development   web development   internet   *nix   graphics   hardware 
 telecommunications   C++ 
 Flash   Active Directory   Windows