Monday, 20 September 2010

Lessons in Clarity: "Is this OK with you?"

Sources of confusion, mis-communication and unclear expectations lie all around - more than you suspect if you look carefully. Communication and clarity is something I'm very interested in - although I like to hope all testers are. Well, a recent email exchange made me laugh at the lack of clarity - to me - or maybe the joke was on me!(?)

I (person A) sent an email to person B with a CC to persons C and D. The email contained two distinct pieces of information, item 1 and item 2.

There was a fairly quick reply - the reply went from person B to person C, with CC to persons A (me) and D. The content of the reply was very simple: "Is this OK?"

Mmm, did this mean all the information in the first email or only one piece of it (item 1 or 2)? Who knows? I didn't, but I was keen to see the reply (if any). Was it only unclear to me, all, or just some of us?

The next morning I saw the awaited reply from C: "Item 1 is OK with me." These emails are breaking some record in brevity - simplistic - and also reducing the information content, and not necessarilly reducing the confusion-potential content. This reply raised other questions about item 2 (for me):

  1. This is not OK.
  2. No opinion on it.
  3. Oblivious - the question from B was misunderstood.
  4. This is OK - then the question from B was known/understood (somehow) to apply to item 1.

Who knows what this last reply meant - who cares (I hear you say) - but for me this was another example in potential sources of confusion.

One way I try to avoid this:
If I can't speak to the person and clarify the situation then I state my assumptions up-front, then they can reply with a clarification or correction - either way we reduce the scope for confusion and misunderstanding.

Note on brevity: It's OK if those involved are on the same wavelength. A great example of this was when Victor Hugo sent a telegram to his publisher after a recent new publication:
VH to Publisher: ? 
Publisher to VH: !
But, if in doubt, spell it out...


  1. Nice post Simon, some of the biggest mistakes in my company have come from lack of clarity, that being said though there are still a couple of dev's here that given all the clarity in the world will still go and do their own thing.

  2. @Darren,

    Yes, lack of clarity is tricky - and easy to happen. I'm with what Tor Norretranders said about communication - there's a synch'ing that needs to happen (like a handshake protocol) before a two-way flow of communication is possible.

    Maybe, sometimes we short-cut that or just assume that we'll be understood. But, there's the danger - assumption is the mother of all f-ups.