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A failure to visualise is a failure to communicate

Recently on a project, a colleague of mine shared the first frame of Jeff Patton’s explanation of shared understanding from his 2014 classic User Story Mapping.

It pretty clearly illustrates the risk we all face in any kind of communication: that we think we agree but we’re actually all thinking something different in our minds.


This image was shared to remind us that if we make too many assumptions or don’t collaborate, we many end up writing requirements that everyone thinks they understand but in reality the whole team would be picturing a very different product.


However, as with so many famous quotes (this quote just happens to be a picture), this frame is only part of the story.


The three characters in Patton’s vignette go on to draw up their differing ideas on the blackboard and work together to create a shared understanding. Without this part of the process — where we visualise our understanding — we can fall into a trap of trying to “brute force” shared understanding.


No matter how many words you use in writing or in conversation, you cannot make someone have the same understanding as you. And you also cannot validate that you all have the same understanding without something more than just conversation.


Why is that?


Behavioural science teaches us that humans are capable of holding about 7 pieces of information, plus or minus 2, in our working memory at one time. You might have found this to be true when attempting to remember a grocery list instead of writing it down.


This holds true even when we’re remembering information that’s not on a list. When listening to a conversation, we will struggle to remember more than 7 plus or minus 2 ideas that our colleagues raise. And that is not even accounting for the fact that we probably enter those conversations with several working memory ‘slots’ already filled with the things we need to remember to raise ourselves.


The limits of verbal-only communication

If we can only remember 5 to 9 things that are shared in a conversation, is it any wonder that we struggle to get a shared understanding? And in fact, giving more information only makes the situation worse, as new information pushes existing information out of working memory.


So how do we overcome this human limitation?


This is where the power of visualisation comes in, as Patton demonstrates in his comic.


By visualising the information during a conversation, we enable two processes that help us overcome the limitations of our working memory.


The first is the same as writing a grocery list: it puts all the information somewhere we can easily access it without having to hold it in memory. Visualising the information, even using a tool as simple as a handful of words on a sticky note, enables us to pick up each piece of information into working memory as we need it.


The second benefit is that it enables us to “chunk” the information, and by doing this, create fewer pieces of information that need to be remembered. Once items are visualised, we can group them together under themes or arrange them into a process. This creates bigger chunks of information and we can typically use this chunks to recall the component parts as well.


Now that we aren’t relying on our leaky working memories, it is much easier to develop a shared understanding. We can get each piece of useful information out of our head. We can then construct new, richer chunks of information that incorporate items from everyone’s perspective. And then we can carry those new chunks of information forward, knowing we are much clearer on what everyone is actually thinking.


This process isn’t perfect so it needs to be iterative. As we discover gaps between our shared understanding, we go through the process of visualising, chunking and understanding all over again. But by using visualisation, it is much easier to bring our shared understanding closer together than with conversation alone.