Write the Docs: Noirin Plunkett – Text Lacks Empathy

I’m at Write the Docs today in Portland and will be post­ing notes from ses­sions through­out the day. These are all posted right after a talk fin­ishes so they’re rough around the edges.

Noirin opened the second day at Write the Docs by stating that we are basically hairless monkeys. We’re inherently emotional people.

Ein + fühlung: The German root of empathy. Our ability to communicate, and to do so with empathy, is what helps us create these social connections. Facial expressions, body language, and more help us cue these reactions and connections.

Text, though, can remove emotion from our communication. We lack the facial expressions and more subtle indicators that help us in person. We have a tendency to fill emotional voids with negative emotions. This is particularly true in high stress situations.

The rapidity with which we can compose digital text is not ideal if we’re trying to solve complex problems. What works for in-person conversation does not work as well in a text format.

A lot of the time we don’t write. In email or in documents we aren’t invested in we, essentially, speak with our fingers. For people we have a connection with, that’s fine. When writing documentation we don’t have that same relationship with our audience. We don’t know their background, we don’t know why they came to the document, and we don’t always remember that communication is more than just transmission.

Learning social rules is an ongoing process. It’s exhausting and difficult for many. Noirin refers to it as running in emulation. It’s like booting up a virtual machine to try and understand how something works in a difference context.

Oblique Strategies from Brian Eno was mentioned. It’s a way to help with creative problem solving. So when you’re stuck on a problem you can draw a card and apply that to the situation you’re facing. They’re not so much advice as a means to remind you how to think about problems.

Noirin discussed a few strategies for making our docs more emotionally engaging. First, we have to understand expectations. This applies to many aspects of our communication. The expectations our users have when reading documentation, when a boss reads our email, and more are important to how our text is received.

Most people assume their incoming communication has tact attached to it. We don’t assume communication is rude and abrasive. When it is, it surprises us. To solve this Noirin recommends we all attach a little tact to our output.

The next strategy Noirin covered is to argue that zero is not negative. If we can try to recognize when we’re projecting negative emotions in to a space that has no emotion we’re assuming. If it’s unclear what the emotional context is, ask. That’s the only way you can be clear about the intent of a message.

If you transmitted a message and a different message is received the onus is on you. You have to make sure your audience understands what they’re reading. Communication is a two way medium and if something is misunderstood it’s not entirely the reader’s fault. The reader is the only thing that matters with documentation. When in doubt we should rephrase something. If you have to ask whether a sentence is grammatically correct, it doesn’t matter. Rewrite it.

The readers of your documentation don’t know how you feel. Our readers can’t see us, they can’t hear us, they don’t know if we’re having a good day or a bad day. Stating our emotions is a good way to get conversations back on track. If a conversation over text isn’t going well, state your emotions.

Noirin recommends moving through communication flow like this: email, IM or IRC, voice, video, real life. Those are in increasing order of fidelity. If email doesn’t work, move to IM. If that doesn’t work, move to voice. As she put it, “the fastest way to pass a Turing test is to pick up the phone.”

Perception is reality. If someone feels attacked, for example, they will shut down. That inherently makes their feeling reality. Reality is not what you’re trying to communicate, it’s what they’re feeling.

Noirin’s last point is that if it doesn’t matter, do it their way. Don’t be a stubborn fool just because you want it done your way.