Words that we use to describe work

I've been working on ‘transformation’ for the past year. It's an unhelpful, precarious word, but we’re stuck with it. Through it, I’m learning a lot about working with people who are new to things like agile and user-centred design. This is about a few of those learnings, focusing on the words that we use to describe work; communication tools that describe intent to others. Outcomes, user needs, assumptions, non-functional requirements, problem statements, outputs, solutions, business needs, indicators, value, deliverables. They’re all slightly different things and you probably like some more than others.

We describe the future with these words, use them to talk about significant changes in power dynamics in an organisation, tweak them infinitely to get humans to agree on a shared goal. It's incredible how much of what humans do is just making good lists of things, isn’t it? There is this transcript of a talk that I like, which isn't really about lists, but features some incredible thinking about it, like “to me, an important list or a useful list is one that contains information on which you can base a decision”.

These things can create a lot of confusion and a lot of my job over the past year has been about translating them and switching between them. One thing that I learned is to not be too dogmatic about it. I do believe that some of these words are more appropriate than others for the work that we do, but as with all tools that help people work together, some of are easier to understand than others and there is a cost to getting people to use your preferred one.

I have a bias towards outcomes: they get to the essence of what you’re trying to do and don’t specify the way of doing it. “Increased collaboration between internal teams” is an outcome you might want to work towards, whereas “CRM” would be a potential solution. Different people mean different things by the solution and I find that outcomes are great for facilitating agreement, often by surfacing disagreement. But equally, they can be confusing. If you’ve never worked this way or you don’t spend your days thinking about this stuff, you’re gonna struggle articulating your thoughts this way.

As a designer, you will often find yourself facilitating things and choosing what words we use. It’s a huge privilege and when exercising it, we need to be mindful of what you’re asking people to do and it what it means.

Asking people to write down outcomes (new to them) on post-its (also new) in Miro (new as well) in a short workshop is probably not going to work and will result in more disagreement and frustration. Might it be more helpful to let people capture thoughts however they like or to work through things with them individually? Finding a shared language to describe work is a long game and you should approach it carefully and consider the trade-offs. Be flexible with your approach, but explicit about which things you consider non-negotiable.

This leads me to another thing, which is that you should hold on to your principles more lightly than you are perhaps used to. I, obviously, think user needs are very important. But life is not as binary as the vocabulary of user needs makes it seem and those that are don’t use them aren’t in any way wrong. In the work that I’ve been doing, which is about inching an organisation towards its target operating model, I often found user needs too limiting. The users are mostly internal, and their user needs are fundamental, but the goals of the work stretch far beyond that and there are better, more specific and more relatable, ways of describing the work. I think this is, to an extent, true for all ‘transformation’ work, which tends to be more layered than meeting user needs and is fundamentally about changing how organisations do things. I initially beat myself up about not being able to express it all in user needs, but now I see them as just another tool which, like all others, can be useful for some things, and less for others.

In non-work news, I wanted to buy tickets to a festival this weekend, only to realise when I went on the page that I already bought them last year before it got rescheduled and ahhhhhhhhhh what a great feeling that was.

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