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Put It in an Email: Agile Communication

One of the values of Agile development is communication. It’s a value: Something so important, so ingrained that it drives behaviour, often subconsciously. Here is a personal story about communication.

A few years ago at an Agile conference, I came across a designer for a software program I use a fair bit. We started talking and I said, “After a year of using your software, I have so much feedback for you! It’s clear that you’ve tried to make it easy, and I can show you where I’m struggling and where I’ve had to devise workarounds.”

“Sure,” he said, “but I’m leaving in a couple of hours. Can we stay in touch by email?”

I was particularly interested in helping out, because that company had recently adopted Agile. Surely they would be open to feedback and use it wisely! Indeed, a couple of weeks later he followed up to say he was still interested in the feedback. I wrote back, suggesting a phone call at a specific time. His answer:

“If you have feedback on the software from the user’s perspective, I’d be happy to receive that via email.”

Now take a moment to consider: What’s wrong with this sentence?

To make matters worse, here is the next sentence in his brief reply:

“If you like, I’ll also add your contact information into our new database of users who are interested in participating in testing sessions.”

With the first sentence, he just lost me as a potential source of feedback (and I could fill pages with how awkward the software is). With the second, he basically said, “and we’ll be happy to treat you as telemarketers would!”

I’m sure he’s a busy guy. He’s an interface designer — probably one of only few in his company. He designs how the software is used. By people. Like me. I practically fell on him out of the sky, offering my time and attention. And how does he use this opportunity? “Put it in an email.”

This is wrong on so many levels. Let me just mention a few:

1.     Writing a coherent email would take me much longer than it would to have a conversation. Why would I want to spend this time?

2.     I’d have to describe my actions and what the software interface shows. Or copy/paste screenshots into a Word file. Assuming I manage to write everything I mean, will he really understand all of it exactly?

3.     Notice that his first sentence screams one-way communication. You have feedback? Kindly spend your time composing it, send it our way, and we’ll be done with you.

Most people know that conversation makes for richer communication than email. You know the story: Conversation conveys body language and intonation, which email totally lacks. A phone conversation is less rich, but most people manage it just fine. How often do you misread emails? How often do you project your own mood on the text, because you only have words to look at? The same holds for this very article: Can you really tell my mood while writing it?

But that’s not everything. Conversation engages two people as people. It creates a relationship, good will, shared history, potential directions, and so many other benefits.

When you engage your customers in one-way written communication, that’s no basis for common purpose and shared interest. Customers will love you when you talk to them; they will not feel committed if you don’t spare them your attention.

The designer left the conference that afternoon. Had he stayed, he would have heard that evening’s closing keynote speaker, Jared Spool (of experience design fame) describe three Predictors of Success. Here is number two:

“In the last 6 weeks, have you spent more than 2 hours watching someone use your design or a competitor’s?”

About Gil Broza

Principal agile coach and trainer.

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