About Understanding

October 24, 2021

The Department of Why

I have been working in something called “Product Marketing” for a long time now. What that something actually is has varied from job to job, sometimes to pretty wild degrees. When I look at (or write) job descriptions for product marketing, even inside of very similar companies, it tends to focus on very tactical things like “go to market strategies” and making little documents to give to prospective customers that say how great the product is. When I was younger, this is almost exactly what I did, and I have a work history and (unofficial) portfolio to match.

These days, I’m a little older/slower/wiser, so I get fancier titles and, unfortunately sometimes, more existential questions to answer like “what is the purpose of these little documents you keep making”. As a result, I have to think a little broader than I used to, and if I’m being honest, my job has transitioned very much into “The Department of Why”. Some of those whys include:

  • why do we do something the way we do
  • why should someone buy something we have
  • how should they use it if they buy it
  • what will happen if they don’t use it that way
  • what is it worth to be able to use it
  • etc., etc., and so forth

These are all very reasonable, important things to have answers to, so I definitely feel like my job is important. In fact, coming up with answers to these kinds of things is probably the most rewarding part of my job. But it’s not easy.

Explaining vs. Arguing

As I’ve written before, my background is actually not in sales or marketing. It’s in support and technical writing. It’s just that in the kinds of spaces I’ve worked, being able to explain how or why something works the way it does is so important to the challenge of selling it that the right kind of technical writer is actually the perfect person to lead the Department of Why. In my experience, if you are explaining why something is great, you’re in a much better position than when you’re arguing that something is great. In general, don’t argue with your customers if you can avoid it.

The thing is, arguing is often easier even if it’s less effective, because you have a whole variety of different tricks you can use. You can bully people, frighten them, confuse them, trick them, or do all sorts of things that aren’t limited by either reality, or the audience’s comprehension. You’re basically trying to get the sale however you can.

Explaining something is way harder. The biggest reason — by far — is that in order to be successful, you need the other person to understand, accept, and internalize what you’re saying. Ask a teacher; ensuring comprehension is very difficult. It’s great to have truth on your side, but if the truth is overly complex — or just as badly, hand-waves away complexity that people can detect but don’t feel comfortable with — it doesn’t matter.

This is why great technical writers can make great technical “marketers” (provided you define the term narrowly enough). Spreading comprehension is their primary goal, and in many cases, a highly motivated one. My first explanatory writing wasn’t trying to get you to accept the value of a label printer; it was trying to keep you from cutting off your hand by sticking it in the wrong part of the machine.

Technical writers rely on a host of tools and tactics to leverage the fact that they have truth on their side, and compensate for the challenge of needing to ensure 100% comprehension. Diagrams, charts, specifications, even stuff like equations are often included in documentation because they’re very compelling and help people understand the concepts that support your “argument” that isn’t really an argument as much as it is simple operating reality.

Now, you might be saying — you people didn’t invent charts! Everyone uses charts! There are charts in every single sales deck, whether some documentation nerd was involved or not!

And this is true. But the goals of those non-technical-writer charts are often different, because (as mentioned) they’re simply being used to get to an outcome by any means necessary. Comprehension isn’t required; action is required. If you don’t actually understand what our software is for, but you sign a giant contract to deploy it, Sales is not going to have a post-mortem on what went wrong. They are going to have a party. But I don’t just need you to agree with me that (a) you don’t want your hand to be cut off and (b) that the printer can do it. I need you to understand how to not cut off your hand in the printer, because you’re going to have to successfully execute that task every day, forever, or I am going to get an email from Legal and probably PR.

Arguing is a Bad Way to Make Decisions

At the kinds of places where I work, Sales is understandably influential, because they bring in the money we need to operate. Unfortunately, even internally, Sales-thinking often stays in Argument mode, and not in Explaining mode. And this isn’t a salesperson problem; many of us have a tendency to argue instead of explain, either because explaining is hard, or (just as likely) because we don’t actually really KNOW what we’re talking about and just have a preference or a feeling that we’re right.

Like a lot of people, I sometimes really enjoy arguing. Hell, I’m arguing right now! But arguing leaves gaps in people’s comprehension, often by design. No sales team goes into a proposal worrying about making sure a prospect really understands what is better about the competition, unless they are going to use that understanding to somehow undermine the other guy in the long run. Instead, you actually HOPE the other person doesn’t really get that part of the situation, because that understanding would actually hurt the chances of your desired action occurring. In those situations, ignorance is bliss.

But you know when I really, really don’t want to argue? When we’re dealing with something boring, but very important. Marketing budgets, for instance, are very important. They are also very boring, compared with the things you actually want to DO with those budgets, which are usually much more interesting to work on. In fact, the marketing budget might be the most important, impactful thing in my professional day-to-day life that I want to be done with as soon as humanly possible. With the marketing budget, I don’t care about being right, or getting the exact numbers I want in exactly the places I want. I just want the marketing budget to give me what I need to do the things I want, without creating unrealistic expectations or headaches down the road.

In other words, what I really want is for everyone to understand the marketing budget, and my place in it.

Tooling for Understanding

Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, we have extremely bad tooling for understanding in the modern digital workplace. What I mean by that is that we have a staggering array of ways to collect, organize, and visualize information, but they’re all completely open-ended, so authors can use them any way they want, whether it facilitates understanding or not. And just like most decision-making-meetings turn into a series of arguments, most data visualization gets used the same way — to make an argument. Sometimes data viz doesn’t even do that. In those cases, it’s just data displayed visually, with no real purpose at all.

(FUN FACT: Tableau was acquired for $15.7 billion dollars in 2019).

I don’t mean to be overly negative. Building a visualization, or a spreadsheet, has the capacity to be a very informative process. And people do create data visualizations that are amazingly informative and give people context and understanding of data and the things that data represent. That’s why data visualization is so exciting! But there’s nothing inherently educational about visual or interactive data, just like there’s nothing inherently educational about a Word document just because people can write really enlightening things in it. And from a tooling standpoint, I haven’t seen anything out in the wild that prioritizes understanding as the primary goal of the tool (versus presentation, or flexibility, or extensibility, or whatever).

You might open a spreadsheet to try to figure something out. I certainly have, and I’m not even that good with spreadsheets. But a spreadsheet isn’t designed with the primary goal of helping you understand something. It’s designed to help you do a lot of math at once, very quickly. That’s a noble and necessary goal, but it’s not the one I’m looking to solve. And that matters, because in order to prioritize understanding, a math/logic tool would have to put pretty crippling guardrails on what people normally do with something like a spreadsheet. Guardrails that very specifically don’t allow you to simply do math without (one way or another) including context, or what that math means, or whether you actually know or not.

If that all sounds crazy, well, it sort of is. We live in a world and a culture that is driven almost entirely by arguments that actively depend on a lack of understanding. Just look at cryptocurrency.

When Will Technology Prioritize Understanding?

I don’t think the present economy and technical zeitgeist is built to solve for this problem. Today’s investments continue to be in shifting as many things as possible away from people, and to machines, regardless of how realistic or impactful that actually is. As always, there’s a blind faith that business will invest in whatever solves the most valuable problems of the day, but that’s only true inside of a certain risk profile, and today that profile is extremely narrow. We are increasingly dependent on a relatively small number of massively successful and capitalized corporations to decide “what’s next”, and we shouldn’t be surprised that the answer is often doubling down on what’s already happening and cheap to provide. Right now, that’s going to be cloud computing services and heavily branded “AI” versus anything that empowers regular people at work.

There’s also business culture itself. Many large companies are hilariously profitable; day-to-day work and even strategy is powered by internal ambition and land grabs versus really getting to the root of what’s going on, or facilitating a tough decision. Arguments are fun, and a lot of decision makers have come to power making compelling ones. The beauty of living and dying by them — and selectively using data here and there — is that no matter how wrong you are, or how bad the facts on the ground are, you can still win, at least theoretically.

So if something like this happens, it will have to be bottom up. There are still many — most, even? — people working every day with some kind of operational reality in their face, even if it’s an arbitrary one like a budget or a corporate mandate. Those people do have to deal with reality, and do their best to do so with systems and tools that are pretty reality-neutral. But their lives could be easier, and their work more effective, with tooling that took advantage of their knowledge of the environment — and just as importantly their knowledge of what isn’t actually known.

I am very interested in building this.