What Happened to My Information?

Vesa Purho
Development Manager, Nokia

According to the first communication law by Osmo A. Wiio (a Finnish researcher of human communication), communication usually fails, except by accident. Although being a tongue-in-cheek kind of law, similar to Murphy’s law, it does point out that communication is never easy and often fails. Disturbances prevent the message going through from the sender to the recipient. In this article, I look at the disturbances and what they can mean for customer documentation.

According to Osmo Wiio, the disturbances can be classified into four categories: obstacle, noise, loss, and distortion. Obstacle and noise are external disturbances, that is, they appear after the message has left the sender but before the recipient receives it. Loss and distortion are internal disturbances, that is, they have something to do with the recipient’s capabilities to understand the information.

Obstacle occurs when the information does not go through to the recipient at all. The documents are sent to the wrong address, the Web application does not support the browsers that the users have, or the users don’t have the necessary plug-ins to view the cool multimedia presentation, to name a few. Though they are serious disturbances, the obstacles are usually found out quite soon and the situation can be corrected fairly easily. Although if your Web solution requires the users to use a certain version of some browser or a certain plug-in that the customer’s IT department has banned, correction of the situation may be a big operation.

Noise occurs when other messages or some other form of disturbance gets mixed with your information. For example, the print is not clear, the font is not good for online reading, training documentation contains different information from user manuals, the same information is presented in multiple manuals in slightly different ways, or the lecturer does not speak loudly enough in classroom training. All this noise makes the recipients doubt whether they have understood the message correctly, or, at the least, getting the information requires more effort from them. All this noise needs to be reduced to the minimum by, for example, co-operating with different producers of information within the company to ensure that the same information is delivered by all of them or single sourcing the information. Naturally, quality controls ensure the clarity of the print and the ability of the trainer to speak loudly and clearly enough.

Loss occurs when the information comes to the recipient but part of it disappears due to the physical characteristics of the recipient. For example, they are color blind so they cannot differentiate between the colors in a bar diagram. Or they have hearing problems or bad eyesight so that they would need information in audio format as well as in text or vice versa. Or the recipient may be tired and thus unable to concentrate properly on long passages of text. Naturally, we cannot do much to help somebody see better but we should consider if we can use multiple media to get our message through and make sure, for example, that color is not the only distinguishing factor in graphs.

Distortion occurs when the recipients receive the information but they understand and interpret it wrong. Their values, needs, attitudes, education, other information they have on the subject, and their general understanding of the subject matter affect the way they understand what we try to communicate. It is difficult to know whether the recipients understand what we communicate the way we want them to understand it. Therefore, it is not easy to remedy this kind of disturbance. Naturally, getting to know the users and observing how they use the information we provide helps us understand how the message actually goes through.

When thinking about how to improve documentation, or other means of communication, you should try to analyze why the message does not go through as we intend and then think about ways to remedy the situation so that you do not actually make the situation worse. For example, if customers complain that they do not understand something, the reason might be that they get diverse information from different sources. Then, the solution would not be to provide more information about the subject in question but to harmonise the information you currently provide.

If you are interested in more information about Osmo Wiio’s communication laws, visit www.cs.tut.fi/~jkorpela/wiio.html


This article is the personal opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect the opinion or practice of Nokia.

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