Making technology understandable for any audience is why I first got into software testing and UX design. After having spent three decades learning how to explain technical things to people across a wide range of demographics, I’ve noticed this is an underdeveloped skill in our industry. It should be taught and emphasized so much more because when it is practiced and honed, it takes all of your other skills to the next level.
If you own a smartphone, reader, tablet, gaming console, desktop, flat screen, streaming service, home assistant, smart appliance, or garage door opener, you have no choice but to be able to converse about technology without getting frustrated. To be able to make some specific analogies and tips in this article, I’ll narrow the technical context down to roles and tasks most commonly found in a software development company. This would include everyone from project manager and designers to developers and testers.
That said, even with a warm audience of people and topics within your own company or industry, technical explanations are tough.
There are a lot of technical conversations in the day-to-day of software development, and most of them fall under one of these scenarios:
- Peer-to-peer Knowledge transfer
- Client demos
- Executive presentations
- Impromptu situations
No matter the situation you will use two tools: Willingness and Preparation.
You may lack the self-confidence to explain technology, but the cool thing is, explaining technical things to anyone, friend, family, tech support, gradually improves your confidence. All you have to do is be willing to try and accept constructive feedback.
Volunteer for low-pressure opportunities to practice your preparation and explanation skills. When I’ve lacked confidence for an upcoming presentation I’ve run it by a peer or mentor to get feedback. It’s not only encouraging but the feedback can root out any holes or confusion before you go live.
Whether it’s a one-to-one conversation, a presentation to execs, or a Zoom meeting, remember, you have been asked or accepted to present on something you know, not for the things you don’t know (unless it’s a presentation on “Things We Don’t Know”).
By volunteering for low pressure opportunities, you’ll be able to hone your abilities in low stakes areas, and pretty soon you might even find your confidence has grown such that those areas that used to feel overwhelming might be just a bit easier to jump into.
Even for impromptu situations, you can do preparation because, in actuality, you are preparing with every interaction you have at work because the core of preparation is communication.
“Explaining” and “presenting” are forms of communication. What I’m talking about is honing the art of communication. For example, if you have a potluck, there will probably be multiple forms of mac and cheese and they are all accepted on their own merit. But, if you have a mac and cheese cookoff, you focus on the nuances that elevate one mac and cheese over the other; you hone the art of mac and cheese.
One aspect of communication you can practice in almost every situation is clarifying terminology. Across roles, platforms, and demographics, the meaning of technical terms varies greatly but we all assume everyone is talking about the same thing.
Actively listen in conversations for words that are used interchangeably. If appropriate, ask one of the contributors what the term they used means to them. Many times I’ve done this and it reveals we are not all talking about the same thing or there are deeper nuances we’re missing.
When you agree on what you’re all talking about, then openly agree on which term all of you will use in the future. Then, be consistent. Make sure you use that term in documents, emails, and instant messaging. Even with clients and co-workers outside your project.
On the FOX Weather project, we had some development requirements around what happens when the app is closed or opened. We determined these two terms weren’t enough to explain all the scenarios.
We expanded “closed” to when a user puts an app “in the background” but it is still running, or, when the user “force quits” an app so that it is no longer running. One action might keep the user logged into their account where the other would log them out.
When a user taps an app’s icon on the home screen it “opens” but from two different states. If the app is “running in the background” the user is simply bringing the app back into the foreground and, potentially, continuing in the app where they left off. If the app was “force quit” the user is relaunching the app which might mean they have to login again.
Having the team agree on what these terms actually meant helped the project as a whole function better. All thanks to our shared communication.
Saying, “just be willing to try” is a little trite, but the meaning behind it is that you are in situations where you have to explain tech all the time, you just need to become more aware of them. Be aware of the terms the listener is using; the points where comprehension sinks in and where it doesn’t. Then use that information to improve and take on more situations for practice.