Suppose you are driving down an unfamiliar street and you gaze out the window to see the following sign: Speed hump. What on earth do you do?
The inspiration for this post was a short presentation I gave on effective communication. It fits in well with some of my previous posts on ambiguity (Requirements & ambiguity and Bad Practices - Part I - Ambiguity.) To understand and counteract ambiguity it is necessary to examine its causes.
Differences in perception & context
People have different experiences, backgrounds and societal influences that affect how they interpret things. Sometimes when you are communicating a message the context of the message is lost. I remember watching a DVD called, An Evening With Kevin Smith. Kevin Smith is a movie producer and writer credited with movies such as Clerks, Chasing Amy & Dogma. Before that, he was a comic book writer who penned some issues of Daredevil.
Kevin was talking to a reporter friend about the Tim Burton remake of Planet of the Apes. At the end of the movie, the astronaut gets out of his spacecraft and is horrified to see a statue of a giant ape behind him. Kevin then showed his friend a copy of a comic he wrote a few years before the movie. In the comic, an astronaut turns around and sees a statue of a giant ape and is horrified. The reporter is shocked and asks Kevin if he has any comments. Kevin replied along the lines of, "Tim Burton plagiarized me! Ha ha ha! I'm thinking of suing him! Teeheehee!" Both of them laughed it up.
Later in the week, the journalist's article came out. It came across with a very serious tone. Kevin Smith accuses Tim Burton of plagiary... Contemplating legal action. Kevin ran to the phone and called his reporter friend, "What happened to Teeheehee!?"
That was a long story but you can see how the context of the joke was completely lost when transcribed to print. When you write things down (such as requirements) you cannot communicate the context effectively so you must be very careful or it may be misinterpreted.
Use of jargon
Suppose someone tells you he just got a red herring. What does that mean? According to Dictionary.com a red herring could be any of the following:
- A smoked herring having a reddish color.
- Something that draws attention away from the central issue.
- A preliminary registration statement that must be filed with the SEC describing a new issue of stock (IPO) and the prospects of the issuing company.
If you were working in the investment industry you might realize it is a statement about an IPO, but if you didn't, you might think something else. Furthermore, you may feel you completely understand when you don't. This is one of those times to use active-listening techniques to clear up miscommunications.
Extremely excessive overuse of verbosity
Be brief. Say a lot with few words.
Now that you know the sources of ambiguity, do your best to avoid them.