The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.

George Bernard Shaw

Why a Framework?

The single most important thing that we do at work is communicating with other people. It’s generally how we are able to come up with ideas and execute them in ways that a single person could not.

It does seem that this whole “talking to each other” thing can get complicated. “Miscommunication” seems to be the number one excuse for something getting messed up in a knowledge worker environment. There are a whole host of reasons why this is the case. But one of the easiest ways to combat the lack of retention, the lack of comprehension, or simple miscommunications is to start with the way that we express ourselves.

At Sourcetoad, we use an adapted communications framework that has made life a lot easier for everyone involved. We have set up some basic rules for communication that are easy to remember, and we use keywords so that people receiving the information can context switch into the receiving framework mode. In other words, when people incite the framework, everyone changes their mental stance and prepares to communicate.

An Adapted Simple Model

This framework has been adapted from an amalgamation of numerous other frameworks. It takes a lot from military communication tactics (where being understood can be the difference between life and death) and a number of other popular communication frameworks. This is just the simplest way that we’ve been able to express it. It has been hacked together from too many sources to cite, but it is still simple enough to work well for us.

The Framework

Our framework has only four key pieces:

  • Intent
  • Context
  • A sketch of the desired outcome
  • A sketch of a strategy to get to that outcome

These four items can be placed in various orders, but typically they start with intent and end with a strategy.

Intent

Stating your intent, or at least clearly knowing what your intent is, is the most powerful part of this framework. Understanding your own intent in everything is extremely powerful, but that’s another blog post. Conversations that do not have a well-understood intent are just “chats.” They’re not the type of communication that will solve any problem.

Stating your intent at the beginning of a conversation does two very important things:

  1. It switches the receiver’s brain into “communications framework mode.” It allows the other person to understand that you are about to use the framework.
  2. Stating your intent allows the person to whom you are speaking with to know why you are talking. If I don’t know what you want right at the beginning, we’re probably not going to have a fruitful conversation.

Context

Context is the backstory or history that your receiver may need to fully understand the conversation. Telling the person you’re talking to about the players involved, what previous conversations touched on, or what the stakes are can be extremely useful.

The three main questions you should ask yourself when giving context are:

  • What are we talking about?
  • What do you need to know about this?
  • Have I told you everything you need to know?

When saying this bit out loud, you can use the following trigger phrases to make sure your receiver knows you are using the framework:

  • “For a little background…”
  • “For context…”

Sketch Desired Outcome (End State)

After you’ve laid out your intentions and the context the receiver needs, it’s time to actually tell them what you want. This involves explaining your vision of the outcomes, or the “end state.”

An outcome or end state might be as complicated as: “I think what I want is for the company to open a new line of business, complete with staff and warehousing. I also think we’re going to need to custom build an entire logistics software system over the next few years.”

Or it could be as simple as: “What I would like is that at the end of this conversation, we set up a time to have a formal meeting about it with the team.”

You need to be flexible here because even though you might know what type of outcome you are looking for, you need to leave room for the solution to include new ideas from your audience. That’s why we call it a “sketch.”

When saying this bit out loud, you can use the following trigger phrases to make sure the receiver can envision what you want to happen:

  • “What I see happening…”
  • “My desired outcome is…”

Sketch a Strategy

You know what you want (intent), the receiver knows what you want (end state), and they have the backstory (context) to understand what you’re talking about — we can now move on to action.

In this phase, we outline a possible method of getting to that end state I mentioned earlier. This is up for discussion, of course. The person you’re speaking with is not required to follow your sketch. Rather, this phase invites them to build a strategy with you to accomplish the desired outcome.

The person you’re speaking with might have a much better idea of how to get there than you do, especially since they now understand your intentions and what the end goal is. So keep an open mind, and enjoy the brainstorming.

When describing the strategy you envision, Use triggers like:

  • “A rough strategy we could take is…”
  • “A path I see is…”
  • “I’d suggest x as the next steps. What do you think?”

Example 1

Intention: I want a dashboard to show the ten most important KPIs for our internal product. I want the team to manage the build-out and timing to balance client needs. I’m prepared to invest about 100 hours for the MVP.

Context: Hi Joe, some quick context: I would like for the team to build a dashboard that provides a brief overview of the system – I want this to show the variety of features for sales calls and to be useful for current clients.

Outcome: My desired end state is I get a demo-able dashboard on our test instance within the next four months. It should have 70% of the functionality shown in the mockups.

Strategy: I think the rough path to getting there is for you and Jane to meet and work out which features are doable in the next four months while balancing client requests. Then you can create tickets for the segments and decide how flexible the dashboard could be. Let’s get together for a review and approval meeting when that’s done. After that, we can start handing out the tickets to the team.

Example 2

Intention: I want to get James to switch the DNS servers for a client.

Context: Hey James, for some context, Martin asked me to help him with their new mail server. They’re going to be setting this up on their side with Office365. I’m not sure what is required 100%, though.

Outcome: I would like to send Martin an email with the steps he needs to take to prepare for the switchover and the dates when we plan on doing it. If we have any questions for him, I’d like to include those in the email by the end of the day tomorrow.

Strategy: My strategy here is that I will follow your advice and guidance to the letter because I’m not the expert.

Recap

If you are talking to someone at work, they might not actually be paying attention. Having a communications framework with key phrases and trigger words can make a huge impact on changing the mindset of the sender and the receiver. When both parties know that information is going to be transmitted in a certain way, retention and accuracy rates are way higher.

At Sourcetoad, we use the trigger words and key phrases below to help change our thinking, speaking, and listening modes:

  • Intent
    • “My intention is…”
    • “What I’m looking to do is…”
    • “What I want is…”
  • Context
    • “For some context…”
    • “A little background…”
  • Sketch of my desired outcome
    • “The outcome I’m looking for is…”
    • “When this is all done, I’d like to see…”
  • Sketch of a strategy to get there
    • “I think a rough path to get here is…”
    • “The strategy I imagine is…”

That’s it! It’s a very simple yet powerful tool to help improve communication. You can alter this plan or invent your own, but the key is that both parties know the rules. The idea that people can switch between a conversation and “communication” is life-changing – but it requires training on both sides.

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I help cruise lines turn their technical ideas into reality. I'm experienced in all stages of innovation and technology management. I've also been programing since I was 8 years old, and have somehow retained the ability to have normal human interactions. Occasionally I speak about how Industrial Psychology and Neurophysiology can be interrogated with IT and systems management, because I spend a lot of time thinking about the subject, as strange as that may seem.

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Remote Controls: From Napkin to Production

Solving problems is what my company does for a living. 95% of the time we solve problems by building software. Over the last few years, hardware solutions have entered our solutions tool box more and more. This is largely due to the fact that you can now hook a bluetooth module to some larger device like a printer. You then handle the data processing on some mobile device. Or, we are write software to live on some small-board machine like a Raspberry PI that monitors water temperature or something. These hardware solutions are however, largely integrations, and not actual hardware development.

So when a client asked us to build them a remote control for their interactive TV system, I thought: how hard can it be? This post tries to lay out some of the lessons I have learned while designing, programming, manufacturing, and shipping a custom-built hardware project from soup to nuts.

Like with any new venture, I didn’t know where to start. I know what a remote control is (I use one every day to watch Youtube videos about bad movies) but I’d never really thought about them. Iterative design works in software… so I figured it wouldn’t hurt to just start with something very simple.

The first sketch

Lesson: Just start with something. Anything. Inertia is the enemy.

Humble Beginnings

I sketched the thing out on a piece of scrap paper. In my infinite creativity I took a generation one Apple TV remote control (which at the time I thought was very cool) and traced it on some scrap piece of paper. As Picasso said, good artists borrow, great artists steal. I then used dime to trace the d-pad, and a pen lid to outline the function buttons. You never think about regrets when you start something, but documenting your first steps will make you more mindful of the process. I wish I still had that napkin, or receipt, or whatever I first drew it on.

Lesson: Keep baby photos and napkin sketches. Looking back gives your perspective.

Fortunately, I did keep the first digital rendering that I translated into Balsamiq (totally the wrong tool for the job.)

Surprisingly, this very basic initial start was good enough to get some general client feedback and approvals. Now the real work began. We had to actually build a remote control. We had a few connections in the set-top-box manufacturing world and knew engineers and account managers at two of the big TV brands. So we reached out and asked for some recommendations.

Contract Manufacturers

We evaluated a few manufactures in Texas, China, and Taiwan. Most of them were up for the task, but none clicked for us. We were looking for a partner who talked to us about the future, about innovation, and brought their own ideas to the table. We didn’t really know what we were doing, but we knew that we would want to push the limits eventually, and having a manufacturing team who got excited about remote control technology was a must.

Lesson: Find partners who share your values.

The process was slow. This was not our wheelhouse, but it was a fun, tangible project, with a single, definite measure of success – something that is often elusive in software development. So we pushed on. In the end, one of our DRM encoding partners introduced us to a manufacture in Hong Kong. They were responsive, helpful, and had US-based project managers.

Lesson: Ask EVERYONE for help. The more people you speak to the more likely you are to get valuable signal from the noise.

Learn About Everything

Our new vendor gave us a ton of options. Did we know that there are a huge number of molds already out there? Ones that look almost identical to our sketches? And that we could easily customize them? No, no we didn’t. So they went to work sourcing three or four demo units from other manufacturing firms they were familiar with. This way we could send our client actual samples to touch and feel without spending tens of thousands of dollars in manufacturing prototypes.

Early button layout designs

They also began educating us on IR codes, button mapping, and materials design. While the learning curve was steep, it was rewarding and edifying experience. It is so satisfying to be able to design software systems in concert with hardware. When your code jumps into the tactile world it is just so cool. Working hand-in-hand with the manufacturers, we threw ourselves into their processes, language, legal ramifications, and communication patterns.

Lesson: Learn how to communicate with your partners from their perspective. Even if you are a client, you will benefit from speaking their language.

Test, Test, and Test Again

We tested a bunch of the molds, shipping them around the world for client feedback. We also spent a lot of time hallway testing (asking random people walking by to give us feedback). We gave them to our parents and grandparents, friends and children, and basically anyone who would listen. I actually met one of our client’s customers in an airport (identified by a sticker on her luggage) and dragged the poor woman into user test. I had one of the test remotes in my pocket, and the prototype TV system on my laptop’s local server. We didn’t give her any instructions. She absolutely loved it. The customer felt special getting to play with something before the public do. I learnt more in those 15 minutes with her than anything I had read online about remote design and TV interactions.

Lesson: If you are not showing your product to clients along the line, you are not doing your job well.

One of the early example models

We evaluated everything: feel, weight, button squishiness, response time, everything. This was a little easier now that we had a few comparison prototypes, but our clients were very particular group of people. The company’s owner was to give final approval; he oversees much of final the public-facing products. We sent two finalists to him, that we could barely tell the difference between. After he made his selection, I asked for his team to ask him the following day if he could tell the difference, and he made the same choice. They were extremely pleased with the design and functionality – the owner said:

This is so good it makes everything else look embarrassing

Our Client

Which might be the highest compliment anyone has ever paid me.

Lesson: If you want to do something well, take every part of it seriously.

The Trouble Begins

Once we had approved from the client, we gave the go-ahead for manufacturing. Then the Hong Kong problems started. The protests throughout the metro area brought manufacturing to a temporary halt. Workers could not even get to work. Suppliers couldn’t access roads. The whole city came to a halt.

Then the mold vendor disappeared. Our manufacturer had sourced a ready-made mold from another company. One day, our project manager called us in tears because the owner of the vendor’s company had not shown up to work. No one knew where he was. The political situation had made is so that asking questions was not encouraged. Say what you want about the American political system; you don’t have to worry about your business partners not showing up after a rally.

So the search began for a new mold manufacturer. Unfortunately this meant once again going through the approval process with our client. This time it was a little easier because we had learned so much from the first round. After a ton of time and a huge DHL bill, we finally had a new mold, and client approval. Eventually the factories started opening up again, and we were ready to go!

COVID-19

Then the factories shut down. COVID-19 hit China hard, and Hong Kong with it. Almost as soon as we had started printing boards, everything went into quarantine. At the beginning there was some pushback from suppliers, clients, contractors, and even our project managers. But as the scope of the pandemic become obvious, everyone became more tolerant and understanding. It still added almost three months of delays to the project. All while my developers got to move to the comfort of their homes and continue working. More perspective.

Lesson: Like everything in life, it came down to lots of failure followed by perseverance. Feeling frustrated every morning and swearing a lot are the steps in between. With enough failure, swearing, and pig-headedness, stuff works out somehow.

The two final versions
Down to two finalists

The Final Stretch

The day those first four remote controls arrived in our office felt like we had landed on the moon. We wiped them down with disinfectant wipes and went to work (no one really knew anything about COVID back then!) We did find a small manufacturing defect with the battery connection in two of the remotes, but it was easily remedied.

Then programming began. This went a little smoother due to the fact that my team had done this type of work many times before. We already had IR code programming tables, IoT systems for managing multiple receivers in close proximity and tools too complicated for me to understand that can change the TVs’ or set-top-boxes’ input expectations. It felt… easy, but in reality we had been working on those particular problems for over six years, so the perspective of a thousand small failures didn’t feel anywhere as monumental as the hardware production.

Lesson: Trying new things puts things you already know into perspective.

Where We Are Today

Today, there are tens of thousands of these remote controls out in the wild. People write reviews about them online, and my client mentions them in interviews with international news publications. As a software guy, it continues to be one of those things I’m proud of, and still shocked by the success we achieved from such humble beginnings.

Lessons

  • Just start with something. Anything. Inertia is the enemy
  • If you are not showing your product to clients along the line, you are not doing your job well
  • Keep baby photos and napkin sketches. Looking back gives your perspective
  • Learn how to communicate with your partners from their perspective. Even if you are a client, you will benefit from speaking their language
  • If you want to do something well, take every part of it seriously
  • Like everything in life, it comes down to lots of failure followed by perseverance. Feeling frustrated every morning and swearing a lot are the steps in between. With enough failure, swearing, and pig-headedness, stuff works out somehow. Why do I have to keep relearning this?
  • Trying new things puts things you already know into perspective