My nose wrinkles. It isn’t that I don’t like floral scents, but in a garden one flower’s scent gracefully dissipates on the breeze before the next flower’s arrives. By contrast, in this tiny unventilated space, vapors leaking from a thousand perfume bottles assault my sinuses all at once. If scents could sing–or even hum–this resulting medley would be not a symphony but a cacophony. This is what heavy-metal rock would smell like: loud, brash, obnoxious.
As I look for the fastest route through this stinkiness–a route deliberately obstructed by its sinuous layout and intentionally obscured by the lack of overhead signage to the blessed exit–I mutter inwardly about the design philosophy that puts the operator’s desire to maximize my exposure to their wares above my time constraints, convenience, preferences, interests, and sensitivities (physical and otherwise), all in a place I did not freely choose to enter and yet cannot avoid. And not just the value or weight of *my* time constraints, convenience, preferences, and so on: The value or weight of the time constraints, convenience, preferences and so on of every other person involuntarily transiting this area, combined. If it were a number, it would be a big one.
It’s not the first time I’ve been annoyed by airport duty-free stores acting as a gauntlet between the security/pre-clearance kiosks and the working concourse. I remember being almost panicked in Heathrow Airport, thinking I might never find my way out to my gate. If I keep flying internationally it won’t be the last such time. But my latest trip was the first time I saw the connection between this “force-’em-through-it” design philosophy and our communication habits. How so? Here’s an example from my former life.
A government client or a large corporate client wants to buy products or services or even something big, like a new hospital or a ship. They issue a Request for Proposals which is, basically, a set of exam questions for potential providers to answer. Those potential providers assign teams to respond to said questions and said teams . . . do something else first.
They explain the framework of the subset of the technical discipline being addressed in the question. They describe how they usually provide the services or design the products being sought, without stating whether this is what they propose to do in this case. They discuss how they came up with their proposed solution, especially the options they considered and discarded, especially especially if they think their competitors might propose one of them. They highlight the benefits of their offering as they see them. Then, at the end, they answer the question.
The technical experts do some of this on their own.
You won’t understand my technical answer
unless I first instruct you in a bunch of other stuff.
Then the editors get their hands on the document.
This won’t look like all the other answers
unless we overlay it with a standard introduction.
Finally, the marketers take their turn.
You won’t grade our answer the way we want
unless we first explain to you why it’s great.
Are proposal writers, editors, and marketers unique in valuing “what they want to transmit” over what the client wants to receive? Not hardly. As I complained recently, people who write/design voice-menu systems commit the same sin: “You might want to talk to a person, but first I want to expound on my organizational mission.” It seems to be a depressingly short step from knowingly transmitting “what I want to say, never mind what you want to hear” to unconsciously transmitting “what I’ve convinced myself you need to hear.”
What’s the alternative? As suppliers, we might have enough confidence in the quality of our offering to also be confident that we can respect the customer’s time constraints, convenience, preferences and so on and still thrive. As customers, we might make an effort to support suppliers who do respect our time constraints, convenience, preferences and so on. Suppliers who give us choice in our communication with them.
More broadly, we’re all on both sides of this conversation, transmitting and receiving at different times. As transmitters (cough, cough), we might get better at checking our default communication style: at offering choices. As receivers, we might get better at giving kind but clear feedback on the choices we value.
Then we can consider tackling the harder problem: communication with government and near-government agencies. Or, I dunno, airport layout. Go big or go home, eh?
Choice: It’s a wonderful thing. But like everything else, we lose it if we don’t use it. Or insist on it.