But First

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.

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8 Responses to But First

  1. Jim Robertson says:

    At first I thought you were talking about walking into a Shoppers Drug Mart store…

    You do have a knack for cutting through the haze and coming up with viable choices

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim R – OH! You’re right – another offender, and the newer locations (where they’ve built a separate section, wall and all) are worse than the older/smaller ones (where the cosmetics are just the first area you see). I wonder what percentage of SDM shoppers are there for the pharmacy (right at the back), or for other OTC stuff. You can bet they don’t have to wonder: they know exactly where the sales are. At some point, good merchandising descends into disrespect. We might be at that point.

  2. Oh, yes! Walmart provided my most recent example of “forced entry” but even the grocery store checkout and the pet store checkout push those stands full of “impulse opportunities” right up to the credit card terminal. If they were mere distractions, I could ignore them. But when shelving and other obstacles herd me, pushing an overburdened cart, through distances I need not have travelled, insult is added to very real potential for injury.

    More importantly, since I continue to aim to write to professionals about my discoveries, your tutorial is timely and suggests I re-think that standard approach to a proposal. I am about to shatter someone’s assumptions about human behaviour. Why not present that experience in a format that shatters the expected approach?

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – I also have started to notice the forced-route exit and they do seem to be getting longer. Giant Tiger, where I am usually carrying a basket, sends me on a path that snakes past all their candy, testing my stamina, my patience, and my self-control all at once. If anyone knows of a store that carries sweet pickled onions and does not do this, let me know! (I suspect it’s called Amazon…). As for your proposal, a different structure is sure worth some consideration. I like the options that hyperlinks open up – to let people explore the detail where and when (and if) they want to. It’s harder to achieve that in a printed document.

      • Hyperlinks is the notion behind phone apps, which I am translating into a combination of teaching modules for Focused Listening and data collection for those who want to opt in. When the beautifully renewed version of my late sister’s house sells, I should have the means to launch that project. That’s my plan, at least.

  3. Barry Jewell says:

    I suspect that the phone companies are pushing this extra, extraneous, information.

    I was quite surprised once when I got informed about how much our phone was costing. It seems that the 800 number is free for the caller but the owner pays by the minute.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barry – Well, I guess someone has to pay! But a by-the-minute charge sounds like the bad old days of long-distance bills, doesn’t it?

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