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  • March 8, 2012


I recently went on the hunt for a new barber closer to home. You see, I’ve been fortunate enough to have my hair cut for the last six years from the same barber every time, a friendly man named Joe. Decorative Illustration Over that time Joe and I have gotten to know each other quite well. We both have dacshunds, we both enjoy the theater, and we both know exactly how I like my hair cut.

Now, cutting my hair isn’t an overly complex task. I don’t color my hair, I don’t have lightning bolts shaved into my temples, it’s just a standard male hair cut. But it’s my standard male hair cut and Joe knows exactly what I’m looking for. I could say “a little shorter than normal” or “let’s try something new on the sides” and he would know exactly what to do.

Walking into a new barber shop, I struggled to explain what I wanted done. Did Joe use a #2 or a #1 on the sides? How high did he make the top, did he do anything special in the back? In the end, I explained my hair cut as follows:

It’s usually short on the sides, maybe a #1 or #2. On the top, Joe used clippers and kept it longer, about a finger’s height.

With that, my new barber went to work. He cut the sides first then worked his way to the top of my head. Using the razor he went from one side of my head clear across to the other side. I nearly peed myself. This was not what I wanted or expected. Joe used those nifty scisors that have the jagged edges to cut the top. This guy was just going to town with the razor.

Now, I’m a quiet guy and what was done was done, so there wasn’t much sense raising a fuss. So, I sat there as my new barber proceeded to shave my head bald.

A month or so later I was back, ready for another go of this closer to home barber. This time I was prepared. When he asked what I wanted, I went into excruciating detail. There were hand motions, drawings, 8×10 color glossy pictures, etc. And finally, when we got to the part where he buzzed my entire head, I made a scissors hand motion to explain what I wanted. My new barber started laughing and laughing. You see, the thing I called “clippers” is what us non-barbers refer to as a “razor.” When I asked for “clippers” on the top I asked for a buzz cut. If I had wanted scissors on the top all I had to do was say “scissors on the top.”

After a good laugh, my new barber went to work and gave me the exact haircut I was looking for.

On the web, we typically don’t have the same luxuries I had in the barber shop. Our sites don’t “grow back” and we’re not able to budget a full scale redesign every month. The stakes are higher online and it’s important we get it correct the first time.

To do that, we, as web professionals, must discern the differences between what our clients are asking for and what our clients actually need. For example, when a client says “we need a mobile app,” it’s up to us to determine whether they actually, like, need a mobile app or whether a responsive site would suit them better.

The key is to develop a shared language. A language where one of you can say “a little longer on top” and the other will know exactly what you mean. That requires education on both sides. Education of our clients so they understand what it is we’re doing for them. Education for us to discern whether or not when the clients say “bigger,” they really mean more prominent? Or are they saying “text field” when they mean “text area?”

I’ve used many different approaches to develop a shared language, but none work better than simply communicating in person. When you can communicate with a client and see their hands or their eyes, it’s infinitely easier to understand what they mean and not just hear what they’re saying.

I do this via in-person meetings and web chats. If I can’t see their face, I ask to look at their screen. If I can’t see their screen, I ask for a screen shot. There is simply no better way to explain something than with a picture.

Some of the methods I use to do this include:

  • Conversations – we’ve experimented with web requirements a lot over the past few years. We’ve gone from story cards to online services to spreadsheets. In the end, nothing works better than simply having a conversation. Today many of the requirements I work from start from a simple question “what do you think of X?”
  • – one of my favorite tools. allows me to effortlessly share my screen with anyone. No more installing Java or configuring a desktop application. Just send your client a URL and you’re communicating in pictures.
  • Skype – between video chat and screen sharing, this is the next best thing to being there, in person.

How do you develop your shared language? Are there any tools out there that you’re using to make your job easier?

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