A picture is worth a thousand words – Why you should start with visual thinking.

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Just as mankind has evolved over the centuries, our means of communication have changed as well. What began as primitive cave paintings and signed language has now transformed into endless of varieties to express oneself. To cope with the increasing complexity our clients are facing, effective communication is needed. After all it enables us to pass, and understand, information more accurately and quickly. Visual thinking, which is a set of methods used for describing words as a series of pictures, is one way to achieve that.

In my opinion visual thinking as a methodology is not getting the recognition as it truly deserves. In fact, when saying it loud, thinking in pictures might sound a bit silly. After all it reminds us of the time, we as toddlers, spent playing with flash cards to learn the alphabet. And yet, it has proved itself to be a powerful tool to analyze and absorb information. Even a simple doodle can in many situations tell more than a written text.

In our industry, visual representation in terms of sketches, diagrams, graphs etc. serves as a vital part of the documentation during a project. There is no denying on that. If done correctly, it also serves as a foundation for upcoming projects. Like it or not, a lot of us are visual learners. We think in pictures. Our brains are configured in a way where they try to make sense of the of the world by translating information, written or spoken, into images. But that translation step can sometimes lead to misunderstandings and unnecessary confusion. Visual thinking eliminates the need of the translation step.

And yet, we often attempt to describe our complex thoughts without drawings. Why?

Some common answers to that question are the following:

  • Drawing is a hard and time consuming to perform.
  • We don’t have the correct tools available
  • People are not understanding the drawings anyway. The drawings are interpreted differently by the audience.

At first glance the answers seem to give sufficient reasonings to why drawings might not feasible in our communication channel. Navigating through the universe of diagramming techniques and ways of applying them is indeed a huge undertaking. Add to that the difficulty in producing attractive diagrams and you have a task that seems impossible. However, is that really the case?

I’ll let you in on a secret. It’s really very simple. As many things the first attempts are always hardest. In this case you just keep drawing, enjoy it, learn different tools, read a bit about some techniques, and before you know it, you’ll be thinking visually.

It may seem a bit counterintuitive to be learning multiple tools. It may feel like a waste of time. After all, why spend time learning some tools when we can learn one well? Working close with a lot of developers and architects, and from personal experience, I tried numerous of tools before realizing there is no perfect tool. As it turns out, learning different tools will teach the fundamentals of drawing in a way that makes it simpler to use any drawing tool. Once you realize there is no magic, making drawings becomes easy. With experience, you will start using the tool for what it does well and ignore what it doesn’t. After some time, the annoying parts will fade away and nudging sketches by hand will come naturally.

Regarding that people may not understand the drawings, this is solved by targeting the right audience. If the aim is to present an idea to the business, high level sketches might be the way to go. If the audience is rather more technical people, more detailed drawings in terms of flowcharts, sequences etc is a better option. This comes with experience and after getting bit familiarized with the different stakeholders involved. We do the same when we communicate with words and written statements. After all, the communication medium is only effective when conveyed to the correct people.

I have personally saved a lot of time by only presenting the topic through doodles in meetings. The act itself, by looking at the software and business processes as a composition of text and pictures, improves the result. It forces us to decompose and organize the problem, and attempt to explain it back to ourselves.

I would recommend you to start seeing the processes and software through doodles, diagrams and other visual aids, preferably with some text next to it. Don’t worry if you don’t know what the standard is, or what tool to utilize. Do what makes sense to you and the team in the beginning and build from there. After all a picture is worth a thousand words. 

Shiv Jeet Rai

About

Shiv Jeet is a strong engineering professional with knowledge about how to model, design and control various of complex dynamical systems used within applications in shipping and offshore, automotive and aviation industry. He is a technical consultant with a demonstrated history of working in the finance and the automotive industry. He has good experience with having different test hats and has been working in roles such as test coordinator, technical tester, SW/HW Engineer, test analyst and RPA developer. He has good business and process understanding and is now an indispensable asset to his current client in terms of solution design, training of resources, test data generation, test coordination of teams and running acceptance tests together with the business.

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