I somewhat jokingly describe myself on my Twitter profile as “skirting the thin line between polymath and jack of all trades”. My career has been one where I’ve had exposure (and exposed myself) to a number of areas which means that I’ve found myself often in a position to be able to translate things across domains (explaining media ideas to technologists, technology ideas to business managers and so on). It’s something that I like to think I’m pretty good at – and hopefully comes across in some of my witterings here too.
Another topic of conversation from my recent lunch with Diana from EMC has been bouncing around in my noggin since, and came up again in a meeting I had yesterday. Whilst I’ve always referred to this inter-domain ability as being “translation”, it’s probably better to think about it as “adaptation”.
Diana used to work for a big furniture retailer – one who specialise in flat-pack goods (you can probably guess). The processes by which they localized catalogues for their customers in different countries was one of adaptation, rather than pure translation. It isn’t enough to just take words and put them into another language – one has to make them make sense in the culture of the intended audience.
When it comes, then, to putting technology concepts (for example) into a world accessible for another audience, it’s vital to keep those messages into a context with which the intended audience will be able to relate. That’s not necessarily “dumbing down” – just making sure that the right level of detail is described in ways that are relevant. It’s possible to understand how the internet works, for example, without getting down into the intricacies of the TCP/IP protocol. It’s also often where good metaphors can really come into their own.
This of course can prove problematic for some domain experts: “it’s not as simple as that” comes the cry (and if things can be explained simply and easily then the value of the complexity can be lost along the way). Anyone who has been involved in prototyping approaches to software development will also know this too well, where the “simplicity” of a user interface sidelines a client into thinking that the whole system underneath is equally simple too (and then wondering why the costs are so high to implement).
For me, though, adapting ideas well leads to one of the most rewarding things for me in work. That “ah ha!” moment when somebody understands something where before they thought it just too complex. That look on faces is one of the best things for me in my career.