Working on a global information exchange project has been difficult — not because of technical troubles or coordinating our meeting times with our partners in India — but because actually communicating is tough. We have been sharing documents, pictures, and drawings to describe the solutions we are trying to create, but the simple reality is that establishing a collaborative rapport with a 11.5 timezones between you is difficult. This experience has given me an appreciation for the soft professional skills I’ve been taught at UMSI, because in the context of a classroom I’ve thought “duh” and now I’m noticing the nuance.
As we get ready to leave for India, we know this process of guessing and learning is coming to an end — we will no longer be half a world away from our partners. We will be able to cross our mutual communication barriers more easily — which don’t consist of language barrier (their english might be better than mine), but are driven by a lack of context. There will be obvious cues about when someone is confused, or when there is an additional party that we need to be communicating with — instead of a steady stream of emails that consist of more questions than answers.
My first informatics professor in undergrad at UC Berkeley would routinely make me read Michael J. Ready’s essay “The Tool Maker’s Paradigm” — which he held as gospel for the craft of information science. The essay is a philosophical exploration of 3 people exchanging instructions to build a tool, and each party makes radically different assumptions about their partners. The connection back to our GIEP project is that each time we communicate with our partners we are learning more about our partners, but only by making assumptions and learning how wrong we were.
The other evening my team and I interviewed Divya Ramachandran, a user experience researcher with extensive experience in rural India. The lesson that was most useful and unexpected was that we should always speak directly to the person we are interviewing — even when we are using a translator to communicate with the interviewee. Even though it feels goofy to ignore the translator in the room, your goal is to establish a rapport with the interviewee which is done by making eye contact, nodding, and smiling — even though you know they don’t understand a word you are saying. These interpersonal skills and rapport building are essential for getting useful information from an interview.
Communicating with our partner has felt like we are using a translator, even though there is a common language. Since we don’t (yet) share a physical context, creating a rapport has been difficult. Using professional skills — being polite and direct — has been an essential substitute to build the rapport.