“No – you don’t understand…”

On the futility of understanding

Is true understanding actually possible? I use my fingers to tap out keys on a keyboard and the light from your screen hits our eyeballs, but is it reasonable to think that there is any correspondence between the patterns in my brain and the patterns that were just created in your brain? Or are we just lucky if we have the same thoughts?

I used to think that if I just used the right words and asked the right questions and if only those I spoke with responded with the right words, then I would really understand what I needed to know. In software development projects I thought I would understand “the Requirements” (insert chorus of angels here). Either, the futility of understanding har recently dawned on me, or mind brain recently got out of focus (which is not unlikely: after my second child was born, my sleep deprivation is way up and my level of intellectual stimuli is down).

In short: I just realized I don’t really understand what others are saying to me. But maybe that’s okay. I’ve given up on understanding, but I don’t let it stop me. When my users tell me what they need, I listen, but I probably don’t really understand. I ask some questions and I get some answers, but not really answers to what I had in mind when I asked the question. So I retreat to my computer. Think a little. Sleep on it. Then I make something I can show my users without spending too much time. I see in their faces that they like it. Or don’t like it (which, to be honest, happens more often). I think some more. I create something different. In the end, I think my users are happier and more productive.

Would the process be improved by a Business Analyst on the project? I don’t know. I probably would understand the Business Analyst either. I would have someone to blame when I got it wrong. But would I get fewer things wrong?

Would it be better if someone had sat down and written a “Requirement Specification” (again: choir of angels)? I don’t think so. I usually feel even more lost when I read a spec than when I talk to “confused” users. (Disclaimer: The users are not really confused – they just seem that way from my point of view)

Perhaps we all really are walking with a blindfold in this world and we are just feeling our way around in the dark. The blindfold is not coming off any time soon. Perhaps it’s just as well we learned to live with it.

PS: If you didn’t understand the point of this blog post: That’s my point!

PPS: This seems like a philosophical position that someone must have thought a lot about before. I’d call it epistemological fatalism. I’d love to get tips to prior ideas in the comments.

About Johannes Brodwall

Johannes is Principal Software Engineer in SopraSteria. In his spare time he likes to coach teams and developers on better coding, collaboration, planning and product understanding.
This entry was posted in English, Non-technical. Bookmark the permalink.
  • Espen Sjøvoll

    Good post Johannes. I guess what you are asking, is there really any way of us fully understanding each other?

    I guess the answer is that it is impossible, in the same way that any copy, emulation or duplication can never be 100% perfect, that friction or resistance will never have 100% contact, or that time, space, or symmetry will never be 100% accurate. Any mind is unique and see things from a unique perspective, and thereby will always have diverging conceptions.

    However, there are ways of getting as close as possible and I believe that is by removing as much noise as possible.

    Regarding software development, removing noise is to do what you suggest, remove intermediary functions, get as close to the problem as possible, maximize the number of check points, listen as much and closely as feasible and track, observe, analyse and research as much, often and fast as feasible.

    Just listening and talking is not enough, because the user does not always know what they want or what they feel at any moment. Both what we deliver or evaluate is guesswork. You get the most innovative results when you deliver something the user did not know he needed, and that demands that we treat our work like we are training a puppet and building a rocket at the same time, while being economically sound.

    As a related note, I’ve had this on my wall for over a year now: http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2015/09/no-one-knows.html

  • No, you don’t really understand my point, Espen. ;-)

    Okay, I’m just pulling your leg – I’m going to respond to all comments to this blog post with that line.

    More than just imperfect understanding, I am musing about whether physiologically, in our brains, “having the same understanding” even makes sense!

    I love how you extend the point (I think): We don’t even understand ourselves. When we ask for something, we may be happier if we get something that was not really what we asked for.