Signal to noise ratio for human communication.
February 09, 2020
Definition: In human–computer interaction, the signal–to–noise ratio represents the ratio of relevant to irrelevant information in an interface or communication channel.
Recently I’ve read a post about signal to noise ratio for interface design. It’s a very interesting post, that I recommend but it got me thinking about the same concept when communicating between humans.
The post had two main points that I’d like to have a closer look
Increasing your signal-to-noise ratio
This is not easy, I've tried and keep trying. The thing that worked for me is identifying what makes you create noise instead of signal. In my case my biggest problem is notifications of any kind. If there is a red notification somewhere I need to click it and engage. That's terrible. It wastes my time, it ruins my flow and what I say is not useful at that time. This is especially true with things like Slack or email. The solution for me was to be very aggressive with what I allow to send me notifications. Slack is banned, I get zero notifications from it, uninstall from my phone and noisy channels (that I have to be in) are muted.
The next thing is face to face conversations. Again you need to find out the source of noise. In my case I had to dig a lot to find out that silences are making me uncomfortable. Whenever there is a silence I feel I have to say something. I don't! These days I'm aware and whenever I find myself in such a situation I keep reminding to myself "It's OK, silences are productive sometimes". Generally speaking, you have to look at yourself extremely critically and absorb feedback. Don't get defensive and upset, listen, learn, improve.
If there is one thing you can do try to listen more than you speak, let people finish their sentences and treat everyone with respect. It will go a long way.
What counts as “signal” and “noise” will vary
[...] when it comes to real design, it isn’t always easy to tell the difference. Not every user will have the same goal,
What one person thinks as noise it might not be for another person. For example you might take some time in the beginning to explain something that for most of your team is common knowledge, but for your new joiner it's signal. It would be wrong to not repeat that, you would deprive information from someone.
The other thing that I feel it's difficult is addressing the elephant in the room. Sometimes pointing at something that's obviously wrong can come across like noise and distracting. Let's be honest, there is no right time to say something like this. It will be unpleasant and a bit disorienting, but sometimes this is necessary. Change rarely comes silently. At the same time though be extremely careful, you can't be yelling at everything all the time. It might also mean that you are not in the right environment, so be introspective.
A navigation on a website is something that falls within the category of dynamic noise. A navigation is noise most of the times. But when you are done with the current page and you want to go somewhere else then it’s signal again. In order to make this experience better you keep it consistent, and then the human eye and brain can ignore it when it doesn’t need it anymore. You created dynamic noise.
The key part here is the consistency. Some of the things you say or do might be noise a lot of the times, but there will be times it will be important signal. For example you might keep reminding people on regular occasions to not apply pattern A, or not do the mistake B. A lot of times people will know, but there will be days that someone forgets or we get complacent. In that case that noise is signal again. The key is to do it in a consistent, constructive way. But I'll be honest here, this is a very thin line we're walking. It's easy to become irrelevant if you repeat the same thing all the time. So be careful.
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