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The power of illustration

I have spent quite a bit of time thinking about how to explain new concepts using familiar objects. The initial inspiration for such an undertaking originated when a couple of my coworkers wants a business-level understanding of an application I had worked on for a few years. They were doing some minor work and wanted a big picture perspective. I began preparing by mentally drawing a number of circles, arrows, and other flowchart-friendly shapes. It did not take long to spin a complex web of connections.

Then I asked myself how to describe what the application does in one sentence. Once that sentence formed, I took a gamble to try to visualize it differently. Essentially the application pulls data in from many different agencies into one place, then makes decisions based on the availability of data and sends out updates. When I looked at the app in this manner, my whole perspective changed. It was essentially a central hub that fed in and spit out data.

I cannot explain the specific moment or circumstances that led to my visual, but I somehow ended up using Spongebob as a way to visually the app. The body represented the app, and the limbs represented the external agencies that interface with us. When I realized I could draw the application’s purpose in a simple picture, I became very excited.

At this time I felt ready to teach the two interested individuals about the app, so we met weekly in brief periods to go over the different functions. I was amazed at how easy it was to pick up the purpose of the application! Later on I discussed with a project manager who expressed interest in learning how the app worked and I shared the simple picture with him. Over a week later I asked him how much he remembered and he redrew the structure without any help from me.

Since then I have shared this approach with three other people (one who cynically desired that this illustration never make it to the clients or on any official documentation) with great success. What helped me was trying to draw out the flow using archaic structures, accompanied by a disdain for said structures, and a fat-trimming exercise to identify the core purpose.

In preparation for a presentation I went through this process for visualizing Scrum and Kanban, I’ll share that with you next time!