DonnaM » Blog Archive » Black, white or grey

Black, white or grey

I spoke today to a group of people associated with Webstock. Instead of a pre-prepared presentation, I told them ahead of time about my experiences and took questions up front and from the floor.

But this post isn’t about the actual talk I did, but about something I find incredibly hard to do – give straight-up, black & white answers. I know that people would really, really like me to give them a straight answer, without once saying ‘it depends’ (actually, I usually say ‘context is really important there’ which is just as bad as ‘it depends’).

This happens in part because the world is complex, and designing for a complex world is hard. It is difficult to know everything needed, and most projects don’t allow the time to do the necessary learning (whether skilling up, background research or user research). So most people, most of the time, are trying to solve problems without the right toolset. This naturally leads to a desire for some easy answers.

The problem is compounded by the type of writing that comes from a number of high profile ‘gurus’. They make everything appear black and white. People grasp at these neat answers and believe them, because it is far easier than thinking through all the complexity.

But the more projects I do, the more I realise neat black & white answers don’t fit any sort of real world, which means I end up talking more about the context, and feeling like I’m disappointing people and being vague. Oh well, at least I try to explain what ‘it depends’ on, or what the implications are for different contexts.

4 Responses to “Black, white or grey”

  1. Kelly Green Says:

    As a workshop / conference attendee
    “what the implications are for different contexts.”
    This is what I most want to hear! I like to hear different contextual examples that I can compare to my own situations. Personally, I wish that the “gurus” would stop making things look simple and black and white. In my experience, it causes CXOs to have unrealistic expectations.

  2. DJ Says:


    Problem is, most IAs working for consultancies don’t get the *time* to really understand the business context *as well as* the user’s context. Also a lot of times, once they have understood the user, IAs struggle to talk the language of the business people involved.

    This is where experience comes in!

    So context *is* important and so is not spreading yourself too thinly across industry sectors…


  3. Donna Maurer Says:

    Kelly – you need to ask a more specific question, then I probably can answer how the context affects it. It is impossible to do in a general sense.

    DJ – if they don’t have the time to do a good job, they shouldn’t be there. Clients shouldn’t pay big bucks for poor work ;)

  4. michael Says:

    I agree that black and white answers seldom convey the real world situation. I too have problems giving them.

    And if you don’t give binary answers, people will look for someone who will! The ‘gurus’ you mention are popular because they are able to simplify problems and answers. Look at any best seller self-help book.

    One answer is to continue questioning before offering the answer. Instead of saying “it depends.” perhaps you could say, “Tell me more.”

    Of course, it depends. It generally does. And, of course, people want simple answers. The successful consultant or trainer is the one who can accomodate both these seemingly contradictory needs. And often the most helpful anwswer isn’t the one that convers the greatest range of possibilities but the one that leaves the questioner with a sense of empowerment.

    When we answer we think people are asking for information, and they are. However, it’s helpful to remember that they are also asking, “Can I do this?”

    So, even if they don’t use the hard information you provide, if the answer to the implied question is yes, you have helped. If you answer, that depends, you may actually be telling them that it is even harder than they imagined, which, while most accurate, may be least helpful.