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Noise Reduction in Core Concept Conversations

Zack Marty
Zack MartyTuesday, March 5, 2024
Noise Reduction in Core Concept Conversations

Noise is one of the many reasons that most office workers don’t have their offices located adjacent to a concert venue. Noise makes it hard to concentrate, it doesn’t add anything beneficial to our work, and it makes me wonder why anyone thought that the open-concept office space would be of any benefit to people who need to do any kind of deep work.

Noise, especially the kind that we can’t predict, has a way of making everything else more difficult. When we do tasks that require a bit of thinking, we often find ways to reduce the noise around us to aid in concentration. So when I talk about noise in reference to product management and software development, I am referring to all of the added stuff that doesn’t benefit the core conversation being had. Noise reduction applies to many industries, but today we will focus on product management and software development.

The added stuff

When we have conversations about how features will work, we typically use hypothetical scenarios to explore a given feature. This allows us to connect with the feature and talk it through in a way that gets us further away from the theoretical implementation and a little closer to how it will actually work. In the below example, one of our clients wanted to build a semi-social mobile application and had a specific way that they wanted the sorting algorithm to work on a user’s feed. The goal was to ensure that people received attention on their social posts rather than the way many apps currently work where the goal is to get social posts to snowball. Let’s take a look below at how their proposed solution would work.

What makes this noisy?

This example is relatively simple since their proposed version of the sorting algorithm doesn’t take any sort of time decay into account. If a user’s social post receives ‘likes’ of some sort, then it gets thrown to the bottom of the pile. They are essentially punishing users for receiving attention on their social posts. It was not hard to convince our client that this would not be a good way to implement the sorting algorithm. So, where is the noise? The noise comes from the fact that the social posts themselves have absolutely nothing to do with the sorting algorithm. We don’t need to see that the first social post involved going to the mall or that the third social post shows the user doing a cartwheel. So how do we remove some of the noise?

In this version, we can easily show off the sorting algorithm without needing to show the contents of the social posts themselves. This is a great way to reduce noise. Rather than showing actual posts, we just have placeholders. Is there a way that we can reduce noise even further? Yes. In the above version, we create noise by using almost identical text. It takes a moment or two in order to identify and indicate to what you are referring. In more complex scenarios, talking about ‘social post 1’ vs ‘social post 2’ is surprisingly laborious and can confuse people when there are no major demarcations between the posts. While we reduced noise in one way, we also made more noise since it is easier to identify skirts and cartwheels than social post 1 and social post 2.

Why not just use numbers?

The next question that should arise is, “Why not just use numbers? One and two are distinct values.” The issue we create here is that there is a value and sequence cognitive load that accompanies numbers due to our long relationship with numbers as people. Again, it simultaneously reduces and increases noise. My suggestion is below:

In the above example, each of the placeholders for social posts are conceptually and visually distinct. When I first made this visualization, I used a panda where the crab is, but I replaced it with a crab so that it would be more conceptually distinct from the bear despite them both being visually distinct. There are plenty of other visuals that you can use to create distinct journeys for your audience to follow, but I like the animal images since they are typically known by the audience rather than something I might need to explain to someone. However, despite all of our concentration on visuals, the animals / social posts are not as important as the core concept to discuss, which is the sorting algorithm. The animal pictures just allow us to think about placeholders less than we think about our core concept.

Do you have other examples?

Of course, I would not have made the above title if I didn’t. In a discussion with a client, we need our client to help us understand the relationship between a few different people who would be using or connected to their software. For their crowdfunding platform, we needed to better understand the relationships between the different parties. Let’s start by dumping the explanation into a paragraph.

A campaign organizer can create a campaign for themselves or someone else. Each campaign has a beneficiary. That beneficiary is not always the person who receives the funds raised. When the client did all of this via human interaction and check writing, it wasn’t much of a problem. They had people behind each interaction. However, they wanted to make sure that there was a delineation between the beneficiary and the recipient, who could also be the organizer. They also needed a next of kin added in the event that the beneficiary / recipient could not accept the funds for one reason or another, and this all needed to be abundantly clear to the campaign organizer on the front end of the experience. So how did we visually represent this?

Organizing the information this way allows everyone involved to point to representations of the individuals rather than needing to use names that can get complicated quickly. When we first started to identify the individuals we said things like, “Okay let’s assume that Officer Santiago wanted to create a campaign for Sergeant Jones, but Sergeant Jones passed and we need to make sure that his spouse receives the money raised in the campaign…” While this first sentence is not terribly complicated, it quickly becomes complicated when you have to keep remembering names to keep individuals straight. By using ducks, dogs, cows, and bears, you make remembering each individual significantly easier, and you spend more time thinking about the core concept and the way it might need to be represented on the front end. On top of making discussions easier, it makes future knowledge transfers easy as well. If I show this to a designer later and talk through it, they will be able to easily understand the various relationships that need to be thought about to design an intuitive experience.


All of the visualization tools we use in a meeting or when presenting to others can be amazing when it comes to complex conversations and concepts. However, we need to be careful to not introduce noise into the process and make having these conversations more difficult. The more of our brain power that goes into discussing the core concept rather than all of the unimportant details that surround the core concept, the better. One word of warning is to make sure that when you start to hack and slash at the noise, you don't also cut out important details that aid in understanding. That can be just as detrimental as having too much noise.

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