Sender and receiver

Understanding the nature of communication, especially the quirks of asynchroneous communication, will help us to improve the relation to our users, bring across a message and interpret feedback. This is important, because not always are the information sender and receiver talking about the same content as they might think. Also, there are more levels of communication than the simple factual one. This is the reason why some machines are still struggling with it. And it keeps happening.

joke about autocorrect

As with perception, let’s start with some basics. Terms.

What are terms?

Imagine you see an unknown object. For example something like this:

closed theater curtain will open and show apple behind it

Ok, hopefully this is not an unknown object. But let’s assume we see this object for the first time. We now have a mental representation of it in our mind. To this representation we can then learn a substitution for the object. In this case the term ‘apple’.

'apple' equals an apple

Now we can use the word apple instead of the actual object. That’s good, because this way we don’t have to carry around an apple or a picture of an apple if we want to refer to it. We can simply use the substitute:


Language excels information exchange. Throughout history the speed of information exchange had a great, if not the greatest, impact on technological and social development. But every human being has different experiences. That is why each person connotates terms differently than others. This leads to ambiguity (oh oh, if you have read the perception page, you know that our brain will simply put the terms into the next fitting category).

Experiences, situation and expectation

What do we mean by saying that someone spilled the beans?

spilled beans next to a person whispering into another's ear

Is it A: The metaphor of sharing a secret, or B: Actually spilling beans out of a container.

And now it gets tricky. Not only can the meaning of the content vary depending on the experiences we have and the situations we are in, but also what expectations we might have towards the information sender. To have a better grip on that, theories like the ‘Communication Model of Schulz von Thun’ have been developed.

sokrates thinking about something odd

Actually, this is a problem well known to linguistic philosophy. More recently, authors like Quine and Kripke have dedicated themselves to the issue of ‘reference’ of ideoms and terms. Each person has different experiences and therefore has different associations or connotations with individual emotional values for these. Additionally, people may have different factual concepts of a term because of differences in semantic knowledge.

Semantic knowledge

A common example is the concept of ‘money’. Two people may think of ‘money’ differently.

term tree about concepts of money

One may speak of money as cash money. The other may refer to something more complex with more differentiation.

Every concept can be subcategorized or in contrary put into a higher category. For instance, cash is a subcategory of money and itself subsumes coins and bills. If we narrow a concept, we speak of typecasting. If we widen the focus, we speak of generalization (move up a category). In the image below we see knots of factual knowledge (orange dots). These dots are associated with each other within a concept.

illustration of the nature of concepts

Is there a limit in categorization? System theory suggests this to be a system with endless possibilities. Generalization is a powerful tool if you want to avoid giving a concrete answer. It is most useful in politics ;) (JK)

Also interesting: The less someone knows about a concept/category, the more competent he feels about it (Dunning-Kruger-Effect). In other words: You can’t know what you don’t know.

Also, the more emotional a concept is, the more likely it is to generalize in need of simplification. Or do we really believe that driving a big car will bring executive power to us? It might though, if enough people believe in that. Actually, that is what we call good marketing.

All good things have to come to an end

... and this is also just a short overview on UX relevant mechanisms of human perception and communication. If you want to know more about this fascinating facette of UX Design, I am happy to have a chat with you. You can contact me here.