How Discussion Happens: Humans, Tech, and Jibber-Jabber

These days conversations take place over days, weeks, or months. They also change their mediums almost as often as they change who’s speaking. And this is all perfectly normal.

Yesterday afternoon I was catching up with Evan about a Basecamp thread we’d started that morning regarding some photography for our new product, Kin. About 5 minutes in we decided to take the conversation online so that Jason could join the discussion. Evan was sitting 3 feet away from me. Jason about 2 miles away. We continued the convo using HipChat, the group chat tool we fell in love with last year. The conversation subsequently was recapped during our in-person (and live video) stand up, and then I returned to Basecamp to summarize the decisions. It was an otherwise unremarkable conversation with an otherwise unremarkable series of changes in technology. We needed to have a remote team member join the talk, pure and simple. We wanted other folks to be aware of the conversations, so we shared via Basecamp.

But taking a closer look at the transaction, it’s remarkable how communication transpires these days. This conversation took place over the entire day, starting on one channel then switching to another, gathering more people for opinions, then shrinking back down to one on one for final decision making. Crazy.

Context and the morphing of conversations

Context is always king when it comes to deciding how and where to catch up and it’s wild that we make the decision and transition seamlessly once a conversation changes it’s place in the life cycle. It’s a bug, so use the issue tracker. It’s a group stand up across 5 states, so use video chat. I do love me a live, face to face conversation, but it’s awesome that every one of the online tools we use documents itself, timestamps itself, and shares itself. It’s literally hard to forget a conversation ever happened, for better or worse.

Channels, mediums, and tin cans

In my technology stupor, I thought I’d take a few moments to write out all the ways our team communicates day in and day out. I’d gander that most of these conversations happen across at least 3 of these mediums, too.

Face to face

The old standby. Good ol’ real human interaction. It’s icky, for sure, but you know what? There’s just no more efficient way to get to terms with someone. You see their face. You interpret their body language. You, of course, exchange words in 100% totally-better-than-HD quality.


Everyone’s got a phone. Two, in fact. We’ve got a fairly smart system which allows folks to transfer calls between devices, call via the computer, and so on. It’s great, to be sure, because clients call all the time. It’s also great for larger conference calls with our distributed team. But, for quick informal team communication, it feels almost archaic.


Everyone has it. Everyone needs it. It’s both greatly productive and, at once, perfectly unproductive. Long threads with multiple people participating have a tendency of tying my bowels into knots. People who think email is non-temporal do too. Yet, still, it’s the ‘next’ most personal outreach to someone after a phone call. It’s long form. Or short. Quick fire, or not.

Text messaging

This is the “oh shit, tried everything else, please call when you can” medium. At least for work. Now that it’s tied into Apples OS, though, it’s another good medium for conversations which morph between technologies. I might personally add that group texting can get people into trouble. If you ever need the truth, group text. Someone is bound to share an opinion without knowing it.

Instant messaging

A year ago, we started using HipChat instead of iChat. Since then, there’s no looking back. Every project has a group room, privacy levels are great, and heck, we even have our customer support tools and Git wired up to message us when something’s new. It is truly an indispensable tool for our team .

Video conferencing

We rarely use ‘just’ voice conferencing with the team anymore. Pretty much every conversation with our remote team happens with video. Hipchat does video, FaceTime is great, Skype, and our conferencing service, Goto Meeting, does a great job too. Seeing the team’s faces and reactions adds that additional level of stimuli to help steer a conversation.


We’ve used Basecamp since we were a few months old, I think. All project communication which one might just use email for happens inside of Basecamp. It’s excellent for discussions which take place over multiple days with multiple people participating. Where email fails in this manner, Basecamp does swimmingly.


Our own pride and joy, an issue tracker. Like Basecamp with assignments. It’s specifically for one on one task management, bug tracking, and issue resolution. It’s a great historical log of activity at the end of a project and, like Basecamp and email, it works particularly well for conversations which take place over several days.


After all is said and done, our team tracks time in Harvest. With colorful commentary. Sometimes folks even track what they ate during their lunch break. For an extra exciting exercise, take a time entry’s time stamp, and scour Basecamp, DoneDone, email, and Hipchat to piece together how particular topical conversations took place. Harvest is usually the end of the line.

What about pace and focus?

Do all of these different ways of discussing and sharing detract from focus and productivity? I don’t think so. I might rather argue that the need to have so many conversations about stuff is the true culprit. If there is one. If anything, the multitude of ways to communicate has paved the road for more efficient decision making. Just think of the last time you put a conversation on hold to try and conference someone in. I don’t recall wasting that time in recent years. Conversations have a way of relocating themselves into the most efficient medium. Most of the time, at least. There’s the inevitable shit storm email with 24 people cc’d which began when you weren’t on the list yet. Those are gems. Luckily, though, they’re becoming fewer and farther between every day.