Apps & Humans Building Trust People Skills Time Awareness

Apps & Humans #2: Descendants of the Apps

In Apps & Humans #1, we talked about human personality traits that we can assign to applications.

This time we go in the opposite direction, identifying features specific to applications that we can reverse engineer and transform into desirable human behaviors.

What do we want from an app?

Using apps for so many years, we’ve developed certain preferences and expectations about them.

Typically, we want an app to:

  • Have a user interface that is intuitive, easy to work with, uncluttered by things we don’t use.
  • Be performant, allowing us to get the results quickly, with the minimum amount of effort from us.
  • Be compatible with other contemporary tools and technologies.

The user interface: interaction patterns

In human terms, our “user interface” is about how we present ourselves and how we interact with others.

It starts with how we greet each other: from a simple “hi”, we can perceive a message, which can be anything from “I’m happy to see you” to “I’m in a bad mood, leave me alone”.

When a problem arises and people need our help, do we simplify life for them, or do we complicate it?

In the workplace, we have many interactions and we depend on each other.

Confusius Media Player
A slightly confusing, non-standard user interface.

If our “user interface” seems too complicated or unpredictable, people will tend to avoid us when they can and won’t be so cooperative when we need their help.

We can choose to be “user friendly”.

The performance: reliability and productivity

Just as we want our applications to be fast and stable, others rely on us to respect our commitments and be mindful of their time.

We can focus on:

  • Negotiating realistic expectations related to what we can deliver.
  • Making the effort to deliver on time.
  • Notifying in advance those who are affected if we are unable to deliver what we agreed upon. This gives them some time to adapt and respond to the situation.
  • Being less of a bottleneck to others:
    • Responding to emails without too much delay, or at least sending a short reply with an estimation of when we can deliver a complete answer.
    • Sometimes we need to specifically ask if others are blocked waiting for our tasks to be finished. Human communication is never perfect and it’s useful to clarify this, especially for long running tasks.
    • Knowing when others are dependent on our tasks, we can adjust the priority (or discuss priorities with the appropriate people), so that the least time is spent waiting. It also helps to avoid deadlocks (two parties which are blocked waiting for one another to finish their tasks).
    • Keeping in mind that there may be additional tasks we need to take care of, like submitting timesheet information, participating in various surveys or training sessions within the company. These may sometimes seem less important, but they are part of our job too and some of our colleagues (e.g. from management or accounting) depend on us to deliver them on time.
  • Sharing valuable information that we already have to those who need it.
  • Preparing for meetings so that everyone’s time is used efficiently.
  • Doing our own research before asking for help, so that we don’t ask questions which we can easily answer ourselves.

The compatibility: adaptability and cooperation

Think about a game you enjoyed playing 10 years ago. If you would play it today you will probably still enjoy it, but you’ll realize how much things have changed, how some other games made better decisions in terms of user interaction, or simply how much the graphics capabilities have improved tremendously.

My point is, our knowledge may become outdated. I think we all need to allocate some time for learning, to keep up with changes in our fields of competence and to be open to other tools and technologies than the ones we are used to.

Another point is collaboration: we want apps to exchange files in various formats and be compatible with one another. In human terms, people are more likely to enjoy working with us if our collaboration style can accommodate theirs.

Conclusions and recommendations

Our go-to apps can simplify work for us by behaving in certain ways that we expect and appreciate.

By adopting some of these behaviors and pairing them with human qualities like humor or kindness, I believe we can make the workplace more enjoyable for everyone.

Building Trust People Skills

Free PDF: Strategies for building stronger work relationships

Who is this guide for?

This 5-page PDF document is intended for practical people who prefer a straightforward approach to interpersonal skills, rather than hype.

I write from the perspective of a technical person and a human being, describing strategies that I’ve learned and used in my 15+ years of working in the IT industry.

Excerpts from the guide:

Why bother with work relationships?

I sometimes hear people saying “I’m a technical person, I don’t need emotional intelligence”, or making a similar statement.

As a technical person myself, I understand why, because in a broad sense, our main tasks involve dealing with complex technology to solve problems for people who are less technical than us. It is then logical to ask why we should invest our precious time in developing skills that are unrelated to the technology itself.

For me, one important reason is that we tend to interact very frequently with people and depend on each other for information, support and access to various tools and technologies.

With healthy work relationships, the interactions become more enjoyable and efficient.

What are the benefits of stronger work relationships?

I can see various benefits of developing strong work relationships with people inside and outside the company (e.g. clients and customers):

  • It feels good to work with people we know. We need social interaction and since we are spending so much time at the office, why not make it enjoyable?
  • Having shared goals with others and building something together creates a sense of belonging and meaning, which are powerful human needs.
  • They might provide guidance and support when we are in need.
  • They will be less critical towards us when we make mistakes and more focused on what needs to be done to fix them.
  • It’s easier to negotiate anything with people we have good work relationships with.
  • Having strong connections within the company (or even simply being known by others), minimizes the chances of us being let go, when the company goes through difficult times.
  • People are not bound to a single company. When we need to change jobs, they can recommend us to other companies or even facilitate new business opportunities for us, if we have built a history of mutual trust and appreciation.
  • If we ever start a business and need a team of competent and reliable people, we will be in a better position to negotiate with them than most other companies.

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Building Trust People Skills

Taking credit for other’s work

One of the easiest ways to make someone resent us is taking credit for their work.

While this is obvious and most people will avoid taking credit for work they didn’t do, there are some situations that we might not be so sensitive about, until someone else takes credit for something we did.

Here are some scenarios I came across. I’m sure there are countless others.

Borrowing ideas

If someone shares an idea with us, they should get some credit for it, even if we end up changing it completely.

A simple “Mary had an interesting idea that I built this upon” goes a long way towards establishing trust with our coworkers.

Using other’s results

It is quite hard to objectively evaluate the effort made by others.

We might think we did more work than our collaborators, simply because we only see the result of their work, and not their struggles to get there.

This is especially true for debugging or research efforts, which might take a lot of time, but in certain cases have little or no results.

If we want them to work with us again, they need credit and appreciation for their efforts, no matter if and how we use their findings.

Uninformed praise

Sometimes a manager or a customer might give us praise for something they think we did on our own. We might be happy to receive the compliment and feel discomfort about telling them it is actually a team effort, but not correcting such assumptions will severely damage the relationship with our colleagues.

Conclusions and recommendations

My suggestion would be to give thanks and credit to anyone who works with us.

Adding a little extra praise won’t hurt: we never truly know how much effort they’ve made.

In turn, they will trust us more and it is likely that they will choose to work with us again in the future, or be willing to point us towards someone in the company who can help in times of trouble.

Building Trust People Skills

Saying “I don’t know”

These days, technology is moving so fast that it’s quite hard to keep up with it while having a life and doing our job properly.

While we might feel comfortable in learning new things, reaching a state of mastery on any subject takes time. With the current dynamic in companies, many times the learning happens while doing. Additionally, we need to collaborate with people which may be more experienced than us on the subject.

When this happens, do we simply say “I’m new to this and willing to learn” or pretend we know everything and hope that nobody notices?

I think that preparation is necessary for any meeting, but there will always be surprises.

Having a strategy in dealing with them might make the difference between winning a contract or in extreme cases losing our job, depending on the context.

When I am facing topics I have little knowledge about, I go through several steps, asking myself the following questions along the way:

Step 1. Is my lack of knowledge acceptable to the audience?

Case 1. It is acceptable

If it is a discussion within a team that I trust, I will likely admit that I’m not familiar with the subject. This will promote an honest conversation and allow the other people to step in and share what they do and don’t know, which promotes a smooth collaboration.

Case 2. It is acceptable, but a little risky

Maybe answering “I don’t know” might be considered unprofessional in the context I find myself in. Or maybe I said “I don’t know” too many times already.

In that case, I try to postpone my answer, by saying something along the lines of: “I want to check this before giving you a definitive answer. Can I come back to you in X days?”.

This is an indirect way of expressing the lack of knowledge, but gives confidence to the audience that we are honest about what we know and they will tend to trust our other answers.

Case 3. It is not acceptable

If I risk losing my job or I anticipate other serious consequences for exposing my lack of knowledge, I continue to the next step.

Step 2. Is there anyone in the group that has the required knowledge?

Case 1. There isn’t anyone

In this case, I try to steer the discussion towards defining what needs to be solved.

Gathering as much information as I can: what is the context? What are the problems? Are there any potential solutions already taken into consideration? What would be the desired result?

Then I would try to postpone any decision to a later point in time.

Doing this will allow me and the team to do the research or find the people that can help.

Case 2. There is someone

I go to the next step in the evaluation.

Step 3. Are they friendly or hostile?

3.1. Friendly

By “friendly” I mean one of the following:

  • They have the same goal as me and the team.
  • They assume I have the knowledge that I actually lack.

In this case, I simply try to let the people with the knowledge get their points across.

If I trust that they have the expertise to make decisions on the spot, I respect their decisions and only intervene where I have arguments.

I concentrate on being attentive and preserving a polite/friendly discussion, maybe add a joke or two, if joking is appropriate in the context.

3.2. Hostile

This is the hardest situation to be in.

To recap, we are in a situation in which our lack of knowledge has serious consequences, facing someone who acts suspicious towards us and maybe even seeks to expose our lack of knowledge on a particular subject.

In this situation, a simple “I don’t know” is probably not an option.

An idea that comes to mind is to bluff and tell things that I imagine to be true.

I am not a good poker player, so I don’t bluff. And I would recommend you not to bluff either, because if they realize you are bluffing, you will lose your credibility completely.

Anything you said or will say afterwards will be doubted.

My approach in this situation is to:

  • Only make clear statements about things I am confident about.
  • If I am directly asked, I might try an analogy with something I do know.
    • For example, if asked about my experience with a particular feature of program X, I might respond with something like: I know that for program Y, this feature works such and such. I have not used the feature in program X, but I expect it to be similar with the one in program Y.
    • This minimizes the impact of not knowing that feature. Since we already know something similar, it implies that learning what is required would be a minor obstacle.
  • I try to find out what the person asking actually needs.
    • Sometimes they seek to show everybody that they are highly skilled on that matter.
    • I might politely suggest that we can all learn from their experience and invite them to share their knowledge.
    • It sometimes gives the person the attention and appreciation that they need, potentially diffusing the tension.
  • I would try to postpone discussing things I don’t know for a later point in time.
  • I’ve also seen the strategy of responding as if another question was asked, sometimes with a very long response that bores everyone to death, until nobody remembers what was the actual question, or don’t want to risk being bored again.
    • While I’ve seen it working, I am not experienced in bullshitting my way out of difficult situations and I don’t recommend it, at least not as a primary strategy.
  • If nothing works and I have to say “I don’t know”, I will try to make it in a way that does not attract too much attention.
    • For example, I won’t blame myself or others for not knowing something or finding excuses.
    • I will simply state that I have limited knowledge/experience on the subject and it is something I intend to learn/review.

Conclusions and recommendations

When the situation requires us to collaborate, having a strategy for dealing with our lack of knowledge can improve our chances to get to the outcome that we seek with the least amount of conflict.

My approach is to try being honest while preserving a professional attitude, if possible. If my lack of knowledge can have serious consequences, I try to minimize the effects by postponing answers, listening and building trust with the audience.

Additional material

I came across this insightful YouTube video with Sir Ken Robinson, talking about the power of “I don’t know”, while remembering a story involving The Dalai Lama.