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Understand, don't just listen: the icons origin story.

The idea for creating standardized icons came from a client meeting, but it’s not what the client originally asked for.

And that explains the difference between "listening" and "understanding."

Here’s my dramatic retelling of what happened.

I was visiting one of our long-time customers last winter, a big company that we do a bunch of custom work for. We were in meetings to scope out what they wanted to do this upcoming year.

“You know,” said a client, “I think it would be helpful if we had icons for each of our risk areas.”

“Yes,” I said. “We could do that. But I think we could do something else that would be even better.”

The client gave me a look.

“Risk areas are pretty abstract,” I continued. “Those are not going to be really meaningful to employees, because they’re not going to see them that often. It feels like those would just go on your policies and nowhere else.

"Instead, what if we had icons that told people what to do? Like ‘get approval’ or ‘talk to your manager?’ Those icons would be consistent across all your risks, so you could use them all the time—and it’d cut down what people need to read.”

“Yeah!” the client said. “Let’s do that.” 

And then I flew back to Dallas and told the team we were going to do this.

But we quickly realized it was even bigger than that.

I ended up telling our client to not worry about budgeting for the icons because we were going to take it on as an internal project and give it to them through their Library subscription.

And then it took us about six months to do that, working off and on: to standardize colors and develop illustration conventions, to audit hundreds of design pieces to identify necessary concepts, and to create a cohesive dictionary of icons with defined meanings.


We ended up creating Speak Broadcat, our visual language—which Compliance Week awesomely compared to the visual language used in Alien. It’s now available to millions of employees worldwide, and we’ve even introduced it as a standalone product.


Listening is easy, understanding is hard.

The reason I tell this story is to explain why it’s important to work with people that have done your job and understand your problems—instead of just listening to them.

Someone who listens to your problems makes you do all the hard work, forcing you to identify the problem and the solution. They execute, but they don't really add value beyond that. 

By contrast, someone who understands your problems lets you relax, because you just articulate the need and let them handle the solution, and that might be something that wasn't even on your radar.

Of course, every compliance vendor you speak with will tell you that they listen to their customers, and they think this makes them customer-focused and that you love that.

But when you are in-house, that’s not what you think. You think it means that you are explaining compliance to the vendor and telling them how to do their job. And that’s because you are.

That is annoying. It drove me nuts.

And it also means that you will never get anything innovative out of that vendor, because they don’t really understand the problem they’re solving. They will just do exactly what you say, without thinking through if there’s a more helpful way to address it.

You will tell them that you need faster horses, and they will scurry around and breed faster horses and applaud themselves for doing that. But what you really needed was for them to understand your problem was “getting places faster” and invent the automobile.

And understanding your problems at that level is exactly what vendors should do for you.

Because when you are in-house, you are an expert on your company—the personalities and processes and quirks that make your business unique, and that is massively time-consuming. You don’t have time to ponder philosophical questions like “what is training, anyway?” because your role is so broad.

Vendors have the luxury of time and laser-like focus—you don't. In-house people have to do 10,000 different things every day, and that means you can't shoulder the burden of dreaming up new solutions; just keeping the problems at bay is hard enough.

So, moment of truth: do you feel that way about your vendors? Are you confident that they're pushing the art form forward, whatever that may be?

And if not, why do you work with them?