Upon entering an airport in a foreign country we all see signs welcoming visitors written in multiple languages similar to the title of this post. As one goes farther East, the Western scripts and languages give way to the character based languages like Chinese, Japanese, Hindi, Tamil and so on. Regardless, there are some kinds of welcoming messages upon entering the country.
In almost every country I have visited to date, the English “Welcome” is one of the words on these multi-lingual signs. I instantly know what the other words mean and I can guess at the language used about 60% to 70% of the time for the Western scripts. The languages I do not recognize, I usually guess based on geography and proximity of other countries to my destination.
For the character based scripts like Chinese, Japanese, Hindi and so on, unless I actually know the language and can read the script, I cannot read the word nor do I know what the language is. I just know that they mean welcome if I could someday figure out how to read and pronounce these words.
So what is the point off all this and what does any of this have to do with requirements? Consider for a moment what would happen if you did not recognize at least one word in the message you were reading. You would be lost and possibly a little panicked because the message seems to be important and in a whole bunch of languages, none of which you recognize.
Now pretend for a moment that the welcome message in multiple languages was accompanied with the picture of someone making a welcoming gesture to you. In an instant, your panic has turned into relief and you understand what the meaning and intent of all the words are, even if you cannot read or understand a single one of them.
This is the same situation that non-English speakers face when confronted with a document filled with words and no pictures. The companies I have worked with have made working knowledge of English a pre-requisite to work on the requirements and development teams. But the grasp of the language and proficiency levels vary widely. Depending on their level of proficiency, they will be on a continuum between totally comfortable and horribly lost.
Users who are not totally proficient in English will behave in much the same way any one of us would have when confronted with Welcome signs in a new country. They will look for some word they recognize there to give them some context as to what the rest of the words are referring to. If they do not find contextual words they recognize, they will be as lost as you or I would be. The same words accompanied by a Visual Requirements Model would have the same impact that a Welcome sign accompanied by a picture has to a traveler first entering an airport in a foreign land for the first time. They now have a frame of reference for all the words they are seeing.
This is not to minimize the value of Visual Requirements for purely English speaking environments. Visual Requirements Models are inherently useful and there is a wealth of evidence that supports the need for them outside of this context.
But the next time you are in unfamiliar surroundings and cannot understand the words on a sign or the menu in a restaurant and are looking around desperately for a pictorial cue, spare a thought for your colleagues in distant lands consuming your documents who feel the same way you are if it is all words and no pictures.