Low-language messaging at work: Less text, more communication

  • This article is a dive into the future of workforce communication – taking inspiration from Yo, Line and WeChat
  • Time and time again, history shows that today’s toy is tomorrow’s mainstream communication tool
  • Expect low-language messaging to carve out a serious niche in urgent business communication

I spent quite a bit of time over the weekend playing with Yo. (Yo is an absurdly simple app that allows you to send instant messages saying only “yo” to your friends). As I describe it here, I’m aware it sounds a bit ridiculous. But the viral traction that the app has got (c.3 million users since launch in late 2014) signals that it’s hit onto something that’s resonating with more than a few people.

As I want to talk about in this note, I think that Yo and other similar apps have a lot to tell about the future of communication – both generally and in the workplace.

It’s very easy to write off Yo as a gimmick. But today’s toy is tomorrow’s mainstream communication tool

You might think that Yo sounds like a gimmick. But there’s a long history of communication “toys” becoming mainstream communication tools – i.e. the Telephone.  Some quotes from 1878 are pretty strong support here:

“What use could this company make of an electrical toy?”
– Western Union president William Orton, responding to an offer from Alexander Graham Bell to sell his telephone company to Western Union for $100,000.

“This `telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a practical form of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.”
– Western Union internal memo, 1878

There’s been plenty of examples of “toys” making the transition to the mainstream communications market since. Think Facebook / Yammer for a recent example.

Some background on Yo

For some background, here’s Yo’s Wikipedia entry:

“Yo is a social application for iOS, Android, and Windows Phone. The app’s only function was to send the user’s friends the word “yo” as a text and audio notification… The app has received USD$1 million in investment from a group of investors led by Moshe Hogeg, CEO of Mobli, who had originally asked Arbel to design a single-button app to call his assistant.”

Basically you open yo, tap the name of your buddy, and that friend gets a message saying “yo!”. Here’s a screenshot, showing exactly the same thing:


It sounds trivial, but it turns out you don’t need language to deliver an important message

One of the ways that Yo got early traction was in Israel – with people using it to alert their friends of incoming missiles. That’s a very important conversation. It’s potentially a life or death conversation.

On first take, using an application with zero context to communicate such an important message seems counterintuitive.

But I think there’s two strengths here that you can miss on that first take:

  • There’s zero potential for misinterpretation. There is no message to be interpreted.
  • The lack of context (message) means it’s incredibly fast for both sender and receiver. It’s fast to send, and fast to interpret.

The downside is clearly that you have to have pre-agreed context. There has to be a pre-agreed action that you’re reasonably expecting to trigger by sending the message. For example:

  • If I get any urgent news I’ll “yo” you
  • If I need you to join the meeting Ill “yo” you
  • If we need you to come down urgently I’ll “yo” you
  • If it gets dangerous, I’ll “yo” you

Evidently, this is quite effective as long as you can reasonably expect that an urgent situation might occur. It’s no good in the unexpected urgent situation – where the recipient has zero agreed context to take action on.

But you’re probably seeing where I’m going here already – I see plenty of regular business situations where there’s a reasonable and predictable chance of an urgent situation. For these cases, no/low text communication is potentially a very useful application.

The bigger discussion here is about context in communication

Historically, to reduce the chances that a message is misinterpreted, we’ve had to add length. But as Yo and other apps demonstrate, technology is changing this equation.

Here’s a nice quote from Jonathan MacDonald:

“Long before today’s technology existed, the African drum was perhaps the most powerful messaging technology, passing information across thousands of miles and hundreds of communities. A drum beat has so many subtleties that a solution was needed to ensure the right message was exchanged. In a language like Kele, for example, phrases like “Alambaka boli” meant “He watched the river bank” but also could mean “He boiled his wife’s mother” which is a problem unless you can add a story around the phrase to ensure there isn’t any unfortunate misunderstanding.

So that’s exactly what the drummers did. They added context to words, so for instance, the word “Songe” which means “Moon” would actually be drummed as “The moon looks down at the earth”. Throughout history what is considered as the more developed world, has continually struggled to create an efficient communication system that can add context to plain words.”

I think technology is pushing us away from words to solve the context issue. In a fast moving world speed of interpretation is critical. Managers receiving 500 emails a day simply don’t have time to be deciphering if he meant “He watched the river bank” or “He boiled his wife’s mother”.

Low-language communication tools can deliver more information in less time

Broadly, I put Yo! into the same category as apps such as Line and Wechat. (Line and Wechat are probably best described as the Whatsapp of Japan and China respectively).

All of these tools are what I’d call “low-language communication” apps. They’re introducing this category of no/low-language communication. There doesn’t have to be text – just an alert and an image. And that image has enough context that it’s understood and actionable.

Whilst Line and WeChat aren’t exclusively no language (like Yo) – There is more and more communication on both platforms happening without words. Here’s the CEO of Line on the phenomenon as quoted in BBC News:

“Shintaro Tabata, executive officer at Line, says users have responded enthusiastically to stickers. “We are seeing that sometimes Line users are reaching that stage where they just exchange stickers without text,” he says.”

Compared to Yo, this is what a conversation looks like on Line:

Line stickers

Why are users pushing chat apps in this direction? Here’s an interview with a user of WeChat (the emphasis is mine):

Vivienne’s screen lights up as she unleashes a string of illustrations called emoticons. “It’s faster to express emotions with emoticons,” says Vivienne, as she shows me the huge range of different options available to her.”

How will low-language communication change the business environment?

I see low-language communication as an emerging trend for the medium term. I can’t see it disrupting the language first market. But for a small subset of relatively urgent communications, low-language comms gives a potentially much quicker path to action AND understanding.

The biggest near term corporate implication is that we’re not far away from a corporate emoticon / sticker set for internal comms. These stickers can be used to shortcut common business ’emotions’ for internal conversations. Conversations like: 

  • “I’m really happy with this plan, do it.”
  • “I think we need to explore alternatives, let’s keep working.”
  • “What does everyone else think?”

You have the potential to pack a lot of ‘words’ into a small package of language free communication. Because of this, a simple set of action oriented ‘stickers’ could actually pick up a non-trivial proportion of your day-to-day communication load. A good example is I know of a number of senior execs who regularly send email replies containing only the word “ok” to acknowledge receipt of a document. It’s a recipe for disaster and causes a lot of frustration. The potential low-language solution here might be two emoticons that signal:

  • “I agree with your proposed course of action”, or
  • “I’ve recieved this and am thinking about the best course of action”

Without adding any keystrokes, you’ve added a lot of context – and significantly reduced the potential for miscommunication.

A repetaoire of 40-50 common messages summed up in emoticons could actually be 20-30% of your daily communication volume. As an added benefit – emoticons are also very quick to send off the mobile (which we know is where more and more business communication is happening)

There’s no doubt that we’re heading down this direction in business (whether it takes five years or 10). Low-language, high information forms of communication are what the digital natives are already using to deal with the information overload that’s confronting them every day. Given accelerating communications loads, It’s hard to argue with speed. As Vivienne said: “It’s faster to express emotions with emoticons”.

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