The Abstraction Bell

Most people don’t like abstractions. You start telling them about models and concepts and hierarchical constructs and their eyes glaze over; they look past you, wondering when you’re gonna get to the good stuff. (Or, more likely, about lunch.) This is a problem for people whose work requires dealing with and communicating abstract concepts, like information architects.

One way to deal with this is to own it: You tell the other person, “yes, this is abstract stuff — but that’s alright.” Doing so won’t relieve your interlocutor from his or her anxiety, but at least it lets them know you acknowledge this may be uncomfortable ground to cover; that it’s ok for them to ask for clarification.

When you’re teaching this stuff, abstraction comes up all the time. In workshop settings, especially, participants may not be in the mindset to deal effectively with abstraction. In order to own it with these students, I’ve started using an “abstraction bell”: I (literally) ring a bell every time I start talking in particularly abstract terms. (I’m using a meditation timer on my phone as the “bell.”) This is a fun way to remind students that I’m aware of the fact we’re venturing into abstract territory. It permits them to ask questions and allows them to relax in the knowledge that all may not be immediately clear.

Of course, it’s always preferable to make ideas more tangible. But that’s not always possible. In those cases, we’re saved by the bell.