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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Abstract Tar Pit

How often have you found yourself arguing with another person, and they just don't seem to understand you? Chances are they feel that you just don't understand them. You've fallen into the abstract tar pit.

Abstract discussions are like abstract art--they can be very appealing, in part because you can interpret the abstract art however you want to. People love to see what they want to see. But when it comes to technical discussions, abstract discussions are dangerous. There is a good chance someone listening to your abstract arguments will understand completely--but it won't be what you're trying to convey. To understand the abstract, they're likely creating concrete examples in their head and then arguing against your ideas based on these "private" concrete examples. The problem is, if these concrete examples aren't shared, you'll get an argument about completely different examples and understandings.

I recently worked on a 5-week project where this was really clear. There was a small group who had an idea they were trying to sell internally to get funding. Everyone else was feeling confused. Just when they thought they understood these ideas, another concept came along that contradicted what they thought they understood.

So we started a project using Expression Blend to create a "movie" of the idea. The first week we brainstormed a lot, and then drew sketches by hand of what the different screens would look like. We then presented these hand-drawn screens to a customer advisory board so we could get their feedback and help us decide what we should focus on during the next week. We intentionally used hand-drawn sketches in our discussions with customers so they wouldn't get bogged down in the small details and would just focus on the big picture.

About half way through the project we started to create actual screen mockups and animate them with Microsoft Expression Blend so it would look like a screen capture movie of an actual program--but it was all smoke and mirrors.

During the project, the team that had come up with the ideas were constantly arguing with us and saying we were asking the wrong questions. But when we had the final "movie" and showed it to them, an interesting thing happened. The conversations changed from being abstract to concrete. The idea team started to explain the details that we got wrong. And in the process, we discovered that we had gotten most of their vision correct--we just differed in some of the details.

What's more, other people who had been confused completely got the idea after seeing the movie. And again, the discussions were at a concrete level, so the discussions that came after seeing the movie were far more productive.