Software isn’t a “tool”

June 1st, 2016

many kinds of hammer
We know tools by their affordances.

There is an interesting yet uneasy agreement, a deal that was struck between humans and technology, where at some point technology promised ease and comfort. And yes, the tools we started making provided this. We know tools – they are obvious by their affordances. You can pick up a tool and pretty much use it straight away. There are of course experts that wield tools like magicians (like a sushi chef, fine artist or a chainsaw sculptor) but we understand that it takes a lot of practise, experience and mistakes to get that good.

With the evolution of technology (and proliferation) to the digital, this notion of tools and the contract of making life easier has become a bit unstuck. From the simple ones like phones that dial themselves to software that doesn’t take the right data format and environmental sensors that require coding experience to enable, its all gotten a bit hard and complicated.

I propose the notion of a tool is no longer appropriate for software (including applications and websites) and therefore, the idea that it is “easy” to use digital technology is no longer valid.

Software is a ecosystem and a transient micro-community that connects humans to other humans either directly or via artefacts created by humans (usually data and images).

CIty street
Stepping out into an unfamiliar street, in a new city

When we think about these relationships and how software is a facilitating conduit then perhaps other metaphors are more useful, like a city or a market, or a machinery shed or a plane cockpit.

You can’t step into any of these environments and immediately interact with them unless you have a frame of reference and time to explore or training and experience. Like a city or a market, we reach for similar patterns in our memories and use these as initial templates for navigation, adjusting as we go and understand the differences in the new environment. In the case of a machinery shed or cockpit, expertise is expected. If we take the metaphor further, we can say some of these systems house sub-systems therefore adding complexity.

But when we watch users interacting with digital technology they are usually quick to anger or frustration when things don’t work because they expect it to. And we keep reinforcing this.

Is this evidence of an unspoken agreement between a human and machine? Why are we so mean to these selfless creations?! How did this happen? Answer me Steve Jobs!

So yes, there is some beautiful work in digital tech that eases the pain and delivers on the promise of an elegant, frictionless user experience. Until you get locked into a walled garden and start getting cranky again because each time you start iTunes it asks you to download a new version that has removed that feature you relied on all so often.

Communities, if we think about them have unwritten contracts. They are healthy when there is:

  • mutual respect: eg we provide a means to post your photos, and I won’t own your image
  • a notion of benevolent hierachy: eg Information architecture, reduction of clutter to ease decision making
  • respect for personal space: eg fork this code and run wild
  • assistance when needed: eg responsive help desk
  • reliablilty: eg reasonable performance
Busy farmers market
A new market – feels familiar but where to start!

When this contract is out of balance, people feel trapped, angry, unsupported and resentful. Then they leave or rebel, depending on age and wisdom.

The UX designer is tasked with assisting humans working with digital technology and I wonder if we as the creators of digital technology stop thinking about software as tools and reframe the work as creating communities and ecosystems where technology is the glue, rather than the goal.

If, when we refer to the systems we are building, we speak more about the connections not as abstractions but find appropriate metaphors to flesh out this weird magic box that fixes, finds or connects us.

If we speak about the community we are creating, not in a social media way but a genuine arrangement that benefits the contributors and consumers of the software.

If we think of the software or system as a conduit to allow people to move freely through, to explore without punishment, with gentle leadership or wayfinding so they can fulfill their tasks like they do in the physical world.

If you’re a designer, then I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know but hopefully this metaphor will help you to convince the others who don’t quite get it.

Who wants to go to a market where the apples advertised are missing, or the light is poor, the ground is uneven, all the deliveries are late, or the people can’t hear because there is too much noise? When you turn around you can’t find the way out or you get hassled to buy stuff you don’t want? Your purse gets pinched or your followed around by someone and you know it’s not your imagination?

The physical world makes no promises to be easy so maybe software shouldn’t either. We can keep striving to bring good manners and respect into these systems as its so easy to just overlook them. But this does require a shift from the concept of a tool to something else that accommodates more variables.