The Tool Makes the (Wo)Man

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The other day at work, we were planning some new processes for bringing work into the team. One team member suggested we use a product that another group was using to track our projects. The suggestion on the table essentially meant we would force fit our way of working into this tool “because we already had the tool.” This was proposed instead of doing the work to figure out how we needed to get our jobs done and then doing the due diligence to find the tool that best matched our needs.

The tool we should be cultivating here is our brain—our skill for problem solving and providing value to our clients and companies.This scene resonated with me because it is an example of not understanding the problem at hand. Jakob Nielsen’s exclamation “Flash is 99% Bad” is another example of barking up the wrong tree. He is now working with Macromedia to make the tool more usable—as if that was the source of the problem. What I can’t understand is why more people aren’t getting riled up about the fact that the problem isn’t the tool.

The SIGIA list occasionally erupts into the “Which tool do you use?” or “Which tool is best for information architecture/best for flow mapping/best for wireframing” conversations. Even Steve Krug noted this at the IA Summit in his Top Ten list of what IAs talk about. These questions arise as if the perfect tool would make the perfect IA. We lose sight in these discussions of the fact that we already have the perfect tool: our brains. The knowledge, expertise and skills to solve problems are right between our ears.

The visual manifestation of a solution—whether done in Illustrator, Omnigraffle, Visio, HTML, Flash or even on a cocktail napkin—is beside the point. If the solution is appropriate to the problem and the end user, then it doesn’t really matter how it is implemented.

But, you say, “the best, the right, the perfect tools will help us.”

“It will make us more efficient and give us more time to think, to solve problems.”

And I would say, you are right… to a degree.

Solving the problem will come from a deep understanding of the issues, of the users’ needs, of the task—from research, from analytical thinking and then sketching out solutions. Sketching these solutions can be done in any way—on a whiteboard, on paper with (gasp) a pen or pencil, or on the computer with the tool of choice.

My concern and angst over these types of discussions, as well as the kind of proclamations that Nielsen and other gurus make, is that focusing on the tool—either finding the right tool or badmouthing the perceived “wrong” tool—moves our energies away from the real problem at hand: design solutions that are inappropriately or poorly executed.

In all the talk of Flash being bad, I have never seen Nielsen and others offer to work with design schools or to help craft curricula, lessons or workshops that will teach the appropriate skills to the generation of designers who are being taught tool after tool rather than how to appropriately solve problems. So what’s my point? The tools of the trade that we use to solve our problems are mostly irrelevant. They come down to personal preference, to comfort level, to speed of learning and what others in the group are using, which is generally a concern when sharing documents. The tool we should be cultivating here is our brain—our skill for problem solving and providing value to our clients and companies.

The tools used to implement solutions (as opposed to the tools used to design solutions) also matter a little less than we’d like to think. Of course, the solutions need to be appropriate to the medium, to the end users’ needs and should solve the problem in the best way possible.

So even if Nielsen and Macromedia succeed in making rich media best practices 100 percent “good” (Macromedia press release, June 3, 2002), or even if someone comes along with the killer app for IA work, it still won’t matter much if designers and IAs don’t understand the medium or how best to solve the problem.

We have a responsibility to kick things back—to our bosses, to our clients, to our colleagues—when the recommendation to use a certain tool or technology just because it is there doesn’t fit the needs of the task, whether that task is designing a solution or implementing a solution. We have a responsibility to be smart problem-solvers and use the one tool that we all have—our brains.


  1. “The knowledge, expertise and skills to solve problems are right between our ears.” That’s true. But you have to get the things out of you brain to see if your ideas are any good, to be able to communicate and discuss different solutions with colleagues and clients, to be able to easily do changes, and to be able to test your work against users.

    And you need a tool, which can support you in accomplishing all these things. Thinking, talking or drawing on a napkin won’t do – not in a professional context.

    Sadly, the “the killer app for IA work” doesn’t exist, and that’s why everybody are discussing and looking for the best tool.

    Maybe you’re just tied of navel-gazing discussions – but that a different story…

  2. Very nice article, Erin. We do need to exercise our thought processes. And I strongly agree that a tool in and of itself won’t make one an information architect.

    A similar argument, of course, works for visual designers. Simply taking a class or two in Photoshop and Illustrator does not make one an interface designer. Too often at IconMedialab I saw designers who created their sketches only with the tool…and could not consider even the basics of line, shape, form, balance (both symmetrical and asymmetrical), tension, and so on.

    While the tools help us communicate, I don’t think they necessarily help us create. I agree with Henrik that we need to create artifacts that allow us to collaborate. Yet the source for these artifacts should come from the judgement, creativity, and inspiration that people, not tools, bring to the table.

    Oh–and I’d vote for OmniOutliner & Omnigraffle as the non pareils of our profession, given the choice 🙂

  3. Thanks for exactly underlining what I sayd yesterday in a meeting at work about reorganizing some work that is done. The focus from most of the participants of the meeting was on the tools that could/should be used and the pro and cons of each of them. You’r right that that is all about personal preferences.

    I mentioned that I had identified a need to have a description of the process that people used in their work and that I wanted to interview some of the workers and find out what they do today and how management wants to see things done. This should create something of a “process template”. That template will then be used to decide on what tool (if at all!) to use. After some discussion, they agreed with me and accepted that it would postpone immideate implementation of some tool that maybe nobody would like or worse: use.

    A similar thing happened when discussing redoing the intranet. Again the immideate focus was on using either html or some other thing that IT is pushing. I was able to have them step back and we will get together soon to first talk about the big picture before deciding on the implementation.

    In my experience, people (users) like it that they are involved very early on and discussing the bigger picture. Obvioulsy one has to structure that a little but it can be a lot of fun for all.

  4. Right on the mark. Too often, from job ads to project kick-offs, there’s a focus on the means rather than the ends. Like Joe I’ve witnessed people unable to do any work without firing up Visio or PhotoShop; their relationship with the tool has become symbiotic, to the detriment of their own skills and the work that they do. And the tool will have its own inherent limitations to what you can achieve.

    I try to achieve a sound balance between e.g. my skills in drawing using pencil and paper and creative thinking techniques vs. skills in PhotoShop and Director; whatever is appropriate to the design problem at hand.

    I definitely agree with Henrik Olsen on the need to externalize your thoughts in e.g. visual form in order to reflect and discuss upon them, that’s a given, but disagree that “Thinking, talking or drawing on a napkin won’t do – not in a professional context”; which of course depends on which phase of a project you’re in, the appropriate fidelity with which to present your work, etc. Sometimes a rough sketch on the proverbial napkin or a cardboard mock-up is preferrable to a fancy presentation or hi-fi prototype.

    The power of the human brain is often underestimated, and underused.


  5. Ering wrote: “The tools of the trade that we use to solve our problems are mostly irrelevant.”

    Hardly. Some tools are actually counterproductive, such as struggling to force a tool to meet a need for which it wasn’t designed or reworking one’s workflow to fit the tool (which is what Erin started out complaining about).

    Of course there are many long discussions about which tools are best for what — it would be hard to view IA or any of it’s spinoffs/permutations/etc. as a profession without them. There’s nothing wrong with these discussions, and they SHOULD be in the top ten. Somebody in B&A made a case for Inspiration (in the Visio article discussion), which I then checked out and discovered that it boosts my productivity and creativity enormously because it frees me from the tedium of forcing a tool to do what I need it to do (as in the case of Visio) and enables me to produce without thinking about the tool (the goal of user-centered design, no?)

    Why would seeking the right tool be considered as a lack of using our brains? And Henrik is right — we need tools to get what’s in our brains into the real world. And Erin is right — we should kick back when the tools don’t solve the problem at hand — but we wouldn’t even know they won’t unless we completely understand the process and have a good handle on the possible solutions.

    I think whining about the emphasis on tools is misguided — in my 30 years working life (encompassing three “careers”), I’ve learned that using the right tools for the problem at hand is essential for success, whether the tool is a piece of software, a piece of equipment, a methodology, or a process. I’ve also found that breakthroughs can be made when one is forced to adapt the tool (not always, but often enough. Look at html as an example).

    It would be more interesting to read about how people have used tools to solve problems and implement solutions rather than being told to use my brain — which is pretty patronizing on the face of it.

  6. Erin, your commentary focuses on what’s important in design. Thank you. Brains will be around in 100 years; Macromedia Director won’t. However, I must come to Mssr. Nielsen’s defense. Sure, Jakob deserves all the criticism we can heap upon him, but give him some credit for crafting workshops – just take a look at the NNGroup world tour. (Y’all’ve heard about that, right?)

  7. ***NNG teaches as a profit stream— no ordinary designer can afford it from their own pocket, and certainly no student could. It’s corporate training, it’s big bucks and I assume that and heuristic evaluations is where he and the crew makes most of their money.

    It’s frustrating to hear Neilsen’s pronouncements and when you seek the cure you discover it’s sequestered in a hundred dollar report or a thousand dollar seminar. But on the other hand, it’s excellent business. And no doubt his more recent books with their elegant design and abundant screenshots have done a lot to bring usability insights into everyday design.

    ***As for tools; seems to me there are two problems: one is that we expect tools to do our thinking for us, when they can’t. And the other is using the wrong tool for the job. A tool is always just a support. A good tool is a strong support, letting us think better and work faster, a bad tool is a bad support and slows us down and makes us stupid. It’s clear from Norman’s “Things that make us smart” that tools are what have allowed us to make our advances in science, math and technology.

    But we also have all been in the situation where the tool slows and annoys– MS Word often reformats things for me, and I wish I could just open up the source and edit directly like I can in Dreamweaver. Same for making flow charts in Illustrator or Visio– your either spending wasted hours struggling making it pretty (which Visio sucks at), or moving things around (I wonder how many IA’s have failed to update an architecture because moving all the bits in Illustrator seemed like too big a hassle…:-)

    Use your brain is not patronizing, it’s needed. People need stop looking to tools for every solution, and spend the time to decide when it’s a tool problem, if it is a tool problem what the tool needed is, and when the answer is “we don’t need tool.”

    Or maybe “the tool is a piece of paper and a pencil.”

  8. “The knowledge, expertise and skills to solve problems are right between our ears.”

    Nice sound bite, good propaganda, feel-good, vague, misleading, meaningless… Do you have any specifics in mind?

    I’m unaware of any common set of knowledge, expertise, or skills that “information architects” share. I suggest some critical thinking skills as a start.

    Yes, IA’s waste their (and others’) time discussing tools. Yes, ironically enough, IA’s avoid discussing their own work and work needs.

    “We have a responsibility to be smart problem-solvers and use the one tool that we all have—our brains.”

    Absolutely! Most importantly, they need to develop and share a common set of knowledge, expertise, and skills.

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