Tools Shape Our Products

Cave of the Hands — Argentina, ca. 5000 BC

Whenever we create something, the tools we use have a direct influence on the resulting artefact. Tools shape our products — it’s as simple as that. This observation is neither new nor original. Tools extend our capabilities. They allow us to do things that would be difficult or impossible with just our hands. Tools enable us to transform materials, to shape our environment, and to express ideas.

Tools can amplify ideas — but they can also limit them. They can empower — but they can also restrict us. We all know that using the wrong tool for a job can lead to disastrous results. A hammer is an excellent tool for driving nails into wood. However, it is useless for removing screws. And not matter how simple a tool is — we have to learn it in order to master its use.

As designers, we use all kinds of tools. Really simple ones like pen and paper — and very complex ones like 3D modelling software. It is always a challenge to find the right tool for the job. Simple tools allow you to focus on ideas, variation, and possibilities. More complex tools allow for expression, precision, and profoundness. Generally speaking, in the design process you move from simple to more complex tools. As Jonas Löwgren noted, interaction design and craftsmanship are truly related. The way we use and care for our tools illustrates this observation.

Computers and software are often regarded as tools. I believe they are much more — but they certainly have tool-like qualities. What sounds trite today, was a revolutionary concept 60 years ago. In 1962, Douglas Engelbart wrote: “The category of ‘more radical innovations’ includes the digital computer as a tool for the personal use of an individual.” The fact that Engelbart singlehandedly came up with the way we use computers today just emphasises this singular vision.

‘De-augmentation’ (Source)

Douglas Engelbart famously taped a brick to a pencil in order to demonstrate the effect of bad tool on our work. He aptly called this ‘de-augmentation’. This way, Engelbart was able to point out that an optimal tool augments the human intellect while an inferior tool will de-augment it.

So I am wondering: are the design tools we use today augmenting our creativity — or are they de-augmenting? Do they help us to expand the design space — or are they limiting us?

There is a long and unresolved debate in the design world that revolves around the question ‘should designers learn how to code?’ I dabbled in programming myself. Plenty of my students are excellent coders. From time to time, I expect coding skills in my classes. So I have been pondering this question for quite a while now. But for this essay, I would like to rephrase it a bit and ask: should designers use code as a design tool? The answer obviously is: they should not have to!

Instead of asking whether designers should learn how to code, we should ask: why are there still no appropriate tools and interfaces for designing interactive experiences? The central statement of this essay is that tools shape our products. And I believe that one of the reasons why we are stuck with boring websites and tedious apps is a lack of good tools.

60 years after Engelbart’s vision, 54 years after the Mother of all Demos, 41 years after the Desktop Metaphor, 34 years after HyperCard, 32 years after the introduction of the World Wide Web, 26 years after Macromedia Flash, 12 years after the iPad — why are we still stuck with this:

The interface of a text editor is not only unsubstantial — it is non-existing. Nothing tells you anything. Why do we have to write code in order to create a visual product? Is there really no better user interface for designing visual and interactive experiences? When it comes to design work, the text editor is Engelbarts brick-on-a-pencil. It de-augments our design work.

Whenever I am asking colleagues and students why they use code for design work, I frequently hear freedom and flexibility. Coding allows you to do whatever you want. It might have a steep learning curve — but you are not limited to the scope of individual applications.

I don’t think that’s necessarily true. If coding is a way to liberate the design process from limitations of standardised software — then why do websites (still) look the same? And if coding is so liberating — why are most projects so dependent on frameworks and libraries? My impression is that individual code is just the coating. The heavy lifting — and the limitations — happen in the framework and the libraries. There are just as many inherent constraints in coding as in application-based design.

I sometimes miss Flash — and I miss Macromedia Director even more. I get why both are now extinct. They were based on proprietary software. In order to run their exported files on the web, you needed plugins. And the plugins were buggy, shoddy and slow. In terms of web standards, Flash and Director have been terrible.

But I do miss the user interface. I miss the way the interface invited you to do something. I miss the conceptual model of an application that encouraged you work visually. That told you what you can do. Whose main windows were called ‘Cast’ and ‘Stage’ or ‘Timeline’ and ‘Scene’. I miss the fun of playing around. In Flash and Director, you were experimenting. In a code editor, you are debugging.

Macromedia Flash 5 and Director MX

Tools shape our products. This is not only true for designing interactions. In the very moment you launch Sketch of Figma, you are committing to a certain visual style. You are embracing a flat, vector-based visual appearance — probably with the iOS or Material design language pre-loaded. To be clear: there is nothing wrong with Sketch and Figma. (Well — there are quite a few things wrong with Figma — but that is not the point of this essay.)

A decision for a tool already defines the outcome. Tools have an inherent scope. If you choose a tool, you are necessarily limiting your design work to what you can to with the tool. Again — this is not criticism — I am just stating a fact. However, I want to raise awareness for this fact and I would like to demand more and better tools.

Every design software covers a specific area in the design space. This is intentional — and it has always been the case. Using Adobe Illustrator will yield other results than Adobe Photoshop. Skeuomorphic design is easy in Photoshop and hard to do in Illustrator. Microsoft Word wants you to write differently than iA Writer or Ulysses. The technical scope and the user interface of the application defines as well as limits the outcome. All user interfaces are based on the notion of guidance. A good user interface tells you what you can do and how to do it. It is suggestive and evocative. It not only tells you what you can do but also what you could do.

To put it differently: it is the user interface that augments the human intellect and human creativity.

I strongly believe that the design space for digital products is considerably larger than what we can see and use today. Things could look much different. There are endless possibilities for designing interfaces and interactions. Right now, we are just focussing on a very small part in this design space and we are excluding many designs, ideas and expressions simply because we don’t have the right tools to discover, design and create them.

I certainly do not want to go back to Flash and Director. But I would love to have tools that make it easy to visualise information, to orchestrate interactions, to create generative images, to seamlessly switch from 2D to 3D, to include collaboration. I would love to have interactive tools that are visual and temporal, that connect data, images, interactions and spaces — and that allow you to visually build things and break things.

We should not underestimate the power of tools. Not only in terms what we can achieve with them — but also how they effect our beliefs and our expectations. In a sense, the Mercator Map Projection was conceived as a tool for navigation. Yet it fundamentally framed our idea of the world — and not necessarily in a good way.

Tools not only shape our products. More importantly, they shape our thinking.

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Boris Müller

Boris Müller

Professor for Interaction Design at FH Potsdam, co-director of Urban Complexity Lab | http://uclab.fh-potsdam.de | http://esono.com