As a designer, a maker, a creator – I have an interesting relationship with my tools. Certainly I can make, I can design, I can create without tools, or without good tools, but having a great tool makes the experience that much better.
What makes a great tool? When I can use it, without impediment, as an extension of myself to do something I am naturally incapable of doing well. Great tools should have several properties, they should be:
- Purposeful – Tools are created for a purpose, they fill a gap. Imagine having a screw driver with a really exotic bit, in fact a bit so exotic, no screw head exists that it can turn; that would be a dumb tool.
- Reliable – They should work consistently. I had a car once, that towards the end of its life had some starter problems. I pretty much had to make sure I never took it out of town, because once I turned it off, there was no real guarantee it would turn back on.
- Usable – the output should map to the input and vice-versa. In other words it should be clear how using the tool will impact the world or on the flip side, if you wanted to change the world in x ways, how you could use the tool to do so.
- Comfortable – Tools shouldn’t hurt to use. Ideally using a great tool should require as little exertion as possible.
- Simple – Great tools are not confusing, they don’t wear the user down with needless, mindless complexity.
One of my favorite tools is my Swiss army knife (I have a couple of them actually). I like it for many reasons. Its small size and light weight means I never leave the house without it. Its dirt simple to use, is very reliable, and as a ‘multi-tool’ can be used for many tasks. The tool is very low cost (like less than $30 for the entry model), so I’m not afraid to loose it or use it. I also really like it because its iconic – MacGyver had one, and he was pretty cool. However, despite my love, there are some pretty obvious design trade offs. The blades/tools do not lock in place, so if you reverse the direction of tool use, you can pretty easily close it on your finger, which is not pleasant. However as a trade-off it makes sense, a locking mechanism would weigh more, could break or get stuck, and would mean the tool would need to withstand more force. The tools themselves are as generic as possible. The screw driver for example is very much ‘one size’ fits all, so there’s a pretty good chance it will not be the best fit. I am okay with that trade-off because I like having a single tool to carry around rather than 5 or 6, and the likelihood of me needing to use a screw driver is pretty low on daily basis.
What makes a really bad tool? When the tool impedes, obfuscates, impairs, or resists my ability to change things in the world around me; or when a good tool is used in the wrong way or for the wrong purpose.
While I was going through college I didn’t have much of a disposable income, which is very unfortunate if you enjoy the shooting sports, as ammo and equipment isn’t cheap. I remember I purchased a used Kel-Tec P11 semi-automatic pistol. It was reliable and the cost of ownership was relatively low. It was lightweight, very concealable, but it had a 11 pound trigger pull. Every time I’d squeeze off a round, the recoil from the trigger spring resetting would slap my finger annoyingly hard. After running a box of ammo through it, I never shot it again, it hurt too much; I traded it in as soon as I could.
To be fair to Kel-Tec, the gun wasn’t a bad design, I just had purchased it for the wrong reason. The P11 was supposed to be a carry gun, not really a range gun. An 11 lb trigger pull was a safety feature, you weren’t going to accidentally discharge the weapon. The trigger was designed very similar to a revolver’s, in that you could squeeze the trigger again if a round had failed to fire, and maybe you’d get the primer to go off on the second hit. The pain of shooting the pistol, from the reset of the trigger, would certainly be ignored if you ever had to use it in a stressful environment. Nonetheless, I hated the gun, because I had picked it up because I thought it would be fun to shoot at the range. That was my mistake, not the manufacturers.