Tool-makers usually lack connection to a serious context of use

People making Tools for thought often say they’re trying to help people do math, or make art, or whatever. But in reality, the people making these tools are rarely connected very deeply with the actual creative practices they’re trying to amplify. The work is often more of a tech demo or a toy or a “sandbox.” As we wrote in How can we develop transformative tools for thought?: “Tools for writing that aren’t used by actual writers. Tools for mathematics that aren’t used by actual mathematicians.” Deep down, such system designers are generally developing a system for its own sake—not because there’s some creative problem they’re desperately trying to solve.

Such tools might look mathematical (or whatever) on their surface, but they’re not seriously trying to answer hard problems in those domains—often because the creators don’t actually know what those problems are or understand how to solve them. Effective system design requires insights drawn from serious contexts of use

Startups and technologists often fool themselves by working with and talking to early adopters who are mostly interested in playing with new technologies. But it’s not just a “tech industry” problem: academic tool-makers generally evaluate their systems in artificial settings with artificial data, against artificial validation criteria.

It’s hard to resolve this issue: Great tool-makers are often not great tool-users, and vice-versa


Matuschak, A., & Nielsen, M. (2019, October 0). How can we develop transformative tools for thought?

Bret Victor (2014-09-03):

Interface matters to me more than anything else, and it always has. I just never realized that. I’ve spent a lot of time over the years desperately trying to think of a “thing” to change the world. I now know why the search was fruitless — things don’t change the world. People change the world by using things. The focus must be on the “using”, not the “thing”. Now that I’m looking through the right end of the binoculars, I can see a lot more clearly, and there are projects and possibilities that genuinely interest me deeply.

Last updated 2023-07-13.