I think a lot about building tools, especially software tools. My favorite way to think about tools is as a force multiplier of human effort. A better tool multiplies humanity’s effort and willpower by a higher factor to effect more change on the world in whatever direction we desire.
In my case, very often that direction of change is towards building even better tools. This is the magic tools building tools – it leads to a positive feedback loop, because we crank up our productivity multiplier and use it to make our tools ever more effective. It exponentially speeds up the rate at which we innovate both our tools and everywhere else in society.
But how exactly do we design better tools? What are the directions to which we should push the status quo of tools, to increase that force multiplier? I think the power of a tool is the product of three quantities: the new capabilities it grants to those who wield it, the extra motivation it brings to a task, and how much more accessible the tool makes a particular workflow.
The force-multiplying power of a tool = capabilities × motivation × access.
The capabilities of a tool are the atomic building blocks out of which every workflow for that tool is built. The capability of a pencil is mostly to make marks on paper. The capability of a calculator is to do arithmetic quickly. A note-taking app usually has the core capability of being able to store and recall information and sometimes search through that artificial memory programmatically. More recently, we’ve seen these apps gain a new capability: easily linking between different notes or ideas within the app.
The capabilities of a tool also determine what it cannot do. More importantly, I think the capabilities of tools we use every day limit our visibility into workflows and efficiency gains in work that are possible at all. It’s far more difficult to imagine new capabilities than to make existing capabilities better or faster.
An innovative tool can be powerful not because it brings some fundamentally new idea to the table, but because it motivates people to use it more, or use it in a better way.
For nearly five years before I started building my own information management tools, my main to-do list lived in an app called Todoist. Despite having tried many other methods and apps before, Todoist stuck with me because it gamified the process of checking things off my to-do list with a point system they called “karma”. Todoist was a useful tool because it motivated me to use it right.
Sometimes the motivational power of a good tool isn’t about adding extra tactics, but subtracting away points of friction. I’m always fascinated by tools that remove friction so dramatically that people start using it differently. GitHub made it effortless to share code online, and helped spawn a revolution in open source software. The iPhone made it dramatically easier to capture video anywhere, anytime and changed the role video played in culture. At Ideaflow, one of our goals is to make it so much easier to capture things you learn and notice throughout the day that you capture 10x more knowledge.
Increasing access sometimes goes by the more popular name democratization. There are many capabilities and tools that exist for years without really becoming accessible to a big enough slice of humanity to make a difference. These capabilities exist in sort of a “demo purgatory” phase. Ideas in the demo purgatory are technically possible, and may even be straightforward to build. But these capabilities stay in the demo phase because it’s challenging to package them up or deliver them to market in some commercially successful form.
By making some tool with a new capability accessible to more people, we literally magnify the impact of that tool on society by its new scale of usage. Like motivation, access isn’t really about what the tool can do, so much as how many people take advantage of it in their life and work.
To increase the power of tools and technology in society, we can improve tools in any one of these axes: by imagining new capabilities, driving more motivation, or dramatically widening access.
In the last couple of decades, the overwhelming majority of effort and capital in the tool-making world has been poured into access and motivation, making it easier and more fulfilling to create and build. But by comparison, the fundamental capabilities of our digital tools – what a computer can do, what a note-taking app is capable of – have not moved much at all. There are some new interesting capabilities, for example that software can better understand natural and spoken language. But the dominant trend has not been that computers are more capable. Computers have simply gotten much more motivating and accessible as tools of creation, while the basic building blocks and metaphors we use for computing have stayed the same. The power equation of tools has become incredibly lopsided.
There is an optimistic perspective to this take, though. Now that we have this ubiquitous substrate of computers and software, any small new capability we give to computers and computer users is going to have an outsized impact on the force-amplifying power of computers as a tool. Given this potential, I think it’s worth re-investing our creative energy into imagining new capabilities for the tools that drive society: search engines, note-taking software, social networks, messaging infrastructure, and anything else that’s stagnated as the entire globe came to depend on them.
There is a saying that the future is already here; it’s just not evenly distrubted. I think in the present case of computers as tools, it’s the converse: the present is so evenly distributed now; we are in desperate need of some more future to distribute.
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