Using the wrong tool for the job

My first professional job was as a systems administrator in a small academic department on a large university campus. One of the worst parts of this job was dealing with the poster printer the department made available to students and faculty. It was self-service the whole way — users were expected to design and print their own poster. They could come to us for help when the printer malfunctioned (as it often did), but that was about it.

One of the results of this was that people, particularly the graduate students, did their poster design in PowerPoint. It was ubiquitous, it was familiar, and it produced something that looked poster-like. It also didn’t play nicely with the printer. PowerPoint was designed to make slide presentations, not 42″ wide posters. It’s not that PowerPoint posters didn’t work, it’s that they didn’t work quite right. The margins were a little off. Sometimes elements wouldn’t be quite where you expected them. It annoyed the hell out of me.

The wrong tool is easier

But as I’ve gained some experience, I’ve come to understand why people use the wrong tool for the job. It’s because the tool isn’t as wrong as it seems. Why should a graduate student spend time learning a design tool that they’ll use once per year when they can get a good enough result from what they already know?

Spreadsheets are the most widely-used database in the world (I’m guessing) because they’re ubiquitous and easy to start with. By the time you’ve outgrown what’s reasonable in a spreadsheet, you’re already committed. It’s why my post on date-based conditional formatting in Google Sheets is one of this blog’s most-read posts, even though it’s a poor fit for a spreadsheet.

People’s jobs are bigger than a particular task that they try to accomplish with a piece of software. Tools that require an up-front investment — even if that pays of over a short amount of time — are going to be a non-starter. This short-term thinking is natural. It’s not a user problem, it’s a management problem.

The wrong tool isn’t wrong

There’s also the case where what seems like the wrong tool is a failure to properly identify the problem. Take this tweet:

Using an excavator to row a raft down a river seems wrong. But what’s the goal? And what are the constraints?

Does it make sense to have an additional piece of equipment? How much more does that cost in time and labor? Is it even possible to get a powered barge to the location?

It’s an off-label usage of the tool, but doctors write off-label prescriptions all the time. Just because a tool isn’t right in a standalone context, when you look at the bigger picture it can be.

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