Here at WWD, we constantly receive announcements from developers releasing new tools into the online world. Time tracking, project management, invoicing, contact management, content management, bookmark management, scheduling — you name it, they’ve built it, and we’ve reviewed it. It may be software, a device, or a philosophy or approach. The question remains, though: what makes a tool truly great?
What Is “Great”?
My definition of a great tool is one that actually enhances the way I work. That’s a big call — I’m not talking here about tools that simply make life easier, or reduce a burden. Ultimately, that’s the whole point of tools. When I decide to give a new tool a try, I expect it to deliver some benefit, otherwise I wouldn’t bother with it.
I think great tools open doors to new possibilities that I hadn’t countenanced before. They augment my approach to work in a way that allows me to reach further, apply more of my skills and develop new insights. A great tool is one that helps me evolve my fundamental focus.
Great in Practice
If this all sounds too idealistic for you, let me give you an example of what differentiates a handy tool from a great tool.
As a writer, editor and content manager, I work with content all the time. A long time ago, when I wrote web copy, I’d hand it to a designer, and they’d drop it into the site’s pages for me. If I wanted to change that content, I’d have to send the amendments to the designer to implement.
When content management tools came along, all that changed. Now I could control the content directly, edit and alter it, and shape it to the contexts in which it appeared myself. This was extremely handy, and produced a better outcome for site owners. The content management tools ticked all the boxes operationally, but at the end of the day, I still wrote the text in a word processing app or text editor. The creative production process remained unchanged.
Later, I was introduced to DocBook, an XML schema that allows the identification of pieces of content as small as individual letters. Here, for me, was an actual revolution in the way I worked. DocBook represented a new way of thinking about my content and suited my thought patterns much better than did the blank page of a word processing file, implying as it did a linear flow and a single voice.
The fact that this tool suited my brain better than did word processing tools allowed me to think about information and communication differently: instead of battling (albeit subconsciously) with the restrictions of my tools, I was free to approach content in a way that really suited me, and was shown a completely new perspective on my work at the same time.
Where content management tools made my life easier and improved my product, DocBook effectively allowed me to evolve my practice.
Finding Great Tools
It’s all very well to use a tool and find that it suits you, but when you’re reviewing potential tools to try, how can you increase the chances that you’ll select an option that turns out to be a great tool?
1. Know what you like.
There will always be tools that are great in ways we can’t anticipate. But you can increase your chances of finding great tools by acknowledging and thinking about the great tools you’re using right now.
Work out what it is that makes those tools great for you. In my case, DocBook appealed to a part of me that loves structure, order and sense, and is excited by stepping back from the details to get a clear view of how they fit together in the bigger picture. Tools that meet that particular need are likely to be contenders for my great tools list.
2. Follow your hunches.
If a review or information for a given product speaks to you somehow, follow that hunch. If it sounds good to you, it probably is. Even if it’s not, the research and trial processes might help you identify the missing elements that would make it a good tool — giving you something to seek out in your ongoing search.
Don’t overlook the hunches of others, either. If a close friend or colleague recommends a tool to you, give some thought to that product. People who are close to you are likely to have a good understanding of the way you operate, and may be able to see a fit between that and a given tool. And that’s something a reviewer will never be able to do.
3. Give it a go.
Be prepared to trial and experiment with a tool to find out how it might expand the way you operate. Although signing up for an app or downloading and installing the software can be a hassle, especially if you’re not completely sold on the tool, you might just find it’s worth the energy.
If something in the information you’ve accessed about the tool speaks to your instincts, it’s likely that the experience won’t be a total waste of time. On the other hand, slavishly chasing after the next or latest fad tool, just because everyone else is, is less likely to be a satisfying experience.
Have any of the tools you use actually evolved the way you do your daily work? Tell us about them!