Single Feature Tools

Creativity Through Constraints

Single purpose tools – or rather, single feature tools – are great for focusing mental energies on creativity instead of tool operation. Most analog tools work this way. A knife is just a blade with a handle. It’s not correct to call it a single purpose tool because you don’t have to use the blade just for cutting – you can use it for any other task that requires a strong, sharp or thin object – but its only feature is that blade with a sharp edge. You can grasp the entirety of the tool in your mind, and when it comes to using it your mind is wholly focused on the interaction between the blade and whatever it is you are working with. It’s the same with other analog tools like pens, pencils, pianos, guitars, and other creative instruments. Once you grasp how the tool works, the limits of your creativity become the skill with which you use it and the ways in which you can manipulate it.

The digital tool is different because even if you find a single feature tool – which are few in number – you won’t be using just that single feature tool, you’ll be using a whole ecosystem of hardware and software that powers it and runs beside it. If you’re using a wireless mouse and keyboard, you have to ensure the batteries are charged enough for the task – running out in the middle of it will cause an interruption. If you’re using a modern operating system, you have to keep it up to date. If your work involves large files, you have to ensure you have enough hard-drive space. If you work on the Web, you have to manage your connection – if you lose it, your work may once again be interrupted. After you have the maintenance in order, there are also the distractions from other things running beside your tool. Your email wants to be read, your social feed wants to be checked, and your news app wants to let you know about the new articles that have just been published on your favorite sites. These things are addictive, and having instant access to them either disrupts your work if you give in or siphons your willpower if you avoid them.

The elimination of alternatives in software design is not simply opinionated design aimed at making something easier to use, it’s an attempt to remove the cognitive load presented by the many capabilities of the digital tool in order to help make its use intuitive. It’s very easy and appealing to add features to a digital product. Every time you do so, your product gains capabilities and becomes seemingly more powerful. It’s very difficult to say no to almost every idea and reduce the tool to just one core component. But if you manage to do this, if you manage to reduce your idea to only one feature, you get a product that is very similar in nature to an analog tool.

Twitter is a good example. The whole product is a 140 character text box that posts messages to your hosted feed. It’s severely limited and it has almost never been expanded beyond its original scope. But its very constraints mean that people know how to use the app in its entirety right away, and the limits of what can be done with it are up to how creatively you use that 140 character box. The constraints forced people to invent their own syntax to leave replies or add tags to their messages, and spawned a variety of secondary services to expand the feature set. It’s an awkward tool in many ways, but its simplicity is also appealing in that it removes the tool management aspect from the chain of thought – that is, you’re no longer thinking about how to accomplish a task with the tool, you’re thinking purely about the content of what you wish to post and whether or not it’s worth posting, and if there is an issue with the content – if it’s too long for example – your thinking is still focused on the content, focused on finding a way to fit it into the 140 character box, rather than on the tool itself1.

  1. Like other digital tools, even though Twitter’s only real feature is that 140 character text box, there is a lot more “stuff” around it. For example, you can upload a picture for your profile, edit the design of your page, change the background picture, and so on. All that secondary stuff is still part of the Twitter experience, and it does take up cognitive space. It would be interesting if all of that was also removed, so that the only thing you had was a way to post messages and to read them, without any formatting or any extras. I guess we’ve had something like this in the early era of computing where all the interaction was done through the command line interface.
January 2014