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Too Many Hammers

Learning to Live With A Plethora of Communication Tools

Tuesday, July 28, 2020
Woodworking shop with many tools on the walls

As I sit to write this in 2020, we find ourselves with an embarrassment of riches: Slack, Microsoft Teams, Skype, Sharepoint, Asana, Trello, Dropbox, Zoom, Google Hangouts, Yammer, iMessage, WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and I could go on and on; we have more rich tools that can be used to communicate and connect with one another today than we’ve ever had in human history.

These products add to old faithfuls like email, and even older communication tools like telephones to give us the largest toolkit ever assembled for discussing work, sending gifs, making calls, setting deadlines, telling jokes… or anything else our creativity can muster up.

Each of these tools requires some sort of learning curve. The best tools are approachable, friendly, and cleverly are layered to hide their more complex features behind UI menus, disclosures, keyboard shortcuts… in some cases even programming interfaces. But even the best designed tools require some level of cognitive load. Then multiply this load for each tool. Sure, this scales reasonably for a handful of applications, but start piling them up and it starts to become a tall order (especially for novice computer users).

Add to this another conundrum: Where is the conversation you are a part of actually happening? Is it in an email chain? Or is it in Slack? Or perhaps it was on an Trello card in the comments? Or worst of all: the conversation has grown tentacles into several different tools (the dreaded Hydra-thread).

Also, let me ask an important, closely related question: Where should you begin a new conversation? In iMessage? On a Zoom call? In Skype? Compose an email? Break out the morse code key?

These questions get in the way of facilitating what’s actually important: holding an actual conversation! And for novice users, they can be frustrating, daunting and debilitating. With so many choices, I’ll just throw my hands up and say screw it to the entire thing!

It’s a little like walking into a woodworker’s shop. For an experienced woodworker, they have everything they need to build a beautiful piece of furniture. For a new budding woodworker, they wouldn’t even know where to begin! More tools creates more confusion, more friction, and less confidence that they using the correct tool in a reasonable way. It also means they might end up bouncing around from tool to tool never really getting a good sense of the tool’s strengths, or even how to use the tool proficiently.

So what’s the solution? In my mind, two clear ideas emerge: fewer tools and clearer guidelines.

The fewer tools a team or organization leverages, the less friction you introduce, the less total cognitive load you place on users, and the more likely a user is to confidently pick the “right” tool for the job. As part of this, whenever humanly possible, new tools should replace old ones. Even better, find new tools that supplant several existing ones, which streamlines communication (although with an unfortunate short term cost of throwing away existing experience with the exiting tools).

Clearer guidelines help give all users, and especially novices, a comprehensible mental model of which tool is sensible for a particular use case, without rigidly demanding adherence to strict rules. Perhaps certain types of conversations can be steered towards specific tools. Conceivably the guidelines can in part revolve around internal vs external stakeholders (the federated nature of email makes it ubiquitous in a way other tools simply aren’t, for better or worse).

Now, to leave Medium and answer my work colleague: I think in Teams. Or was that an email? Maybe in an Asana task comment thread? 🤷