Focus on the outcome, not the tool

I’m fighting with Adobe. Not literally, obviously – I’m not having physical altercations with a multinational corporation. I’m fighting with thier apps, specifically InDesign. And InDesign is winning.

The thing is, it shouldn’t be. I’ve used page layout programs for years – one of my first jobs was doing magazine and catalog layouts in Quark Express. I SHOULD be able to use InDesign without difficulty, and pickup on things quickly. Yet I can’t – I can do the simple stuff, but doing the more elaborate and advanced stuff is still eluding me. I’m spending more time learning the app than creating things WITH the app.

So I’m giving up. Adobe, you win. I’m sure that with enough time and patience I can master InDesign and do some great work with it. But to me, such an investment is just not worth it. I’d rather focus on creating, not learning the eccentric rules and details of an application that could do with a good top-to-bottom redesign. I value my time more than that.

A good app not only supports the task, but gets out of the way and lets users focus on the work. This doesn’t mean the application lacks in functionality or complexity… it just means that the app is designed and structured to let the user do the core things they need to do, and anything else is available on-demand in a sensible way. When I am designing something I focus on the tasks, and support what the user wants or needs to do. InDesign, like many of Adobe’s apps, has become more and more complex over the years as they attempt to support multiple usage patterns – trying to support print, web, and interactive design into one app. And it shows.

And a good well-design app not only supports the user, it excites them. One of the main reasons I have been somewhat prolific of late was the release of the iBooks Author app from Apple. It allows me to do a lot of what I was trying to do in InDesign, but it’s SO much better. While far from being a “perfect” app, it has nonetheless got me excited about doing the work again… whereas InDesign provoked the exact opposite response.

I know plenty of people who are incredibly proficient at using apps such as InDesign… and I’m sure they produce wonderful work with the application. To them and all like them, use the tools that work for you… but get your sense of accomplishment from what you do with them, not that you learned how to use the tool in the first place.

So the point of my diatribe is simple – focus on the work, not the tool. And use tools that help you do the work, instead of get in the way. “A poor worker blames his tools,” the saying goes… and as tropes go, sometimes it’s spot on.

Joseph Dickerson is a user experience professional and UX Lead for Microsoft based out of Atlanta, GA. He has implemented processes in user testing, design and ethnographic research and provided design and consulting services for many different projects and organizations.

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