Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Tools We Use

Back in 1964 Marshall McLuhan said  "We shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us". McLuhan was actually talking about the media when he said this but much of what he said then has a great deal of relevance in today's mixed up media world too.

It occurs to me that McLuhan's tool quote equally applies to the tools we use, or misuse, as software architects. PowerPoint (or Keynote for that matter) has received pretty bad press over the years as being a tool that inhibits rather than enhances our creativity. Whilst this does not have to be the case, too many people take tools, such as PowerPoint, and use them in ways I'm pretty sure their creators never intended. Here are some common tool (mis)uses I've observed over the years (anti-patterns for tools if you like):
  1. Spreadsheets as a databases. Too many people seem to use spreadsheets as a sort of global repository for dumping ideas, data and information in general because it gives them the ability to easily sort and categorise information. Spreadsheets are good at numbers and presenting analytical data but not for capturing textual information.
  2. Presentations as documents. Sometimes what started out as a presentation to illustrate a good idea seems to grow into a more detailed description of that idea and eventually turns into a full-blown specification! The excuse for doing this being "we can use this to present to the client as well as leaving it with them at the end of the project as the design of the system". Bad idea!
  3. Presentations as a substitute for presenting. The best presenters present "naked". Minimal presentations (where sometimes minimal = 0) where the presenter is at the fore and his or her slides are illustrating the key ideas is what presenting is or should be about. Did John F Kennedy, Winston Churchill or Martin Luther King rely on PowerPoint to get their big ideas across? I think not!
  4. Word processors as presentations. This is the opposite of number 2. Whilst not so common  people have been known in my experience to 'present' their documents on a screen in a meeting. It goes without saying, or should do, that 12pt (or less) text does not come across well on a screen.
  5. Word processors as web sites. Although most word processors have the capability of generating HTML this is not a good reason for using them to build web sites. There are a multitude of free, open and paid for tools that do a far better job of this.
  6. Emails as documents. This is variant (generalisation) of one of my favourite [sic] anti-patterns. e-mails are one of the greatest sources of unstructured data in the world today. There must be, literally, terabytes of data stored using this medium that should otherwise be captured in a more readily consumable and accessible form. e-mails clearly have a place for forming ideas but not for capturing outcomes and persisting those ideas so others can see them and learn from them.


  1. 2011 is the centenary of Marshall McLuhan's birth. See here: for a good compendium of some of McLuhan's words and sayings.

  2. However, a well constructed architectural model in a suitable tool (heh heh!) can be very effective as a presentation tool - allowing you to drill in to the areas that the conversation takes you