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Bad Tools are Insidious

This is my first job making data tools that other people use. In the past, I've always been a data scientist - a consumer of these tools. I'm learning a lot.

Last quarter, I learned that bad tools are often hard to spot even when they're damaging productivity. I sum this up by saying that bad tools are insidious. This may be obvious to you but I'm excited by the insight.

Bad tools are hard to spot

I spent some time working directly with analysts building ETL jobs. I found some big usability gaps with our tools and I was surprised I wasn't hearing about these problems from our analysts.

I looked back to previous jobs where I was on the other side of this equation. I remember being totally engrossed in a problem and excited to finding a solution. All I wanted were tools good enough to get the job done. I didn't care to reflect on how I could make the process smoother. I wanted to explore and interate.

When I dug into analyses this quarter, I had a different perspective. I was working with the intention of improving our tools and the analysis was secondary. It was much easier to find workflow improvements this way.

In the Design of Everyday Things Donald notes that users tend to blame themselves when they have difficulty with tools. That's probably part of the issue here as well.

Bad tools hurt

If our users aren't complaining, is it really a problem that needs to get fixed? I think so. We all understand that bad tools hurt our productivity. However, I think we tend to underestimate the value of good tools when we do our mental accounting.

Say I'm working on a new ETL job that takes ~5 minutes to test by hand but ~1 minute to test programatically. By default, I'd value implementing good tests at 4 minutes per test run.

This is a huge underestimate! Testing by hand introduces a context shift, another chance to get distracted, and another chance to fall out of flow. I'll bet a 5 minute distraction can easily end up costing me 20 minutes of productivity on a good day.

Your tools should be a joy to use. The better they work, the easier it is to stay in flow, be creative, and stay excited.

In Summary

Don't expect your users to tell you how to improve your tools. You're probably going to need to eat your own dogfood.

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