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Jorge Arango's



No. 29
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Desert island apps

I’m always looking for ways of optimizing my personal information ecosystem. By this, I mean focusing on the work rather than futzing with the environment where the work happens. Ideally, I’d log into my computer, do a bunch of work, and then log out without having to think too much about the tools I’m using or how I’m using them.

The challenge is that digital tools are constantly evolving. There may be a new app out there that eases a part of my workflow, or perhaps one of the tools I’m already using has a hidden feature I’m not using. Sometimes such innovations can lead to tremendous efficiency gains, so it’s important to step back and review the ecosystem every once in a while. It’s a tradeoff between spending time working on the work versus on the way we work. A subtle, but important distinction.

Earlier in my career, I devoted a higher percentage of my time to working on my ecosystem than I do now. My toolset has been relatively stable for a long time. In part, this is because I eventually realized that many “new and improved” digital tools are specialized adaptations of more general, deeper tools.

For example, when my family and I were preparing to move to the U.S., I bought an app that allowed me to catalog my book library. I spent quite a bit of time messing around with that app. Eventually, I realized it was actually a specialized spreadsheet – something that's also true of many lightweight data management apps. Rather than spending time learning a new app that perhaps adds a couple of timesaving features (in the case of the library app, it was reading ISDN codes), I could devote the time instead to figuring out how to do what I needed with the tool I already had: Excel.

Excel is an example of what I call a “desert island” app. Like desert island books (i.e., the short list of books you’d like in your bag if you were to be stranded in a desert island), these are digital tools that I could use to get my work done even if I had access to nothing else. They tend to be deep and broad, have large and devoted communities of users, and have been around for a long time. Other tools that fall into that category for me are the Emacs text editor, the Unix shell (along with its suite of “small pieces loosely joined” mini-tools), OmniGraffle for diagramming, and Tinderbox for making sense of messes.
 


These are all tools I’ve used for over a decade. (In the case of Excel, Emacs, and the Unix shell, over two decades.) But even after all this time, I’m nowhere near mastering them. My relationship with these desert island apps is a lifelong journey in which I will continually become more proficient – which will, in turn, make me more efficient. I test drive new apps now and then, but I always return to these old standbys. The effort of learning to use them in new ways is often less than that required by integrating new tools into my workflow.

What about you? Do you have “desert island apps”? Please do let me know – I’m interested in learning about what makes digital systems stand the test of time.

Upcoming Q&A

In the early 1990s, the U.S. Army War College created an acronym to describe the geopolitical situation after the Cold War: VUCA. It stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, four characteristics they saw as defining the multilateral post-Cold War world. The rise of information technologies — and the internet in particular — has radically transformed our political, economic, and social reality. We are all now living in a generalized state of VUCA.

Join me next Thursday for a Q&A session about how design can help organizations thrive by reducing volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. This videoconference is organized by Rosenfeld Media’s Enterprise Experience Community, which is worth looking into if you’re a designer working in an enterprise setting.

The Informed Life With Trip O’Dell



 

Episode 8 of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with product designer Trip O’Dell. Before his career in tech, where he’s worked leading technology companies such as Adobe, Microsoft, and Amazon, Trip was a teacher, introducing new technologies to students so they could tell stories in new ways. When he was a student himself, Trip was diagnosed with dyslexia, and in this episode we discuss how this allows him to think differently. We also talked about the ways he leverages technology to help him, including this nugget:

[I use] systems that separate but then I also have systems that bring together and synchronize. For instance, it’s really easy for me to lose things. That’s sort of the the dyslexic characteristic like where are we think in matrices we kind of also need to have everything out in front of us to be able to make those connections and a lot of software is built to just have you do one thing at a time. It’s built modally, right?

This idea that some systems are better for “separating” — concepts, ideas, etc. — while others are better for “bringing together” — is important. I, too, tend to jump between systems depending on whether I’m trying to analyze or synthesize something, but I hadn’t thought of it consciously like Trip has.

The Informed Life Episode 8: Trip O’Dell

Have you been enjoying the show?

Have you been enjoying The Informed Life? Please take a couple of minutes to rate and/or review the show in Apple's podcast directory. This helps other folks find it. Thanks!

Other things I’ve been thinking about…

Elsewhere

About Living in Information

Living in Information book coverThe book's description and table of contents are on its web page. If you want a succinct overview, my presentation at UX Week 2018 is a good introduction. You can buy the book from... 

... and other fine purveyors of the printed word.

“The most important thing is that you love what you are doing, and the second that you are not afraid of where your next idea will lead.”

― Charles Eames

Thanks for reading!

-- Jorge

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Copyright © 2019 Jorge Arango, All rights reserved.

Jorge Arango
P.O. Box 29002
Oakland, CA 94604

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