Is It a Tool Thats Worth Grabbing?

By Peter Coffee  |  Posted 2003-03-31 Print this article Print

Coffee: Studies of the human brain's "tool response" raise compelling questions for programmers and system designers alike.

When something that might be a useful tool appears at the edge of your vision, your brain gets ready to grab it—before youve consciously noticed its there. When tools are seen at the lower right, a right-handers brain shows more activity than when the same objects are off to the left; when the object is obviously not a tool, the brain produces much less "prepare to grab" activity.

These findings, from Todd Handy at Dartmouth College, are an eerie echo of the opening of "2001: A Space Odyssey," where an early humanoid makes the mental leap to using a bone as a club. The follow-up question is whether we recognize tools by that kind of low-level signature—"Hey, I could grab that with one hand"—or whether we use higher-level knowledge.

Handy and his team are now looking, for example, at different peoples reactions to images of rock climbing aids to see if climbing experience affects response. Id love to suggest variations on that theme. For example, would a person who knows Morse code show a distinctive "tool" response to a telegraph key?

And how would people with different levels of computer proficiency react to an image of a command-line prompt? Would a Unix programmers brain get ready to start typing? Would a GUI user see a command line as a nontool?

The best systems are those that can be perceived, and used, as effective tools by the largest possible variety of users. That means ease of making routine tasks automatic, with scripting and other such mechanisms; ease of making unexpected tasks possible, with command lines and open configuration and data exchange facilities; and consistency in making simple tasks obvious and nonhazardous.

I suggest, though, that we err too often in underestimating peoples built-in abilities to recognize and apply tools that do what theyre supposed to do.

No one is able to define a single integrated tool for me, and I dont want anyone to limit my options in the process of trying to do that. I just hope I can keep on teaching myself to recognize, and get ready to grab, an ever-larger variety of tools.

Tell me what new tools youve found lately at

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Peter Coffee is Director of Platform Research at, where he serves as a liaison with the developer community to define the opportunity and clarify developers' technical requirements on the company's evolving Apex Platform. Peter previously spent 18 years with eWEEK (formerly PC Week), the national news magazine of enterprise technology practice, where he reviewed software development tools and methods and wrote regular columns on emerging technologies and professional community issues.Before he began writing full-time in 1989, Peter spent eleven years in technical and management positions at Exxon and The Aerospace Corporation, including management of the latter company's first desktop computing planning team and applied research in applications of artificial intelligence techniques. He holds an engineering degree from MIT and an MBA from Pepperdine University, he has held teaching appointments in computer science, business analytics and information systems management at Pepperdine, UCLA, and Chapman College.

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