Is It a Tool Thats Worth Grabbing?

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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