Making Tools, Technology, and Ideas Accessible

For much of the time that it’s been a part of our lives, technology hasn’t been very accessible. From how we build it all the way to how it’s used, technology hasn’t been easy for people to get close to. I was just barely at the tail end of the generation who was around for the internet before it was ubiquitous in the western world. Those much more “seasoned”–older–than I am would laugh at even how good I had it with my first 14.4K modem. There’s been a Wild West mentality in the becoming of the internet and the culture around it. Keyboard cowboys, cavalier in their convictions, broke trail and set standards for the world we’d newly navigate. This scene wasn’t for everyone and only those with the bravest of hearts and the sturdiest desk chairs have made marks. Through that we’ve come a long way. At least in the first world, internet connections are as important of a utility as electricity and nearly as available. Availability isn’t necessarily accessibility though. We’ve come to trust that when you flip the light switch or turn the tap, that service will be there for you. It’s reliable. Yet we still have to think about “uptime” of our online services and need technicians to come to our house to fix the little blinking internet box thing again. And remember, this is in the most advanced parts of the world. We’ve got it the best out of anybody and it still sucks.

Our relationship with technology can be rocky. We’re introduced to new hardware, services, interfaces, and interactions all of the time. We’re encouraged to learn these things through practice and not be worried about poking around the new updated version of a thing we love (or at least just use a lot). Our culture mostly accepts the new and cool because we always want to be new and cool. But it’s not easy. Many people aren’t these cavalier keyboard cowboys and don’t have the time, patience, or desire to tinker their way through learning technology.

Making these tools, technology, and ideas accessible is something that managers, designers, makers, and marketers need to improve on. In all parts of what we set out to do, we need to lower the barrier and ease people in to familiarity with the pieces of our work that they touch. Code that we write and share needs to be accessible so that more people will contribute and help grow what it can do. It needs to be documented and use familiar frameworks so people can get in to it easier. Ideas we spread need to be accessible so that people understand what we mean and build a community around these ideas.

In September, I spent the day at the Hardware Innovation Workshop here in New York. It was put together by Make Magazine who was also hosting the Maker Faire that weekend. The sessions were mostly focused on the gap between prototyping hardware using tools like Arduino and getting your hardware product in to mass production. There were discussions about the business side of doing that, how to design in a way that simplifies the way your product can be manufactured, and even how branding can have an effect on your hardwares attractiveness to customers.

One of the ideas that caught my attention was the unfamiliarity that many consumers had with these types of hardware in their homes and lives. Some were systems that could monitor the safety and happenings in your house when you were away or were little hardware bits that you could use to build circuits but were just so simple and magical that they could be used for kids to build toys or for artists, or engineers. These things were new. They were ideas that hadn’t become part of people’s regular thinking habits. But some of these products had succeeded in designing their hardware so it was approachable and their end user wasn’t scared to try it. Once they tried it, they recognized that it was useful. They could figure out how to use it, why they should, and didn’t feel uncomfortable using it.

So how do we designers, makers, writer, scientists, make tools, technology, and ideas accessible?

We have to recognize and try our best to understand the people who we are making each of these things for. We need to understand them and we need to care for them deeply. These design challenges aren’t easy to solve so to get through the frustrating iterations, we need to stay focused on the care we have and the care we believe we can deliver, whether it be to fellow developers making it easier to build great things or to our customers who need a little help in their lives and are looking towards us and our products for that support.

Caring a lot will guide each of us through the challenges in making tools, technology, and ideas accessible.