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You have probably heard variations on this old saw, “To a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” I’ve also heard, “If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” There is also this popular anecdote:

One night, I took my dog out for a walk and I noticed one of my neighbors under a nearby street lamp crawling around on his hands and knees, apparently looking for something. I walked over and asked, “What are you looking for?”

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“My car keys!” He replied.

I have pretty good vision, so I helped him. I didn’t see any car keys so after a minute or so I asked, “Where exactly did you lose your keys?” 

He stood up, cracked his back, and pointed back to a nearby park. “Over there.”

“Over there?! Then, why are you looking under the street lamp? Why aren’t you looking over at the park entrance?”

“Oh, that’s obvious! The light is so much better here!” 

For a time, I had to very interesting and challenging job in the mid 1980’s at IBM Headquarters to try to get the company to pay more attention to the usability of their products and services. As a part of this, I visited IBM locations throughout the world. At one fabrication plant, our tour guide took us by an inspection station. This was not an inspection statement for chips. It consisted of one person whose job was to look through a microscope and make sure that two silver needles were perfectly aligned.

After we left the station, our tour guide confided that they were strongly considering replacing the person with a machine vision system. The anticipated cost would be substantial, but they hypothesized that the system would be more accurate and faster. It was, our host, insisted, just the nature of humans to be slow and inaccurate.


When I looked at the inspection station however, with my background in human factors, I had a completely different impression of the situation. The inspector sat on a fixed height stool and had to bend his neck at an absurd angle to look into the microscope. He was trying to align these silver needles against a background that had almost the same hue, brightness and saturation. 

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Other than blindfolding the man, I’m not sure what they could have done to make the task more unnecessarily difficult. I suggested, and eventually, they implemented, a few inexpensive ergonomic changes and time and accuracy improved.

Like other companies in the technology segment, IBM often saw problems as ones that could be solved by technology. At that time, technology systems was their main business. Since then, they have expanded more fully into software and services. In fact, those services now include experience design.


If you find yourself enamored of technology in general, or some specific class of technology such as machine vision, speech recognition, or machine learning, you might overlook much simpler and cheaper ways to solve problems or ameliorate situations. Of course, you might lose some revenue doing that, but you can also win long term customer loyalty. 

Even if you are a hammer, everything is not a nail. 

That applies as well to User Experience. You might design the most wonderful UX imaginable for a particular product or service. But if it is shoddily made so that it is error prone; if it lacks important functionality; if the sales force is inept; or if service is horrible, those failures can completely overwhelm all the good work you have done on the UX. Because of the nature of UX, you might learn important knowledge or suggestions for other functions as well. It often requires finesse to have such suggestions taken seriously, but with some thought you can do it. 

During my second stint at IBM, I worked for a time in a field known at that time as “Knowledge Management.” One of our potential clients was a major Pharma company who felt that their researchers should do a better job of sharing knowledge across products. They wanted us to design a “knowledge management system” (by which they meant hardware and software) to improve knowledge sharing. 

Simply building a “Knowledge Management System” would be looking under the streetlamp. They knew how to specify a technology solution from IBM and have it installed.

However — they were unwilling to provide any additional space, time, or incentives for their employees to share knowledge with their colleagues!  

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They were convinced that technology would be the silver bullet, the solution, the answer, the Holy Grail, the magic pill. They viewed technology as less disruptive than it would have been to change employee incentives, or space layout, or give them time to actually learn and use the technology system. 

This reaction to “knowledge management” was not unique. It was common.

To me, this seems very similar to the notion that health problems can all be solved with a magic pill. What do you think? 


There’s a pill for that. 

The Pandemic Anti-Academic.

What about the butter dish? 

The invisibility cloak of habit. 

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