Build Systems to be Zuhanden

We build tools. The systems that we make have no other reason to exist (nor we to get paid) than to help someone, usually someone else, do something.

Martin Heidegger, an influential German philosopher of the 20th Century, explored the ways that people experience tools (and more generally “equipment”) in their lives. People use tools to work towards a goal and the tool is merely a means to an end.

During successful use a tool is zuhanden (“ready-to-hand”, having the property of “handiness”). The tool is experienced directly, it is used without consideration, without theorisation. We grasp the tool and use it to move towards our goal. In use, it vanishes! The tool becomes an extension of the user’s body and is not experienced in its own right. One sign of a tool being zuhanden is that it becomes invisible, unfelt, insignificant.

Consider what it feels like to hammer a nail or to write with a pen. Think about that immediacy. Think about the way the tool seems to be a seamless extension of your body.

Alternatively, and usually when something has gone wrong with it, the user may experience a tool as vorhanden (“present-at-hand”). The tool is isolated from the goal, it lies before us demanding attention. It becomes a topic of investigation in its own right. The user is no longer able to proceed towards their goal but must deal first with the tool, without it doing anything to move them towards their goal. As technologists we tend to experience the systems we build for users as vorhanden while we build them, and again when we receive defect reports. For us, the tool is quite properly an object of enquiry, of theorising, of investigation. It is a thing to be studied.

However, it is crucial to their success that the users experience the tools we build for them as zuhanden. Are your systems architected to be invisible in use? Does the user interface fall naturally to hand? Or do your systems keep demanding attention, distracting users from their goal?

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