In one of the stop-motion Christmas specials I grew up with, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer visits the Island of Misfit Toys, a mythical place where awkwardly developed or unwanted toys go to spend the rest of their existence. I must confess that at least one island of Misfit Toys Archipelago exists at Heroic Technical Writing. I have a pile of technological tools that seemed like (or were) good ideas at the time, but have since fallen into disuse. If anything, today’s post is a meditation on our (my?) penchant for purchasing technological tools to solve temporary problems.
How the Island Forms
You know how this happens, right? You have a specific task you’d like to perform, you mention it to someone who loves gadgets, and they recommend the latest thing that does (allegedly) exactly what you need. Suddenly you find yourself forking over a hundred dollars (or more) for something that you end up using only briefly…if at all. If this post has a lesson, it’s simply this: if you have a work problem, think twice before buying a technological tool to solve it.
Here’s what my Island of Misfit Toys looks like:
The most useful “toys” on the Island are, of course, my old iPhones. I actually used these items, frequently, as part of my daily life. I can safely say that the iPhone is the most useful toy/tool I’ve ever purchased* (repeatedly–I’m now on iPhone 11 Pro). The reason? It integrated into my life more-or-less seamlessly since I already had a mobile “dumb” phone as late as 2009. The iPhone became a “necessary” purchase as I geared up to run a conference because I had to keep track of multiple meetings and appointments. Oh yeah, and it also allowed me to talk to people. The Notes app allowed me to keep track of my to-do list. I could listen to my iTunes (a lady friend got my iPod). I could take pictures with it. And so forth. Odds are, if you’re reading this blog, you have a smart phone: iPhone, Android, or other. The only reason some of them ended up on the Island of Misfit Toys is that they filled up with data (pictures, music), they broke down, or Apple slowed them down or stopped supporting them. These things happen.
(* In case you’re wondering why I don’t use Android, at the time I bought my first smart phone (2009), Androids all had physical keys rather than screen touch keys. My fat fingers kept tripping over the Android keys, so iPhone won on technology and usability points. By the time Android caught up to iPhone, I had a happy history of customer satisfaction with iPhone, and transferring my data from Apple to anything else was problematic. In that case, Apple won through buying inertia and not playing nicely with others.)
As a major bibliophile and book hoarder, I was advised to buy an Amazon Kindle to save some space on my bookshelf and save myself a little money on book purchases. As an added bonus, the screen did not glow as much as most computers, so I thought I’d give this toy a whirl. However, the Kindle did not integrate well into my life because I found that after spending all day staring at a computer screen, I wasn’t too keen on looking at another one, glow or no glow. Then, too, Amazon decided to offer a Kindle app, which was available for my iPhone (see above) and…
I got an iPad as part of a welcome to my then-new employer Zero Point Frontiers in 2012. I also received a Mac to do my work. I wasn’t thrilled with having to re-learn command keystrokes after 20+ years on PCs; the iPad was just a bonus. I broke it after two days because I was listening to my iTunes with my ear buds, stood up, and forgot they were connected. CRASH! Sheepishly, I returned the shattered iPad to the Apple Store and got a replacement. After I left ZPFC, the iPad came with me. I found a place for it as a music box and Kindle/book-reading tool. However, as an old-fashioned person who really liked paper and didn’t like his reading interrupted by email notices, I stopped using the iPad for reading. The music was being handled on the Mac and the iPhone, so I really didn’t need the tablet. To the Island it went.
This tool was a suggestion of Jason, my boss at ZPFC. He noticed that I had a tendency to hand-write my meeting notes in my journal, then go back to my desk and type them up. His theory was that I would save time if I used a “smart pen,” The Livescribe pen would write with semi-conventional ink on the Livescribe journals. As you are writing, the pen also saves the words on its built-in memory chip and sends the “written” file to your computer via Bluetooth. It sounded marvelous in theory. There were, however, several problems with it:
- The pen was too big for to write comfortably.
- I didn’t like the idea of someone hacking my journal…you cannot hack pen and ink.
- My handwritten notes are a rough draft for my personal use. Writing meeting minutes requires a second draft anyhow.
Off to electronic exile it went.
Digital voice recorder
When I first started working as a tech writer, the engineers at the company I worked for didn’t write a lot. As a result, I spent a lot of time interviewing them to get the information I needed. A different manager also distrusted my use of paper journals and suggested I record the meetings with my subject matter experts to make certain I’d get things correct and to avoid having to go back to ask follow-up questions. There were, as you might have guessed, problems with this tool as well:
- Some people dislike, feel uncomfortable, or actually refuse to have their voice recorded.
- I do, in fact, take good notes.
- When I moved to NASA, I found that more of their engineers were expected to write; as a result, I switched from extracting content via interviews to reorganizing or editing existing written text.
- Not being a fan of hearing my recorded voice either, the recorder went to the unused toy department.
Ask Yourself: Is This Gadget Really Necessary?
Before I buy a “cool toy” in the future, I’m going to ask myself the following questions:
- Do I have more than one need for the product?
- Does the tool do more than one thing well?
- Do I already have existing tools to do the job? How well do they work?
- How well would the tool integrate into my daily routine?
- Does a customer require that I use the tool for my work? (This is how I ended up with a Mac to do most of my work and a PC to do just one customer’s tasks.)
- Are there less expensive options (apps, processes) I could employ rather than spend $X on another toy I’m going to abandon in a month or two?
We live in an age of technological wonders. I continue to be impressed (as only a pre-computer can be) by the ever-increasing capabilities of our automated tools. However, because I grew up with a paper-based approach to problem solving, I inevitably default to my pen and paper. There’s something to be said for the adage, “If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.” And many of my analogue processes have worked just fine for me for years. Think before you make the more expensive choice.