Paul Vosper: Technical Artist

The Best Tool for the Job

Recently I paid $20 to access data I had stored using a Personal Information Manager (PIM) application in 2011. While I had the application data archived, the application itself wouldn't run on even the most outdated OS I could find. So the software developer got my twenty bones and I have an updated version of an application I haven't opened in five years. This new edition adresses most or all of the concerns which made me switch PIMs in the first place - ironically, to the point where it's making me consider switching back - but this got me thinking about the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) for PIMs and why I even use one in the first place.

I continually stumble across data that is interesting and potentially useful, if it can be captured and managed. I use a PIM for collecting and sorting these stray bits of information for future access. My goal is to incorporate the random things that pique my interest in developing projects, including expanding my own knowledge and worldview. In this way, a PIM feeds the better part of me that's trying to explore, learn and improve.

In my PIM currently I have notes, articles, references, links, ideas and inspirations - all in a wild jumble of formats. While most notes to myself are plain text, information from external sources are often packed with images and links as well as text. The types of information I'm collecting are changing over time as well.

No matter how effortlessly you can capture data, it's meaningless until you do the work to put it in context. Ubiquitous access is appealing but ultimately futile without the conscious effort to put it to use. Without that work any data quickly loses significance and value.

The work that I do in the PIM will span years - even decades. It's foolish to assume the thing that I have now will be the thing that I need it to be in 5 or 10 years. The PIM is part of my daily routine and has been for years. I see this tool as a permanent part of my personal workflow.

While I am attracted to pleasant user experiences, what's more important is the long-term stability of the software itself. Software is not a commodity - the cost of transferring data or workflows between apps makes it untenable except in the most extreme cases. The software itself is also impermanent, as it becomes less compatible with contemporary operating systems and the evolving data types I'm hoping to collect. It must be continuously updated and improved to function in contemporary workspaces. This means that I need to think about the developer first and user experience afterwards.

There are two sets of relationships beyond that of User and the Software. The first is Developer and the User - AKA "Customer Service" - but most important of all is Developer and the Software. Does the developer have a viable business model? Is the developer part of a publicly traded company that is legally obligated to maximize profit? This is not just a matter of money - it's critical to the control of data. The long-term sanctity of the data has less to do with the software and more to do with the developer.

I'm in the process now of switching all of my existing projects into the new/old PIM. I'm abandoning my publicly-traded PIM for one built and maintained by a privately held corporation. I believe that the developer is more trustworthy and that their work is more in line with my personal goals. I've been blindly following user trends without thinking about what I need and why I need it. I've been ignoring the fact that with software the "Best Tool for the Job" goes far beyond UX.

$20 is cheap for a lesson like this.

Right? Right.