The Revenge of the Intuitive and developer tools in 2020

The Revenge of the Intuitive – Brian Eno lamented the downsides of a modern, computer-based recording console. Twenty years ago! The trade-offs for “freedom” at the expense of human affordances were too much for Eno at the time.

Feels like we’re in a similar spot with developer tooling. It works for the most accomplished and persistent of us. For many people who would like to build software, it’s too much. It’s too easy for our castles of complexity to thwart the novices.

The trouble begins with a design philosophy that equates “more options” with “greater freedom.” Designers struggle endlessly with a problem that is almost nonexistent for users: “How do we pack the maximum number of options into the minimum space and price?” In my experience, the instruments and tools that endure (because they are loved by their users) have limited options

You could just as easily write this today about software development libraries and tools. Too many of them discard pretty good ideas about how to build applications. Too much fascination with meta-tooling. Not enough thought put into how to put applications in people’s hands.

With tools, we crave intimacy. This appetite for emotional resonance explains why users – when given a choice – prefer deep rapport over endless options. You can’t have a relationship with a device whose limits are unknown to you, because without limits it keeps becoming something else.

We need standalone tools and libraries to build upon. However, well-curated, opinionated developers tools are where the magic happens. Frameworks like Rails, Tailwind, Next.js are where the leverage is.

A determined expert can build an application from building blocks. Novices can at least get started with a well-crafted framework. A good community and forgiving documentation can get them through the valleys of confusion to the peaks of accomplishment.

Perhaps low/no-code tools will bring the benefit of the “golden, narrow path” to more people. Maybe the trade-winds of developer tooling will blow away from showmanship back to accessibility. Either way, we should tidy up our house and make software development more welcoming to those who aren’t already monks in the monastery.