Blog post

The Secret Lives of Productivity Applications

By Craig Roth | June 25, 2019 | 3 Comments

Content creationCollaborationCloud Office

We think we know our productivity tools so well – email, powerpoint, excel. They’re so familiar to us. You email a few paragraphs to groups, create a slide presentation in Powerpoint, and calculate columns and rows of numbers in a spreadsheet.

But all of these tools have secret lives. Or, at least secret to many IT folks that compare the standard features and functions of these tools when looking to move to something else.

Look closer. See that email being used as a task reminder? And that person using email as a content management system, filing emails with attachments in folders as one would use a document management system to store documents? It’s also a form tool where an organizer lists a bunch of fields with colons and tells the mailing list to fill it out and send it back. It’s a scheduling tool, with endless cycles of asking whether people are available at a certain time.

And PowerPoint just for slides? I worked in management consulting where we used it as a page layout tool, with 6 point font and an intricate layout of text surrounded by grouping boxes and charts. There was never an intention of going into slide show mode – it was just the preferred way to create a heavily formatted page. PowerPoint was also used for mind mapping and flow charts.

Don’t even get me started with Excel. End user databases, forms, task management, modeling and simulation … the list is endless.

But in each of these cases isn’t there is a better, task-specific tool to do what the office productivity tool is being shoehorned into doing? A document management system is obviously much better than keeping documents with email attachments. Desktop publishing products can beat the pants off PowerPoint for creating an intricate single page or book. Content collaboration products are better for making sure you have the files you need at home, offline, or on other devices than email. Collaborative work management products are more attractive and easier to use than Excel for tracking tasks that aren’t quite at the level of needing a real project management product. There are scheduling tools that negate the need to send around dozens of emails, and online forms instead of a textual form in email.

In each of those cases it is clear that the standalone tool is better than the generic tool. And whether it is your teammate, IT, or the vendor demoing a tool build to do that task better, they have no trouble proving it’s superior and would save you time.

And yet it’s difficult to get enterprises to purchase those specialized productivity tools. Even when some of those purpose-build categories exist in the Office suite itself (note taking with OneNote, tasks in Outlook, Microsoft Publisher) it is still difficult to get people to use them instead of the generic, sub-optimal alternatives.

Why? I have a woodworking book that lists the base set of tools an aspiring woodworker should have: there are dozens in the list. And my America’s Test Kitchen book has a list of the basic necessities for a home cook: no less than 40 items. Surely a knowledge worker – whose job it is to collate, analyze, create, and present information – should be able to handle more tools than someone that makes birdhouses on weekends or whips up cookies on weekends, right?

After two decades of covering these sorts of tools I’ve seen several reasons that are useful to understand for any IT leaders trying to spur adoption of (or vendors trying to sell) a product that supplies functionality disaggregated from the general purpose suite.

First, the obvious reasons:

  • Simplicity: I spent days trying to get Aldus PageMaker to create a newsletter. If the user isn’t going to dedicate a significant portion of their time to learning a tool, then the simplicity wins out over the purpose-built functionality. The specialty products often feel over-engineered (if not today, then in a few years as feature bloat inevitably creeps in).
  • Cost: Even if not expensive, it’s still cheaper to just use the tool already on users’ desktops. Especially once you add in maintenance and training.
  • Habit: If someone is used to a tool it’s hard to get them to switch, even if the alternative is demonstrably better.

Now, some less obvious reasons worth considering:

  • Tinkering: It’s actually fun to “hack” a tool into doing something it wasn’t meant to do. It makes one feel clever. Writing Monopoly the right way is a chore, but getting Excel to do it is a blast that will wow your friends.
  • Variance: In order to create a standalone tool that does these functions, one must often codify best practices and processes. For example, that each task in a task management tool should be red, yellow, or green. Or that meeting scheduling should allow one of 3 responses to each invitee. It may be the codified practices the users object to rather than the complexity or functionality.
  • Slippery slope: Where do you stop? If you pick one for, say, meeting management then what about to-do lists? You can disaggregate a dozen use cases into purpose-built tools and still have a dozen more you could do. At some point the sheer mass of tools will exhaust your users – if not your checkbook. And if you just pick a few of the most important, it’s likely other users would pick different use cases as their priorities.

Are there other reasons you can think of that we keep using general purpose tools instead of purpose-built alternatives that are clearly better?

Comments are closed


  • Gordon Hogg says:

    Buyers will “always” look for a workaround to solve a problem and will never buy something without first confirming that they can’t fix the problem themselves or with something familiar.

  • Jack Vinson says:

    The “habit” is pretty strong. Not only my habit, but those of the people around me. If they aren’t comfortable using XYZ for calculations or data manipulation, they’ll continue to do it in Excel.

    Just think how difficult it is to get people to use shared disc space instead of dropping everthing into email.

    Remember way back when Lotus produced their products that were all-in-one? Symphony (was that what it was called?) tried to combine all their offerings. Microsoft still does it to a degree with their “productivity” suite. Maybe the marketing claims are driving us this direction too.

    On the other hand knowledge workers have to work with what they have. I have a few unique-to-me tools, but if I want to share with others, I have to Save-As or Export to a format they can deal with.

  • Craig Roth says:

    Yes Jack, the format switching is a problem if you start injecting some clever new tools into the mix. Plus, the habits may not transfer over.

    And, as Gordon says, everyone has to make very sure those old habits can’t get the job done by hook or by crook before looking at anything else.