Tools that feel like play

Fun products that make serious work

Approx. 2 mins to read

I recently explored some work using Figma (a tool I’ve used for several years) and it occurred to me just how fun it felt—casual, and easy, and simple. It felt, ultimately, like play. Due to constraints that I won’t bore you with, at some point I had to stop using Figma and start using a popular piece of software in the same vein. Almost immediately, it stopped feeling like play, and started feeling like work, instead.

Suggested especially by clunky, awkward enterprise software is the notion that serious work is done in tools that feel serious. Reminiscent of a suit in the wrong size and off the rack. Serious work shouldn’t feel like much fun, they imply, by making the seemingly simple astronomically arduous and complicated. The best work, though (in my experience) comes precisely from the process of playing with tools.

It’s built into our language, too. After spending a day tinkering with email software I’ve heard many colleagues proclaim they’d spent the day playing with Mailchimp. I’m not here to disparage tools (by name) that don’t feel like this. I’m here to celebrate the ones that do. To express how grateful I am that many very smart people spend many very long days toiling away so that I can spend mine at play.

Play feels exciting, and experimental. It feels like you can poke and prod at something and not have it shatter or fall over. It bends, and stretches, and bounces off of any surface without a scratch. Products that feel like play make you feel comfortable and confident, and never make you feel new or stupid. You can’t lose at play. Conversely, with products that feel like play, you can absolutely win.

Work that is meaningful can result from play. Work that some might call serious work. Notion feels like play and yet brings structure to my life and work (and for that matter, to the work of very big and very important businesses). Things feels like play but manages to bring rigour and coherence to my day. Figma feels like play and allows me to visualise entirely new products for substantially broad needs.

The best technology, in fact, feels like play—and rightly so, much of it arose directly from play itself. The pioneers of computing and networking, in may cases, didn’t create because they had to, they created because they could. For those of you working in tools all day, demand of them that they allow you to experiment without reproach. For those of you making those tools, make ones that feel this way.

May 13, 2020