The Drive to Structure Data

By Deane Barker on January 8, 2012

How Trello is different: Joel Spolsky makes a lot of great points in this article about Trello, but this one really stuck with me:

Over the next two weeks we visited dozens of Excel customers, and did not see anyone using Excel to actually perform what you would call “calculations.” Almost all of them were using Excel because it was a convenient way to create a table.

[…] most people just used Excel to make lists. Suddenly we understood why Lotus Improv, which was this fancy futuristic spreadsheet that was going to make Excel obsolete, had failed completely: because it was great at calculations, but terrible at creating tables, and everyone was using Excel for tables, not calculations.

Bing! A light went off in my head.

The great horizontal killer applications are actually just fancy data structures.

“Just fancy data structures” – there’s a lot to that statement, under the covers.  I’m convinced that people have a fundamental drive to structure data, and that’s really all that a lot of applications are doing – letting them take some amorphous domain of information and put structure around it.  Excel is the granddaddy of this idea, because rows and columns – the classic tabular structure – makes the most sense to humans and fits the most situations.

When Joe and I went to Chicago for the first Building of Basecamp seminar, Jason Fried talked about some of the unexpected things people were using the app for.  One that I remember was to plan a wedding – there’s a lot of information involved with planninga wedding, and Basecamp let them structure it.  Then 37 Signals came out with Backpack, which essentially let people put structure around their random thoughts.

We can even trace this need for structure all the way back to the wiki itself – pages of content with text grouped into headings, and organized into categories and a network of inter-linked pages.  This concept of organizing and structuring information is innate to humankind.  I’m convinced that libraries weren’t just about the accumulation of knowledge, but were also some subconscious need to structure and organize it all.

Anyway, the article is absolutely worth reading.  There’s quite a bit information in there about business models, horizontal vs. vertical applications, web-based vs. installed applications, and how they intend to make money with Trello.  A great read all-around.

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