A Matter of Context

firstplaceI began today’s discussion with a simple, direct question to The Effective Detective.

“Sir, what is the best software to manage your list?”

The Detective studied me for a moment, and gave a simple, direct response.

“You are asking the wrong question, Watson.”

“What could be wrong about such a question, sir? It is a simple inquiry as to what to use to solve a problem,” I replied, perhaps a tad indignantly.

“Elementary my dear Watson. The question you ask lacks context, which makes it impossible to answer, hence it must be the wrong question,” The Detective replied; cryptically, in my estimation.

“Begging your pardon sir, but where is this lack of context? The question is quite specific,” I tried again.

“Yes, Watson, the question is quite specific, and it is the type of question that most people would ask when making an inquiry regarding software. In fact, it is the type of question that most people ask regarding any product or service – what is the best?

“Specificity aside, the question still lacks context,” the Detective stopped for his normal pause here. Unable to help myself, I gave him his opening.

“Just what would this missing context be, sir?:

“Now you are asking the correct type of question Watson!” The Detective exclaimed with a smile.

“The missing context is the answer to a simple question: What are you trying to accomplish?” The Detective stated, warming to the subject.

“You see Watson, without an answer to the ‘what are you trying to accomplish’ question, you could go chasing down any number of rabbit holes in an attempt to answer the original question. In a sales situation, it could result in buying something that simply does not answer your needs, or getting confused and not buying anything at all. Without context, an answer to the ‘what is the best’ question is just a random guess at your intentions.

“This is why I ignore software reviews. ‘The Best’ for one person is not necessarily the best and may even be the worst, for another. Reviews reward comprehensive feature lists that in the opinion of the review author match the needs of some mythical group called ‘most users’. How the membership of that group is determined is beyond me. Now if you knew that certain features were actually relevant to your usage of the product, then knowing whether the software implements those features effectively might be useful,” The Detective paused again, looking at me expectantly, perhaps hoping for an interjection. I decided to oblige.

“So the question isn’t really what is the best, but rather what fits my needs the best.”

“Precisely Watson!”

“But what if you are not sure what you need?” I asked.

“That Watson, is the trick, and is a discussion for another time,” The Detective said, closing out this discussion.

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