Friday, June 26, 2015

The Amazon Effect spreads my "local" hardware store.

OSH has revamped their branch to be tighter organized by project, instead of the former organization by general category. This makes a certain sense in their desire to serve more DIY traffic; the hope is that someone will walk in saying "I want to put a new sink in the bathroom" and they will be directed to a part of the store that has everything to put a sink in, but only what it takes to put a sink in; no confusing options or related tools or parts.

This is of course entirely bogus for any project that can't be so easily categorized. And I don't just mean prop creation. What about if you are trying to repair an existing sink? What about if you are trying to put a sink into a non-standard room? What if you are trying to hook up one of the small on-demand water heaters that are getting increasingly popular? Or what if you are putting in a shower, but several of the parts are shared and usually found closer to the sink section?

Even my second favorite online electronics source -- Adafruit -- has succumbed to this. Their site is now primarily organized to require you to drill down by application. So are the LED driver chips in Cosplay, or in Arduino?

Not saying the reverse can't be an excess. Digikey offers everything, period. You drill down using consecutive booleans, and hope you didn't over-specify too early in the search (as in, limiting your parameters to switches in the 500ma range as you try to find smaller and smaller switches, without realizing the keyboard type switches you are looking for actually have a higher rating and thus are not showing up in your selection).

But you can do a two-tier system. Generalized search, paralleled by helpers. Amazon and Adafruit both do this...the problem is the lead-you-by-the-nose search is prioritized to the detriment of even basic functionality of the more open search. In Amazon's case, boolean search terms are largely broken and the filters are too open. And there are excessive pop-ups taking bandwidth from your computer and, more importantly, your own attention, each desperately hoping they've found the One True Box that you will then make lots of purchases from. Adafruit, unfortunately, takes the latter to an excess mostly due to the huge graphics and code load of their current pages. It is all but impossible to navigate their site with DSL now -- I need to go into the shop to use the ultra-fast connection there!

Philosophically... well, that is part of the process of learning anything. That is, learning the envelope, the parameters. How are things called? How are they categorized by the majority of users? You learn, over time, that a handsaw does wood, a hacksaw does metal, but both are hand tools. So if you want the latter, you look for hand tools but steer away from the obvious wood-working tools. In everything you attempt you find yourself needing to learn the names, the concepts, the implicit groupings; the territory.

You learn how the slag hammer is used when you learn to weld (stick, that is), and thus you know the name and shape of it and know it will probably be found with the wire brush and the sparkers, not with the mallets and the claw hammers. And this is true whether you are in a workshop or at a hardware store. Or in the Grainger catalog.

Sorting things by "Here is all you ever need to know in order to do one specific task" short-circuits this entire learning process. And to me, it is as bad -- as well as being all-too-similar -- to the Amazon urge to "Find me another book that is as identical as possible to the one I just finished reading, and don't open my mind to the wealth of other choices that are out there."

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