Ask Questions When Choosing Tools

When each of us decides which digital tools best fit our needs, we often face trade-offs. On one hand, many of us prefer easy-to-learn tools, especially those with a drag-and-drop interface, but they often force us to settle for limited options. On the other hand, we also favor powerful tools that allow us to control and customize our work, yet most of these require higher-level coding skills. The goal of this book is to find the best of both worlds: that “sweet spot” where tools are both friendly and flexible.

Diagram: the ‘sweet spot’ for easy-to-learn and powerful tools

Before testing out new tools, try listing the criteria that guide your decision-making process. What are the most important factors that influence whether or not you add another item to your digital toolkit? Here’s the list that came to our minds:

  1. Price: Is the tool free, or is there a “freemium” model to pay for more features or higher usage?
  2. Easy-to-learn: Is the tool relatively simple for new users without coding skills?
  3. Power: Does the tool support large amounts of data, and various types of visualizations?
  4. Customization: Can I modify details about how my work appears?
  5. Data Migration: Can I easily move my data in and out, in case I switch to a different tool? Hint for historians: Future-proof your digital history projects! Choose tools that allow you to easily export and migrate data to other platforms. Design projects to keep your data separate from its digital presentation.
  6. Hosting: Can I decide exactly where my data and visualizations will be stored online?
  7. Support: Is the tool actively maintained by its creators, and do they answer questions?
  8. Open Source: Is the tool’s software visible, can it be modified, and redistributed?
  9. Security: Is the tool and my data protected from malicious hackers and malware?
  10. Collaborative: Does the tool allow several people to work together on one shared product?
  11. Privacy: Under the terms of service, is my data and work private or public?
  12. Error-friendly: When something fails, does the tool point out possible problems and solutions?
  13. Cross-platform: Does this tool work across different computer operating systems?
  14. Mobile-friendly: Will it correctly display my work on various mobile devices and browsers?

That’s a long list! It’s even longer than the number of tools we’ll mention in this book. But don’t let it overwhelm you. The diagram at the top of the page illustrates the two most important criteria for the many free tools that are currently available: easy-to-learn and powerful features.

TODO: expand on privacy to review sample “terms of service” to use free tools such as Google Drive -,store%20in%20your%20Drive%20account. - See alimSpyingStudentsSchool2017 - Many of the free web-based tools in this book require that your publicly share your data. Check each tool and decide whether it is appropriate for your data, which may have some privacy restrictions.

Learn more about choosing tools

Carl V. Lewis, A curated guide to the best tools, resources and technologies for data visualization,

Lincoln Mullen, “How to Make Prudent Choices About Your Tools,” ProfHacker blog, Chronicle of Higher Education, August 14, 2013,

Lisa Charlotte Rost, “What I Learned Recreating One Chart Using 24 Tools,” Source, December 8, 2016,

Lisa Spiro and colleagues, DiRT: Digital Research Tools Directory (formerly Bamboo),

Audrey Watters, “‘The Audrey Test’: Or, What Should Every Techie Know About Education?,” Hack Education, March 17, 2012,