Low Floors, High Ceilings

Making tools

Seymour Papert, the educationist and key thinker in the field of Artificial Intelligence, believed in a principle called “Low Floors, high ceilings”.

“When discussing technologies to support learning and education, my mentor Seymour Papert often emphasized the importance of “low floors” and “high ceilings.” For a technology to be effective, he said, it should provide easy ways for novices to get started (low floor) but also ways for them to work on increasingly sophisticated projects over time (high ceiling).”  – source.

I have written earlier about the ‘Low Floor’ part – good tools need to be accessible to everyone. In fact, that’s how one can even define disruption itself.

In the case of new-market footholds, disrupters create a market where none existed. Put simply, they find a way to turn nonconsumers into consumers. – source

But I had never really considered the ‘High Ceiling’ part. Of course a good tool must enable sophisticated output over time, else it will create boredom – there will not be much you could do with it.

This is why I love the humble pen and paper – they can be used by babies to scribble, by artists to draw, by architects and designers to sketch and by writers to reflect.

A 1-year old unleashed his energy on my notebook
A page with a sketch – from ‘A Pattern Language’ by architect Christopher Alexander

Communicating Ideas – do normal

Last night, I reflected that this principle for technology can also be used as a principle for communication. When you introduce something or someone, begin with a ‘low floor’ – start with a very simple, boring, even obvious description or idea.

But then build it up. Slowly, move it up a notch. And then another, so the audience can get the complexity and sophistication. This will make the audience feel smarter.

The best communicators do not claim they are smart, they make the listeners feel smart.

I experienced this last night. I met a product leader who seemed very nice, accessible and easy to talk to at the start. As our conversation progressed, I saw he was an intense person with solid ideas and experience.

And this is something I observe in Dutch culture. They say ‘Doe normaal‘. Literally translated as ‘Do normal’, which means, act normal, avoid weird things which attract attention.

Doe normaal

But while they start normal, they do take things up a notch after that. The work ethic, depth and even sharp honesty comes to the surface once you spend more time.

Low floor, high ceiling.

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