Monday, January 28, 2013

Is There Something Tactile About Math Notes?

One of the things startups do a ton of is "market research." That's in quotes because the term conjures images of big fancy reports conducted by high end firms, and of course no startup can afford that. What we really do is talk to people. A lot. Particularly if we think they might be the type of person who could become a customer.

One of those conversations this weekend was with a friend who's studying to take an actuarial exam. He's a math guy; he estimated he spends 8-10 hours a day doing math and has about 300 books on math. So to say he'd be in our target market is a bit of an understatement.

We talked through his existing math process when he does problem sets. It was similar to just about everyone's we've spoken with (and our experience); pen and paper, a couple calculators, maybe some Excel, he'd given up on MATLAB years ago.

He said he'd tried all sorts of software, but nothing had ever replaced pen and paper, so I asked if he could imagine the perfect program, and, if that program existed, would he use it?

This led to a conversation about what we really do when we do math with a pen and paper. After about algebra one, math becomes more an exercise in symbols and manipulation than it is about numbers. That's part of why an even basic understanding of math is so frikkin' cool: It's screwing with the universe's rules, using code.

My friend acknowledged that there was something fulfilling about scribbling on paper and manipulating the symbols himself, and that he had always come back to writing by hand. As someone working on an online math program, this was troubling to hear. What if there was something inherently tactile about math that couldn't be replicated by a computer?

outdated math homework methods?
This remains state-of-the-art for some math homework.

But my friend pointed out that 20 years ago, we would have thought the idea that one should write letters on a TV screen was silly. The creation of art - one of the most tactile experiences in the world - has been completely expanded by technology. Sending a postcard is still fun, but so is texting a picture with Instagram. Finger painting stayed fun, but so is messing with images in Photoshop. And noodling around on a piano wasn't made obsolete by the fact that recording an album can be done well in a home studio today.

Technology can take experiences and make them even more rewarding by letting us focus on the parts we're looking for at any given moment. Sometimes, we want to scrawl out long equations and feel like Einstein at his Princeton blackboard, or diagram out what we're building because it's a cool project. Sometimes, we're on problem 7 of 43 and want this homework to be over as soon as possible. At FastFig, we've done both.
Einstein's princeton office
We share Al's understanding of desk organization.
But what we think is less important. What is your experience with math? Can a computer screen take the place of your process?

1 comment:

  1. Could be... I know many young people that keep writing the math by hand even after they were exposed to dedicated math-note-taking software (like the Math-o-mir). Being young, the reason for keeping the old practice is hardly conservatism.