The Thermometer vs. The X-Ray Machine

As a tech entrepreneur preoccupied with the impact of my work I love simple mental frameworks that provide perspective. One of these frameworks is the Thermometer vs. the X-Ray machine.

Ask yourself this: what you are trying to build is more like a thermometer or more like an X-Ray Machine?

It helps of course that one of the products that I am working on is a public health tool, with striking similarities to a thermometer, but this framework helped me with other products I worked on over the years and I argue it is useful to anyone building any products.

The Humble Thermometer

Consider the thermometer. It is not very precise at all in assessing our health. It simply gives us insights into a random variable – body temperature.

Yet, it is dirt cheap. It is easy to manufacture. Easy to use. Easy to carry around. Zero training needed. Works in any condition, anywhere. It is super versatile and can be used in thousands of different situations. 

The Mighty X-Ray Machine

The X Ray machine is a beast. Its output is very precise. Pointed at the right organ, it will give you objective, detailed facts related to what is going on there.

Yet, it is expensive. It takes a lot of space. It needs stable electricity. It needs a specially designed and purposely built location. It needs a trained operator and an expert to interpret its output. It only works in carefully controlled conditions. It needs consumables that are specialized and expensive.

Experts love X-ray machines, while regular people love thermometers.  

Thermometer: Force Multiplier

While the impact of the X-ray (in clinical medicine and beyond) has been enormous, I would argue that the humble thermometer has had a better impact return overall.

If you ask me, we need more thermometers. 

Everyone has a thermometer. Specialized surgeons find it useful, yet it works just as well in the hands of regular parents managing their child’s health. 

Imperfect as it may be as a tool, the thermometer is a perfect multiplier. By doing one thing very reliably and consistently (reading temperature), it removes doubt and therefore primes you for action: Fever? How high? If not too high, take some rest or pop an anti-inflammatory. If very high, dig deeper. Any pain? Any other symptoms? 

Temperature alone is pretty vague. But temperature plus other data points plus context? Very powerful: Temperature plus headache after you sat in the sun for a while? Heatstroke, almost certainly.  The thermometer facilitates these sorts of decision trees that are the foundation of any action.

The thermometer gets even better as it allows the establishment of patterns. Living at the tropics and fluctuating temperature every 3 days? Could be malaria. Temperature every time after you eat something? Maybe an allergy. Boom: action.  

Benefits over features

Thermometers are amazing because they create enormous value with a very low barrier of entry. And while they don’t give you clear answers, they are helping with elimination, triage and testing theories.   

Sure, it is easy to throw shade at the humble thermometer – and many are doing just that. It is unreliable, they say. It encourages people to self-medicate, which is always dangerous (the unwashed cannot be trusted with making clinical decisions). It gives people false scares/ hopes. It makes people doubt or even challenge the advice of the experts. It puts power in the hands of the masses.

They would rather have people lined up to be assessed by precise machines, operated by exhaustively educated experts. They would rather deal with objective, clinical facts. Sure, temperature is part of a professional assessment, but it needs to be interpreted by educated, experienced minds, they say.

And mostly, they are right. Except real world does’t work like that. 

People get sick at all sorts of inconvenient times. 

Millions live miles away from the closest X-ray machine or expert of any sort.

Millions more couldn’t afford the cost of an X-ray machine – or even the cost of seeing a doctor.

Access to expert services – the metaphoric X-ray and its operators –  is a luxury reserved for the very few. 

Thermometers are great equalizers. They are far from perfect, but the value they add relative to their cost is instant and enormous.

This is why, as an entrepreneur, I am all about building thermometers. With enough cash in the bank and enough experts on the team, anyone can actually build am X-ray machine. Paradoxically, building X-rays is a relatively easy problem.

Thermometers? they are harder. Because they are all about benefits and insights and understanding how the world works. Building one takes more than cash. If you are a startup, you should try to build thermometers!

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