Addressing your specific question, I’d break what is intrinsically hard about Tinderbox into two phases: before you use it and when you are learning it.
I looked at Tinderbox probably once a year for many years and never quite understood what it “did”. It is hard in retrospect to know what exactly confused me but I think it was talk of agents and that the agents did things for you like filing. That was appealing. But when I tried to find this exact thing, I couldn’t and I didn’t see the building blocks. Sometimes I thought TB was an outliner and sometimes a mind map. Initially I thought the attributes were basically a ludicrously deluxe system for tagging. I read many of the case studies on the site, but they were never detailed enough for me to get it. (I think what I wanted was something like Beck Tench’s videos, maybe Dominique Renaud’s too.)
So, if I’m harsh, when I read that Tinderbox “is a personal content assistant that helps you visualize, analyze, and share your notes, plans, and ideas,” I don’t know what that means. What is a personal content assistant? What is personal content? An assistant is usually a person who helps me by doing tasks for me. It is not obvious how to map those ideas onto the software features described on the website.
Is it intrinsically difficult to describe Tinderbox? Yes, probably. That is why there are so many threads in which someone says Tinderbox is not very good as a such and such type of application, and the chorus comes back it is not such and such type of application, it is a toolbox. That’s not the wrong answer, but there does not seem to be a boilerplate alternative. Instead we get talk of toolboxes and platforms.
If someone knows Hypercard, I tell them TB is like Hypercard and then explain the likeness. Otherwise I start by talking about notes, hierarchies of notes, visualisations of notes, adding date attributes, then visualising in timeline view using those attributes, and then smart adornments, and then try to relate it to some task I think they may undertake.
One way in which the main marketing page for Tinderbox fails, IMHO, is that it does not have the discipline of FAB: give the feature and then the benefit, as concretely as possible. The copy is exciting and promises a lot, but never quite reached me.
My suggestion for a solution in the first instance: run a competition to describe Tinderbox in 300 words or so.
Somehow, I’m not sure why, I decided really to try to use Tinderbox. I do not remember quite what moved me to break through, it may have been something as trivial as the visual overhaul around version 7 (?). I seem to recall that I began by scrupulously following the two tutorials “Getting started with Tinderbox” and “Actions and Dashboards”. (I wish there were a like tutorial for the export template/language.) That made a very big difference. It would be interesting to know how many people really use those tutorials.
Is Tinderbox intrinsically hard to learn to use? If one does those two tutorials rather than read them, in my opinion, no. That is, one can get a basic competence in Tinderbox with an investment of a few hours structured by the tutorials.
On the other hand, without a structured practical application such as in the tutorials, I’d say it probably is hard. That suggests it is not intrinsically hard, but that it requires a short term immersion rather than casual progression. So, by comparison, TB is harder than Excel. You can do a lot of “small” things in Excel without learning about the myriad other things it can do. And you can add a few of those myriad things at a time. It is in this sense atomistic. TB is more holistic.
After basic competence, I think how well you get on with Tinderbox may depend on your background in other areas. If you’re an engineer, that might help. If you’re a programmer, that helps. But being a psychologist or a semiotician might help just as much once you map your concepts to TB’s concepts and understand the toolset. Lots of psychologists use R for statistics (www.r-project.org) but do not consider themselves programmers. It would help though to set expectations for different groups, e.g. this is going to require some special syntax.
For example, I’m still surprised there is no language guide to Action Code from Eastgate. I just expect programming languages to be more or less formally documented. There is atbRef, but it freaks me out that this resource is so essential to the use of TB. (I think, “What if something happens to Mark Anderson?”) (I also worry, “What if something happens to Mark Bernstein?”)
Another thing is that I am not sure that the explanations in Tinderbox documentation are always good ones, because they seem to me too often to eschew analogies with other tools. For example, the TB help first describes an agent this way: “Tinderbox agents scan your document constantly, looking for notes that meet criteria you have specified. When an agent finds a note that meets its criteria, it creates an alias of that note inside the agent.” I would find this very hard to understand if I did not already know about TB agents. Where are these agents? In what way do they “scan” my document? Where do I tell the agents my criteria? The language confuses because there is criteria I “have specified” but then it is “its” criteria that the agent uses. Are they the same? And then, an agent creates an alias to a note “inside” itself. What the hell does that mean? So much is assumed. So much that is weird. It is weird to an outsider that a note can also be a container, i.e. like a folder. It is weird that an agent is also a note.
Roughly, I’d say an agent is a folder containing the results of a saved search. If you want, you can automatically execute some operation on the results of that search. The search results are updated automatically and the operation runs in the background.
I think I understand why Tinderbox documentation is written this way. Tinderbox is a revolutionary tool and it brings with it a different way of conceiving information, structuring it, and using it. There is both a different logical world view and a one-of-a-kind software interface into that world. And there is an intellectual vision behind it, The Tinderbox Way. These things are great and I have learned from them and internalised them. But if the learning curve is to be eased, I’d suggest more use of direct or familiar analogies with other tools and concepts, even if this might seem to make Tinderbox more ordinary.