Wednesday, 24 November 2010

37signals applications: just a text box

Back in 2009, at the Business of Software conference, Joel Spolsky cracked a joke about how simplistic 37signals applications are. It's at 14'00'' in this video:

To save you forwarding the video, Joel says this:

"You can try out [37signals apps] on their website, or if you have Notepad, just make an HTML page and put a big text area in it and that will give you a taste of what these applications do." [Audience dissolves into laughter]

Joel then goes on to say that the 37signals mantra of "less features, not more" doesn't work outside of 37signals. He says that in most people's experience adding more features gets more customers and increases revenue

Anyway, the joke was (presumably) meant to be mildly derogatory, but then David Heinemeier Hansson (37signals founder) actually uses a similar analogy in his own description of 37signals products here:

"Email is incredibly simple, basically just a text box that you can send to other people ... if we can just be one step above that, then we’re doing pretty well."

I just think that's kind of interesting. I'm not sure quite what to make of it, to be honest. I think I'm broadly with Joel on this one. Making an application sparse on features doesn't necessarily make it more usable. You can still have a feature-rich product which is easy to use (think iPhone, Zendesk, Xero, Google Maps). Or a sparsly-featured product which is hard to use (think alarm clocks, digital central heating programmers, home wifi networks, etc.)

Given the choice between developing something simple-and-usable or feature-rich-and-usable, I'd go with feature-rich-and-usable.

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Anonymous said...

anybody can add features. Making it usable is the hard part.

I think DHH would like a feature-rich application that is usable as well. Can you point us to some?

Aymeric said...

I wrote about the topic of over-simplicity on my blog, mentioning 37signals:

Bruce Greig said...

@Anonymous: Absolutely agree that the hard part is not adding features, but making the product usable. I gave a few examples in the post of feature-rich applications which (I think) are easy to use (Zendesk helpdesk software; the iPhone; Xero accounting software; Google Maps). And FogBugz (Joel Spolsky's own product) would be another. I'm sure there are plenty more examples -- usability is not incompatible with feature-richness.

Indeed, adding features can certainly make a product more usable. For example, the fact that Xero gets bank transaction data fed in direct from your bank and so automates the otherwise manual process of doing a bank reconciliation, makes it more usable than an accounting product lacking that feature.

@Aymeric: Good post. Thanks for commenting here.