37 Signals interview

by Andy Polaine on March 26, 2007

In keeping with my re-release of prior interviews and articles I have written, here is the one with the good folks at 37Signals. It’s a little out of date in terms of some of the content and applications they refer to, but the wisdom is still there and worth a read.

37signals – Less is more

Back in the late 90s most web companies were busy grinding new features and technologies against the constraints of poorly designed browsers and a lack of standards. Then, in 1999, a four-person web design company called 37signals put their manifesto online and links to it started appearing everywhere. The manifesto espoused the virtues of simplicity, elegance and standards-based design as well as remaining small and focused on what they did best. “Less is more” wasn’t cool back then, but they stuck to their principles and now the rest of the web is catching up.

“Back in the 90s everyone wanted to ‘staff up’,” says founder Jason Fried. “It mystified me. We stayed on message and didn’t try to be something we weren’t. Everyone else wanted to be Razorfish or Agency.com or Organic. We wanted to be 37signals.” The four had plenty of experience working for the big guns but felt they could do a better job themselves. Although Fried and Matt Linderman are the only two left from the original team (Carlos Segura and Ernest Kim left, amicably, to pursue other careers), history has seen them left standing whilst some of the big names went under.

Most of 37signal’s work tends to be functional sites where their design approach enables people to achieve something better than they had previously. Obviously this arena is ripe for the philosophy of simplicity and functionality, but the danger is that the design can become dry and boring. It’s a fine line to tread.

“Anything can be boring in the wrong hands,” argues Fried. “Simplicity is boring when it’s only surface-level simplicity. Simplicity needs to be at the root of the solution so the answer is obvious and useful. No one is bored by something that works well, but plenty of people are bored by products or sites or interfaces that over promise and under deliver.

“It’s boring and painful to work with a product that makes you feel like you are a fool. We really like to focus on transactional sites. I guess that’s just our comfort zone, the place that we feel we can add the most value. We like to help people accomplish things.”

A look through their portfolio shows ample evidence of this approach, but the most enlightening work is their 37better project where they offer solutions, not just complaints. 37better projects are sites that 37signals has analysed and re-designed pro bono to show how it could be done. Some of the targets include banks, Google, FedEx and a vision for the future of automobile telematics.

“37BetterBank, is my favourite,” says Fried. “I’m still unimpressed by most online banking interfaces. They’ve definitely gotten better, no doubt, but there’s so much room for improvement. Most of the interfaces that I’ve seen are feature-based instead of task-based. And that’s where I think the problem lies.

“37BetterFedEx definitely garnered the most attention because it was focused on a brand instead of a general idea. And I think anyone who used the FedEx interface knew that it could be much better. They eventually redesigned it, but I think it still suffers from many of the same issues. They did contact us about our design by saying ‘Nice try, but wait till you see what we’ve got coming.’ Their current design was their answer, but I’m still not thrilled with it. Better than before, yes, but not 37better!”

It is in these areas that 37signals excel, but is the web only about achieving goals? Buying things, doing things, searching for things are all areas that the web has greatly enhanced, but interaction design and this new form of communication isn’t just about creating better tools. Sony’s Playstation 2 site, The Third Place (now offline), explored a completely difference web experience. Fried remains unconvinced and we’ll have to agree to disagree.

“For some reason bands and movies think they need to show off the latest technologies on their sites,” he says. “I don’t quite understand the correlation. You can be cool without movement. You can be cool without confusion. You can be cool without trying to hard. Bands like Wilco and Cake get that. Most others don’t.

“Why carry the metaphor of a movie over? The movie is the movie. The web site is the web site. They do different things, tell different stories, and serve different purposes. Design shouldn’t ignore context. But each their own. Flashy designy sites aren’t my cup of tea, but I’m not going to say they are wrong or bad – they just are what they are. Maybe that’s what the people want. I still believe that people want clarity, not confusion and clutter.”

37signals have also turned their design process around in an approach much more akin to product design and prototyping than graphic design. “We have a saying ‘Get Real’ which means we want to be in front of the real design (the HTML-based interface) for as long as possible. Thinking, drawing, plotting, sketching, all these things are nice, but they aren’t real. They’re abstracted from the real experience. You can’t use them. And when you can’t use them you can’t experience them. We think real design breakthroughs come from experiencing the design, tweaking, experiencing again, tweaking, etc. Great solutions come from working through the problems in the real world. It’s all about iterating the real thing until you’ve nailed it.”

A recent venture is the creation of own product, Basecamp, a web-based project management tool. It is Fried’s favourite project to date, born out of their own needs and in recognition that thousands of other companies would love the same thing. Basecamp follows the less is more strategy as opposed to Microsoft’s feature bloated, but unusable, software.

“We knew this product would help small businesses and building something like that is always a thrill,” explains Fried. “It allowed us to be our own client which meant we could do whatever we wanted, whatever we believed would be best for the product.

“It was quite a liberating experience. So much so that we’re taking on much less client work now so we can focus on serving our Basecamp customers, improving Basecamp, and building new products (like the recently released Ta-da List. I highly recommend every design shop build something for themselves beyond their own website. Build a product. Sell a product. See what the world looks like from that side. You’ll learn a ton.”

(UPDATE: It’s been a while since I originally wrote this and obviously Backpack, Basecamp, et al have gone from strength to strength as has Ruby on Rails. 37Signals really blazed a trail for smart web apps. I still disagree that the web is all about functionality and tools, but if you’re going to make tools, 37signals show the way. I can also wholeheartedly recommend their book, Getting Real, especially the chapter on why Meetings are Toxic).

This article originally appeared in the March 2005 issue of Desktop magazine. ©2005 Niche Media Pty. Ltd & Andy Polaine. N.B. This article is not covered by Playpen’s Creative Commons agreement.

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