Thu 23 Mar
My first exposure to the “Getting Real” approach to Web application development came just about a year ago, in a session at the 2005 South by Southwest Interactive Festival given by the method’s putative leader, Jason Fried of 37signals. It was called “How to Make Big Things Happen with Small Teams,” and it was an hour-long primer on what then seemed like a completely counter-intuitive approach to creating hosted applications for businesses: do away with superfluous preparation and documentation, whittle your team of trusted collaborators down to no more than a very small handful, rush to build and rush to iterate — in short, just do it.
Since then, a lot has happened: using this organizing principle, 37signals has completely shifted away from its prior role as a trend-setting design consultancy, settling comfortably into an even more prominent role as an even more trend-setting ‘publisher’ of some of the highest profile Web applications anywhere. The company has released an unbroken series of critical hits: Backpack, Writeboard and Campfire — that have become nearly ubiquitous in industry discussion. In a dovetailing effect, the socialized Internet concept of Web 2.0 has become even more unavoidable: seemingly everyone is authoring new, hosted applications, and in a weird twist of deja vu that harkens back to another era that just passed us, like, twenty minutes ago, everyone is starting to get incredibly rich off of these Web applications. It’s the old Web, except that it’s a new Web.
For a methodology that, eighteen months ago, would get you laughed out of any whiteboarding session in town, it’s been a gangbuster ride to the forefront of the popular imagination — or at least the imaginations of would-be Web moguls everywhere, and of those of us who were hesitant to join the fray. Along the way, I myself went from being something of skeptic of the “Getting Real” method to something of a convert — and then, somehow, to being a provider of two supporting quotes in what can be fairly described as the de facto bible of this philosophy, a book released last month by 37signals entitled (what else?) “Getting Real.”
So what, then, to make of the book version of this prevailing methodological trend? If ever the medium were the message, this is a prime example: the book is not a book in the traditional sense, but a downloadable PDF that can only be bought with the help of a Web browser. And clearly it reads that way, too. Its tone is casual and unforced, eschewing the formalities one might find in the kinds of books for which trees die: meticulously explained terms, qualified descriptions and an attention to the fineries of grammar and punctuation are all missing. The difference between “Getting Real” as an electronic document and a similar book that might have been printed, shipped and sold on shelves is the tonal difference between an editor that works in a tee-shirt out of a coffee shop and an editor in a full suit at his desk in a Manhattan skyscraper.
It’s not great literature, but then again literature is hardly the point. “Getting Real” makes little pretense at being anything more than a friendly explication of a particular working methodology. But its insistent modesty belies two characteristics that make it, if not literature, then something still more than what it seems: these hallmarks are the authors’s indelible sense of conviction, and the book’s particular place in history.
Even without putting on airs, the language in this book is emphatic. With chapter titles like “Hire the Right Customers,” “Start with No,” and “Actions, Not Words,” there’s an uncompromising and unpretentious assuredness present that’s rare in design writing. The book is full of advice and guidance, true, but it’s also suffused with succinct and narrow declarations like this one, on finding the right market for your application:
“If you’re having this problem, it’s likely that hundreds of thousands of others are in the same boat. There’s your market. Wasn’t that easy?”
Jarringly definitive statements like these abound, making it hard to read “Getting Real” as anything other than a manifesto, a rallying cry for the geekiest and best-typeset revolution ever.
You can hardly fault 37signals for this, because this is who they are. If you turn to them for lessons, you need to prepare yourself not for a series of helpful pointers, but for what practically amounts to a total belief system: a highly opinionated, take-no-prisoners attitude that informs nearly everything they do. It’s in full evidence on the company’s Signal vs. Noise weblog, which regularly dispenses and debates their evolving philosophy, and to great effect. In an industry crowded on the one end by faceless and overrated agencies of great scale, and on the other by individual stars basking in the glow of individual success stories, 37signals have staked ground as the player with the most complete and comprehensive world view. They’re playing on an entirely different level than most of us.
Though “Getting Real” makes no overt pretense at becoming a classic of developmental theory, its emphatic language suggests otherwise — as does its place in history. A year on, the common-sense tenets of the Getting Real method are becoming common wisdom: smaller is better, less interface is more, build for the now and not for the unknown. Even if you refute the overarching narrative of Getting Real, its components are being disseminated with great success, such that more and more designers and developers are employing its methods, oftentimes without the explicit awareness that they’re even doing so. This is the zeitgeist.
Given that, it’s hard to deny “Getting Real” as, at least, important documentation of this particular point in the evolution of design and development for the Web. You could say that historically, it’s not to be missed, and that would be true; if you want to have a first hand look at how this industry’s working methods are changing, this is the book to read. But if you’re resigned to being passively buoyed by shifting trends, then you can skip it: before too long, anything of consequence to be found between its digital covers will be fully dispersed in standard practices. It’s Jason Fried’s world, after all. We just develop in it.