C’mon Feel the Signalz

37signalsMy 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.

The Methodology with the Mostest

Below: Do you feel real? Without the constraints of offset printing, the ’signals cut loose on the cover of their new, PDF-only book.

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.

Getting Real Book Cover

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.”

You’ve Surfed the Blog Posts, Now Buy the Book

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.

The Web 2.0ist Manifesto

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.

The History of Now

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.

  1. I like most of the 37signals concepts, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t growing increasing tired of hearing about them from
    37signals themselves.

    In the Jason and Jim show at SXSW, I really felt like Jason came off
    as quire pretentious, what with his obvious digs at a certain news
    website and his “Yahoo is wasting money on you” answer to an audience member’s question. It just really felt like a “our way is the only way, and if you’re doing it another way, you’re stupid” spiel, even though Jason explicitly said otherwise. To me, their methodology works great in small groups and with the right kind of people, but definitely doesn’t apply to all situations.

    I have a lot of respect for what those guys have done, and I think
    most of their software is very good — I just liked their attitude a
    lot better when back they still talked about things other than
    themselves on their blog. Signal vs. Noise used to be one of the most interesting blogs on the internet, covering all sorts of great topics — and now it feels like most of it is “here’s why we’re great, here’s why our competition sucks, and here’s some funny stuff David said in IRC this week.”

  2. “To me, their methodology works great in small groups and with the right kind of people, but definitely doesn’t apply to all situations.”

    We completely agree.

    From page 10 of the book:

    “If our tone seems too know-it-allish, bear with us. We think it’s better to present ideas in bold strokes then to be wishy-washy about it. If that comes off as cocky or arrogant, so be it. We’d rather be provocative than water everything down with “it depends…” Of course there will be times when these rules need to be stretched or broken. And some of these tactics may not apply to your situation. Use your judgement and imagination.”

  3. Well, as long as you know you’re being cocky and arrogant! 🙂

    Seriously, Jason — I think you guys have done a lot of great stuff and I commend you for it. You deserve the accolades you’ve received. I just think you’d be best served to remember where you came from and not let it all go to your heads (which, if I’m being honest, is the way it looks to an outsider).

    But, that’s just my opinion, and it certainly doesn’t make your work any less impressive.

  4. While I’ll admit to agreeing with Jeff in moments of frustration in dark alleys, I’m starting to think of 37signals the way I thought about the web standardistas of yore. They take a lot of flack for hammering the same points from the people who already get it. “Ok, we heard it the first time.”

    But for the most port, 37signals have picked points worth hammering. And if them being out there pushing those points to the people who still don’t get it means more people get it, then that’s great. And if that means I get a little sick of hearing it, and they take a little heat for coming off as know-it-alls, well, OK I can deal with it if they can. More power to the new new web. It’s all about ego this time.

  5. “and not let it all go to your heads”

    I can assure you it hasn’t.

    We’re enjoying this moment and trying to get the message out. While it may sound repetitive in some circles, there are *plenty* of people in corporate America that haven’t heard the message. We’ll continue to hammer away and make strong points. Those are the kind of points that get heard.

    Thanks for your thoughts and encouragement.

  6. Jason,

    You’re right on with the “*plenty* of people in corporate America that haven’t heard…” comment. And I think that is why some people may have a perception of arrogance by 37signals. 37signals don’t have to answer to corporate America anymore because they’re (possibly) done doing client work….and that frustrates those that “believe” and feel they can’t do anything about it. They’re trapped (myself included at times with client work I do).

    It’s easier to get irritated at the hero for being a hero than to make the villian understand why the good side is so good.

    Or something like that… 🙂

  7. One of my sig files says “It ain’t braggin’ if you can do it.” It’s a quote attributed to old-school baseball player Dizzy Dean (then again, are you an “old school” player if you played during the old school days? But I digress…).

    I too have perceived the cockiness, and use none of the 37S apps. Have no need for ’em. 37S is more a human interest story to me, as bragging and “doing it” are not the same thing as “people liking you for it.” Pissing off people may get you some PR, but at SOME point, somewhere, it’ll bite you in the butt, and that bite will be larger than a single customer here and there deciding not to buy into the service(s).

    For someone who believes “actions, not words” Jason sure is quick to respond here to mere words. 🙂 But to the charge “they’re a little too cocky for my taste,” there really can be nothing but action: responding here with words won’t likely change anyone’s opinion.

  8. I think there’s a lot of merit in this whole approach, but I have to admit I’m very, very tired of how it’s being delivered. I can’t help but be reminded of Jakob Nielsen’s approach: generally speaking, he was right, too, but people sure got sick of the “I’m right and you’re wrong” delivery.

    Jason, I have a ton of respect for the work you guys have done, and I can understand that you’re trying to speak in a language and tone that cuts through to your target audience, but keep in mind we (the choir) have to listen to it, too. 🙂

  9. Neil…

    You’re the second person I’ve heard make the Nielsen comparison. The quote I overheard was “Jason Fried is the Jakob Nielsen of Web 2.0.”

    True or not, you have to admit it’s pretty damn funny. 🙂

  10. Responding to the comments here: 37signals inspired a generation. They have every right to be proud of it and perhaps, in moderation, even boast about it.

    I don’t know Jason, personally, beyond a few online conversations. I give Jason tons of credit for being the mastermind behind the movement. He has good reason to feel empowered by that. However it seems to me that, in many cases, the way Jason expresses that power is downright tasteless and sometimes even childish. Because of this, at face value, Jason comes across as a dick.

    On the flip side of this, Matt – online – comes across as a dick too. We all remember his “I’m too good for this meme” meme post don’t we? However, having met Matt many times here in NY, I’ve found him to be a surprisingly nice, humble, respectable, and down to earth guy.

    So, then, is Jason really a dick? Whom I to say. If so, is he entitled? In my opinion, there’s seldom an excuse for being be plain rude in the face of flattery.

    I don’t believe 37signals is who they are because of the products they’ve made. I mean, most of us who have been trully inspired by their work long for the days of the 37manifesto – back when Singlefile was bound to flop and Spinfree was forgotten.

    The 37idealogy has evolved from a feeling of “doing good and designing good because we are good people” into “Get real because you suck and we rule”.

    I think we all miss the 37signals that would say things like “The people who visit web sites aren’t users – They’re real PEOPLE, just like you and me.”. I know I do.

    That’s Real. I hope they “Get It”.

  11. “I don’t believe 37signals is who they are because of the products they’ve made.”

    I don’t completely agree with this statement (I do think 37signals’ products are pretty great, and that they account for at least a good portion of “who they are”), but I find it interesting and related to something I’ve been thinking about a lot latley.

    The fact is that, in the blogophere, the “big names” are often “the big names” because they’re talking about it. The reality is that there are a bunch of people out there who are every bit as good of web designers as the Dave Sheas and Dan Cederholms of the world (just to pick a two random examples) — but Dan and Dave got to where they are, industry-presence-wise, by talking about it. By blogging and putting their name out there, they’ve put their name on the map. They’re talented people, but what really got them to where they are is talking about it. That’s just good business and I love that they talk about it — but I’ve recently been on a bit of a “search” for the other people out there whose names we don’t know. I know they’re out there, and I shall find them! 🙂

    37signals is a bit the same way. While they do make good products and they do have some nice philosophies, the thing that has really let them ascend to where they are is talking about it.

  12. I think Khoi’s term “total belief system” best frames this discussion.

    Perhaps its a hard-earned luxury of designing for themselves now rather than for specific clients’ needs, but the best way to shape your desired future is to start believing in your strategy and basing your every decision on that. If you’re fortunate, and good, you might just pioneer your reality.

    Listening to Jason critique functional specs in favor of rapid prototyping (at SXSW) left me to think ulimately, “there are benefits to both methods, its just a matter of how ballsy you are to put things into practice in the face of various pressures.” I applaud the gumption to get right at an application’s design from the proper perspective, but also believe that certail aspects of proper planning are completely essential to development. Which leaves me no good soapbox to broadcast from.

    Not sure if I’m “resigned to being passively buoyed by shifting trends,” but rather take 37Signals approach as an anchor on one side of the spectrum, against which to contrast/measure/debate. The only way to respect their viewpoints or be inspired is to know they believe in them completely and unreservedly.

  13. Adam, I’m insulted. How dare you call me respectable! ; )

    Re: 37signals tone…We like people who say what they mean, have strong opinions, and don’t apologize for it. So that’s the way we talk too. Obsessing over being polite, inoffensive, and mature is nice but also a bit dull. So we choose a different path. If ya don’t like it, feel free to stop reading.

  14. Jeff: My comment wasn’t intented to put 37s products in a bad light. Like them or love them they are what they are – a grand success.

    I can find things I love and things I hate about all their products. I simply feel like they are, well, besides the point.

    As evidence, I wanted to point out that they had good products before Basecamp. Even though they may have been every bit as good, they weren’t a success. Most don’t even know about them.

    In otherwords, I agree with you. It’s what they’ve said, what they’ve talked about that’s made them the fixture they are.

    Their products, as their products of past, will come and go. Their theories, as Khoi suggests, might just forever.

  15. Matt: That sounds great. I’m all for saying what you mean, having strong opinions, and sticking to your guns. Acting like a spoiled baby though, I don’t know, I think I’d call that more wearisome than exciting.

    If you’re going to wax philosophically and all but insist people adhere to your theories then, all I’m saying is, you should practice what you preach.

    As for the respectable part, ok, maybe you are just a dick… but you seem scrappy so I bit my tongue 😀

  16. I’ve purchased and read the book, and think it is full of brilliant ideas. I like the confident attitude it displays in conveying the information. They believe passionately in their approach – that is a positive thing. If you respond passionately that it’s an incorrect approach, then that means you have something else that “works for you”. That is also a good thing.

    However, far too many people are listening to the tone, and missing the message. If you get offended, or put off, by someone believing strongly in something – I can only imagine that you surround yourself with weak willed people. To me, the tone fits – even if I may go about something in a different way, I like to see people who can approach something with no-nonsense confidence.

  17. Adam, you’re calling Jason a dick, rude, and a spoiled baby. And you think *he’s* the one with the problem?

    Jason is talking about what he believes and putting it out there for other people to learn from. He’s said numerous times that he doesn’t think it’s right for everyone. In the SxSW keynote he said listen to everyone, take a little from here and a little from there, and come away with your own ideas. There is no one right idea. That seems awfully level headed to me.

    Remember that when you call someone a dick, rude, and a spoiled baby it says a lot more about *you* than it does about them.

  18. This is a very interesting, and also symptomatic disscusion, I think.

    I personaly haven’t bought or read “The book” (we don’t have an adequate payment system in Croatia yet). But, just from reading the key phrases and messages of it, and a post about it here and there, I learned, or better yet, framed a new way of thinking about the world around me. To give an example, the before mentioned quote:

    “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?”

    is an extremely powerfull idea.
    But, rather than saying:

    “finding the right market for your application”

    I interpret it for myself as:

    “finding the right application for your market”.

    This has gotten me breaking limits of the way I think, day by day. Ideas come to mind, so bold, and so obviously usefull, day by day. Some of them are just an attempt of recognition, of the things that hold back the further development of the web industry in my country (it’s still a baby in dipers).

    So, I guess I’m just gratefull for the inspiration, whatever it’s wrapped in.

    And about being rude, uptight and stuff like that, perhaps it would be best for the folks at 37s to expand their team with a psychologist who would phrase up their public appearences. If possible, a sexy, good looking, female psychologist…. That might help a bit.

  19. Craig (who is this anonymous Craig posting everywhere anyway?),

    I never said Jason IS a dick. Like I did say, I don’t know the man. The only signal (save for some brief encounters with David) whom I can put a face to is Matt… who is quite likable.

    I was speaking broadly to the wide perception of Jason as I see/read it here, in these comments, and elsewhere.

    I was hoping to shed some light on these perceptions, however I think I may be the one who’s been enlightened here. I suppose you simply can’t speak your mind without pissing SOMEONE off. Some will hate you, some will love with you, I suppose that’s a fact of life I need to accept for myself and others (whether I love them or hate them).

    As for me, though, yeah… I can definately be a dick. I’m young and, more often than I’d like, I act it. I would never be so bold as to suggest myself as the model of maturity. 😉

    Now, Craig, if you’re the same Craig posting as just Craig everywhere else, why not put some weight behind your posts with an identity?

  20. “I was hoping to shed some light on these perceptions, however I think I may be the one who’s been enlightened here. I suppose you simply can’t speak your mind without pissing SOMEONE off. Some will hate you, some will love with you, I suppose that’s a fact of life I need to accept for myself and others (whether I love them or hate them).”

    That is a fact of life and the stronger your opinion the more passionate both sides become. The lovers and the haters want to be heard. It’s just part of sticking your neck out and saying something different and disruptive.

  21. Agreed.

    At lunch recently, Khoi said something along the lines of “While I envy the position [37signals] is in, I would not want to be in their position.”.

    It made sense then, but it’s clearer now.

  22. if you are trying to be a marketer then you can live by rules such as.

    Step 1: Don’t write a functional specifications document.

    because sales people, and marketers don’t do that… what they do is what Jason Fried says ‘write a one page story’..

    now i admit a one page story, and a prototype layout are enough for a small team to build an application, and for it to work.. and even work nicely.. But at the cost of expandibility, and functionality.

    this being said if all you are looking for is vc capital then you should build your application fast.. have a 1 page story.. then when it’s time to expand, and add functionality hopefully you’ll have a treasure chest of vc capital enough to do your first re-write of your application.. and well frankly your first real design spec..

    which comes to another reason where jason’s logic is actually what leads to the headaches many design specs come to.. if there was a design spec when you wore a small team you wouldn’t be going through the politics of having to write one when your team gets bigger..
    big companys have problems because they wore small companys once.. small companys are lax on design specs because frankly design specs cost money in the application development cycle.. the “take what i wrote on this napkin, and make it work” simply does not scale.. so many years later when it comes to design some spec docs.. every head in the room(heads that should not be in the design process i might add) wants to put unnecesary rules into the doc. which causes madness, and then causes someone to write a book to ‘get real’.. which is what we should be doing.. small groups can ‘get real’ write good clean properly thought out spec docs which large groups can’t..

    all i’m saying is there is a middle ground here, and i think jason may have overshot.. much in the same way the ‘extreme/agile’ application development cycle led people down the complete opposite road just a couple years ago.

  23. If there’s anything I’ve learned from SXSW and the IA Summit this year it’s that it’s possible to simultaneously taste great and have less filling.

    You can take a part of someone’s successful user interface design or development process ideas and integrate them with your own preconceptions to form a more powerful approach, something more than what you had before.

    Hell, even if only 10% of Getting Real is actually useful to you, and even if the rest seems like useless crap, then you’ve actually really benefitted a lot from 37 Signals’ work. If Jason seems arrogant or Matt seems like a dick, imagine how much of an arrogant dick Steve Jobs might seem to you, too.

  24. I have mixed feelings about the messages from ‘Signals. (Disclaimer: I haven’t read the book, but I’ve seen lots of discussion about it and follow SvN.) I hold the “Get Real” philosophy up as ideal, but ultimately unworkable as a whole in many environments. As another commenter said: take what you can and ignore the rest.

    I can live with this because a responsible designer can make this call. A responsible designer can take or leave advice based on his or her own experience, knowing what it worth a try, and what would lead to disaster.

    My concern, however, is for the client or manager or executive who looks at Get Real and pulls out the advice without the benefit of relevant experience. (I’m not saying these people are totally clueless, but they do hire designers/developers/webfolk for a reason.) They may make a bad call because they read three sentences in Get Real or SvN or the work of some other Web guru. This situation is hardly limited to 37Signals’ work.

    So, question: how do you deal with this?

  25. “I hold the “Get Real” philosophy up as ideal, but ultimately unworkable as a whole in many environments.”

    There is no system that works for every situation, and we’ve never claimed Getting Real works for every situation. One size never fits all *well*.

    Take a little from here, take a little from there, and use your own judgement. That’s what Getting Real is about: thinking.

  26. Interesting article and even more interesting debate. I admit I am not of the professional caliber of most of you reading and writing here. But from what I can tell, 37signals seems to be taking Terrell Owens approach to ‘End Zone’ celebration which is very au courant. In addition to their success in crafting some web apps, they ‘get’ the concept of zeitgeist I’ll hand them that. What caught my attention and thought though, is the observation that while the article was about their success, the comments have been more about human nature, the reactions of a small group of strong personalities to success, and therefore are as old and predictable as mankind. Human nature never seems to evolve–only the scenery changes. Just remember guys: even though Socrates was right, it was also how he said it that mattered and in the end they made him drink Hemlock.

Thank you! Your remarks have been sent to Khoi.