37Signals disagrees with usability guru Norman, or, what is usability?

There was a thought-provoking rebuttal from 37Signals to criticisms levelled by Don Norman regarding their product.

(side note: did anyone else think 37Signals was using svn to version control their blog postings based on the URL?)

Don’s original post is titled “Why is 37Signals so arrogant?“. In it he says that he found “the developers [at 37Signals] are arrogant and completely unsympathetic to the people who use their products.” He goes on to say that this attitude “will not only lead to failure, it is one that deserves to fail”. Ouch.

While the developers at 37Signals may be “arrogant” in that they aren’t interested in listening to other views on their design, this does not mean that they aren’t creating usable or useful products. No matter what requested features or changes you add to a design, it will never truly satisfy everyone. Trying to do so can eat up precious resources, and may have unintended consequences. While Google might have the bulk to carefully consider everything a user may want and try to accommodate that (and the consequences), startups don’t always have that luxury. User-centered design isn’t putting the user on a pedestal (a flippant comment – will discuss in another blog post!).  The designer is a designer for a reason, and with scarce resources (and a good track record) it is sometimes not just easier, but more efficient to follow your gut.

Besides, no matter how you design something, people will always use it differently to how you expect. Articulation work (the process of adapting a tool to a new use) is a fascinating process and one that should be fully supported by allowing the user as much simplicity and flexibility as possible. By doing so, you provide a low barrier to entry and for people to find innovative new ways of doing things.

I think the problem here is Don Norman is reacting at a principled level, rather than considering it from a “real world” perspective. Sure, I’d love to give users everything they ever wanted, and do it in the slickest, easiest to use package ever. But it’s just not always possible. Look at something very usable and naturalistic, such as the iPhone, and you’ll find missing features. Look at something feature-rich like Photoshop, and you find a high barrier to entry. It’s all about tradeoffs.

Ultimately 37Signals clarified they *do* listen to their customers, but by stating they design for themselves and not their customers, what they really mean is they are ignoring traditional usability approaches, and designing for themselves. While this can have shortcomings, there were plenty of great designs before the invention of the usability lab…

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