Don Norman, an author, professor, and partner at the Nielsen Norman Group, read the Wired article about us and wrote a piece asking, “Why is 37signals so arrogant?”

Hansson said: “I’m not designing… for other people.” I think that simple phrase speaks volumes. Thank goodness most companies recognize that this attitude is deadly.

If 37signals wants to follow this attitude, I think that is fine. I’m pleased that they are enjoying themselves and that their simple applications do indeed meet many people’s simple needs. But I would prefer someone who designed software for other people. If you want a hobby, fine, indulge yourself.

First off, let me say I respect Norman. His book The Design of Everyday Things is a classic. I’ve always admired him and think he’s spot on most of the time.

That said, I think he’s looking at this the wrong way. In fact, most of what he says about us in his piece misses the point.

Why we design for ourselves first

He argues that because we design for ourselves first, we’re selfish, arrogant, and have a disdain for customers.

That’s not true. Designing for ourselves first yields better initial results because it lets us design what we know. It lets us assess quality quickly and directly, instead of by proxy. And it lets us fall in love with our products and feel passionate about what we make. There’s simply no substitute for that.

We’re like chefs. We make food that we think tastes good and that we believe in. We make it for customers who have the same sensibilities that we do. It might not be for everyone. That’s ok. But for people who think the way we do, and appreciate the things we appreciate, it’s perfect.

And if enough customers tell us our food is too salty or too hot, we may adjust the salt and the heat. But if some customers tell us to add bananas to our lasagna, we’re not going to make them happy at the expense of ruining the dish for everyone else. That doesn’t make us selfish. We’re just looking out for the greater good.

We’re not the only ones

Apple agrees with this philosphy too. Here’s Steve Jobs’ perspective on “designing for you” :

We figure out what we want. And I think we’re pretty good at having the right discipline to think through whether a lot of other people are going to want it, too. That’s what we get paid to do. (complete interview)

We do exactly what Apple does. We figure out what we want and whether other people will want it too.

This method works because our problems are common problems. Solutions to our own problems are solutions to other people’s problems too. By building products we want to use, we’re also building products that millions of other small businesses want to use. Not all businesses, not all customers, not everyone, but a healthy, sustainable, growing, and profitable segment of the market.

Simple doesn’t mean less important

Norman also says, “[37signals’] simple applications do indeed meet many people’s simple needs.” But he blows right past that idea as if solving simple needs is only worthy of hobby.

We’re proud that we build simple software that solves people’s simple problems. We say this right at the top of our home page: “Over 1 million people use our web-based applications to get things done the simple way.” This is exactly what our customers love about our products. Read through these answers to the “What do you like most about Basecamp?” question. You’ll spot the words simple, easy, and intuitive about a bazillion times.

Just because people’s problems are simple doesn’t make them any less important. In fact, simple problems are a lot more common than bigger, more complex ones. Their recurrence is often what makes them so frustrating and why people desire an easy, hassle-free solution.

A sound strategy for targeting nonconsumption

Plus, we’re mainly targeting people who have never used products like ours before. These people especially crave simple solutions. They were nonconsumers before because the alternatives had too many features, were too confusing, and were too expensive. We’re addressing a hungry market that’s been ignored for way too long.

For more insight into competing against nonconsumption, check out Competing Against Non-Consumption: A Conversation with Clay Christensen or chapter two of The Innovator’s Solution.

No one represents everyone

Norman may not be one of our customers because our products don’t solve his problems. (We’re not sure since he’s never sent us a feature request or suggestion.) That’s fine—we’re not here to solve everyone’s problems any more than Norman is here to write books that interest every reader.

But to infer that not meeting his needs means we’re not meeting other people’s needs is a stretch. And to call 37signals a “hobby” reveals a shallow understanding of what’s really happening. 37signals is a business in every definition of the word. A healthy, profitable, debt-free one at that.

Curating feature requests

Also, there may be a misunderstanding of what we mean when we say we design for ourselves first. This does not mean we just ignore feature requests. We’ll say it yet again: Just about everything we add to our product these days starts as a customer request.

We invite and encourage requests in our forums and in our customer satisfaction surveys. We get thousands of requests a year via email too. We learn a lot about how we can improve our products from our customers.

But ultimately we add just a tiny fraction of these requests to our products. It doesn’t mean we don’t listen, it means we pay attention to the the dirty secret of software design: It’s pretty easy to mess up a good thing by overdoing it. Saying yes too often doesn’t benefit anybody.

We listen to customers but we also listen to our own guts and hearts. We believe great companies don’t blindly follow customers, they blaze a path for them.

And here’s another truth you discover when you deal with a massive customer base: There’s more contradiction than there is agreement. One person wants this, one person wants that, another person says the first person is crazy, another one says if you do what the second person said then they’ll cancel their account.

That’s why it’s our job to be editors. To be software feature curators. To pick out the ideas that will benefit the most people and disappoint the least people. And sometimes that means doing nothing at all.

Which brings be me another choice quote by Jobs:

Innovation comes… from saying no to 1,000 things to make sure we don’t get on the wrong track or try to do too much. We’re always thinking about new markets we could enter, but it’s only by saying no that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.

The Southwest Airlines parallel

Curiously, Norman suggests using Southwest Airlines as a model. He then proceeds to detail how Southwest refuses customer requests because it understands that customers actually have more critical needs: low fares and ontime service.

If Norman actually understood what we do, he would see we actually do almost the same thing as Southwest, but in the software realm: Southwest listens to their customers and then innovates, creates, and often says “no” on behalf of their customers. It’s Southwest’s job to be the editor. Southwest decides what’s right for their company, their employees, and their customers. And it does this based on a variety of inputs—one of them being customer feedback, another one of them being maintaining the spirit and core values of Southwest. Marketing, business rules, shareholder value, opportunity cost, resources, among other things, round out the wide range of things that must be considered when people make requests.

This is exactly what we do. We listen, we internalize, we consider, and we act. Sometimes that means not acting on a request. Sometimes it means taking a request, unraveling the true intent, and building a solution that wasn’t originally imagined. Sometimes we do exactly what people ask for because it makes sense. And sometimes we listen to ourselves instead—if we don’t think a popular request is true to the product we won’t add it. I don’t think Professor Norman would be willing to teach material he doesn’t believe in. If he did, he’d be doing his audience a disservice.

We love our customers

Also, we don’t show disdain for our customers, as Norman suggests. We love our customers and the overwhelming majority love us back. It’s not a fluke that we’ve been in business for 9 years. It’s not a fluke that over 2,000,000 people have Basecamp accounts. It’s not a fluke that almost all our business is generated through word of mouth referrals. It’s not a fluke that 94% of our customers would recommend Basecamp to a colleague or friend (96% said they’d recommend Backpack too). It’s not a fluke that we’ve doubled our revenues and net income every year since 2004 (our revenues were “multimillion” in 2007). These things happen and continue to happen for precisely one reason: We keep our customers happy.

Don Norman’s process

Not that it’d ever happen, but it’d be interesting to see Norman try our approach for his next book. He could invite his customers (previous book buyers, in his case) to post their chapter and topic requests in a public forum. Then he could run some customer surveys.

He’d get a list of a few thousand possible topics and chapters. Would he include every single one of them in the book? I doubt it. I think his response would go something like this: “Well, I can’t write everything they want me to write. I don’t even agree with some of it. I don’t have time to write 1000 chapters. And a 5000 page book wouldn’t be usable, affordable, or practical.”

Then he would probably go on to say, “We did look through all the requests and did get some good ideas. We edited the possible list of topics down to what we thought were the best ones. And then we edited that list down even further. And then we wrote the book. And then we edited what we wrote even further. And then we made judgement calls about what should stay an what should go. And it ended up being a much better book.”

Editing doesn’t mean you don’t care. In fact, it shows that you really do care. Editors show great respect for the audience by being a trusted filter. Dumping the kitchen sink on people doesn’t do anyone any favors.

We disagree

The reason why our products don’t meet Norman’s needs is because we disagree with him on what to put in our software. That’s fine. We don’t think our way is the only way. There are plenty of alternatives in the market. People should use what works best for them. Hopefully, Norman isn’t truly shortsighted enough to think that any product that takes a different point of view from his own is “bound to fail.” If so, who’s the arrogant one then?