Does your product pass the subway test?

A few days ago a friend of mine posted his thoughts about 37signals and Basecamp, their flagship product. He mentions that users he’d signed up on his Basecamp account didn’t end up using it, and speculates that it’s because the application isn’t user-friendly. As evident from the comments, a number of other readers share the same frustration with Basecamp. A few people also chime in to voice dissatisfaction with other 37signals products.

For those of you that don’t know, 37signals is one of the darlings of the Web 2.0 world. They’ve built a suite of successful web applications, have a large number of readers on their blog, and published a popular book on how to create great web applications. To suggest that their products aren’t well designed and user-friendly is outright blasphemy in a lot of circles.

As I was thinking about Doug’s post, I came across an interesting article in the Washington Post by way of the Freakonomics blog. The Post ran an experiment where they took Joshua Bell, an expert violinist, to a Washington D.C. subway stop and had him play beautiful pieces on his $3.5 million violin.

I hate to spoil the ending, but Bell played for about an hour and went largely unnoticed. He collected a mere $32.17 for his time, even though he can sometimes earn $1,000 per minute for his work.

I would like to think that I’d walk by Bell in the subway and be struck by his talent and the beauty of the music. But in reality I’d probably rush by, annoyed that some guy was allowed to play that loudly in public. And with all honesty, even if the venue had been more appropriate and Bell had my complete attention, I probably wouldn’t sense that I was in the presence of a master. But if I knew who he was beforehand I would probably feel overwhelmed with appreciation.

Here is the key question posed by the Post article:


We ask this kind of question about classical music and abstract art, but why don’t we ask it about technology more often?

It’s hard to say that Basecamp isn’t user-friendly when everyone points to 37signals as the experts on creating user-friendly web applications. It’s hard to say that the iPod is mediocre if everyone feels like it was an object of perfection handed down to Steve Jobs from above. It’s hard to say that Google Search returns irrelevant search results when everyone calls the engine the greatest tool of the web age.

The Post asked Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, what he thought would happen in the Bell experiment. He was pessimistic, but his estimate still far exceeded the actual results. I think those of us that subscribe to dozens of “what’s new in technology” blogs and digest the content every day are in a lot of ways like Slatkin. We live and breath technology, so that puts us closer to Arrington, Godin, Graham, Kawasaki, Scoble and Spolsky than the 1,000s of people walking through the subway.

It seems right to say that Basecamp is awesome. But if nobody on your team wants to use it that doesn’t compute. Are they ignorant, or are they just seeing it sans hype?

Would Basecamp pass the subway test? How about the many products featured on Engadget and Techcrunch every day?

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