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:

IF A GREAT MUSICIAN PLAYS GREAT MUSIC BUT NO ONE HEARS . . . WAS HE REALLY ANY GOOD?

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?

How much does it cost to build a web app?

I didn't get a chance to go to SXSW, so have been happy to see slides that have come from some of the presentations. One of the more interesting ones was Barenaked App: The figures behind web apps. It's an essential read for anyone who's interested in building a web-based application for a new business and wants some reference for the costs involved.

According to the presentation, here's how much it cost to build some successful web applications (design, development, hosting, legal, accounting, etc.):

  • DropSend: $48,012
  • FreshBooks: $20,000
  • Maya's Mom: $70,000
  • Mobissimo: $60,000
  • Wesabe: $200,000

And here's how much they cost to maintain each month (including employee salaries for some):

  • Dropsend: $3,625
  • FreshBooks: $46,000
  • Maya's Mom: $30,000
  • Mobissimo: $150,000
  • Wesabe: $3,000+

While these numbers are certainly not representative of every type of web application, the presentation shone light on the types of things to think about when planning a web business. Here's what I took away from the slides:

1. It costs a significant amount of money

There's a popular myth that you can hire a developer to build something for $50, post the URL to Digg, then watch the $1B buyout offers flood your inbox. OK, maybe nobody believes that exactly, but I think people largely ignore the fact that web businesses operate under the same maxim that brick-and-mortar businesses do: it takes money to make money.

Generally speaking, anything that costs an insignificant amount of money will probably face a large number of competitors and knock-offs. Even if you somehow managed to protect your business from that, any major application with less than 100 hours of work behind it probably isn't going to be designed with a great user interface, won't scale with increased traffic, and will be riddled with bugs.

2. It doesn't cost that much money

On the other hand, those numbers are within reach of most would-be entrepreneurs through funding from angel investors, small business loans, or a line of credit. Most successful web applications don't require venture capital to get started, if ever at all. Web applications are a lot less capital intensive than most businesses — retailers would probably be overjoyed if they could open new stores with startup costs that low.

3. It still costs money after it's launched

The second part to the $50 myth is that once your application is up and running you can just sit back and count the profit, without spending any time and money to maintain. Ongoing costs will vary widely depending on the business, but it's fairly safe to say that some amount needs to be budgeted at least for customer support and ongoing hosting if not for development of new features.

Out of curiosity, did these numbers seem reasonable to you?   What else struck you about the costs?

Living with rats

One of the things that intrigued me most about the rat infestation of a New York KFC restaurant was reading about Robert Corrigan, the expert that was brought in to help clean up the mess. Corrigan (from nearby Richmond, IN) has been called "the Elvis of the pest control world" for the research he's done on the subject. An Indianapolis Star article describes one of the ways Corrigan achieved his expert status:

The key to Corrigan's success is understanding how bureaucrats and rats think. He learned about the latter during his graduate student days at Purdue University, when he once spent 30 days in a rat-infested barn in Indiana. He lived the nocturnal life of his subjects, watching them eat and reproduce. They crawled all over him. The more he watched the animals, the more he liked them.

As someone who's been terrified of rats ever since I saw the movie Ben as a little kid, the image of Corrigan living 30 days in a rat-infested barn makes me want to crawl into a fetal position atop the highest piece of furniture that I can find.

But it got me to think, how far would I go to become an expert in my field? I think a great web developer does more than just learn a few programming languages and try to keep up with the latest technologies. I thankfully don't have to live in a rat-infested barn, but what kind of immersion is necessary in order to become better at what I do?

  • Spend a day watching a novice users work with a web application so I better understand usability?
  • Ask script kiddies on IRC to hack my website so I better understand security?
  • Build complex applications that never see the light of day so I learn how to fully implement a particular technology component?
  • Work on a 5-year old PC and 33.6kbps Internet connection to learn how to optimize web pages?
  • Spend a day with my monitor turned off so I understand how a visually impaired person uses the web?

What do you think — what's the rat-infested barn of your industry?

Jenerous interview

I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Eric Mattson for Jenerous (formerly called marketingmonger) this morning. If you haven't heard of Jenerous, I definitely recommend checking it out. Eric started the project last year in an effort to interview 1,000 "leading marketers, entrepreneurs and other interesting people". It's a great undertaking, and he's got 100+ interviews with a lot of interesting people so far.

I'm pretty sure I'm not a leading entrepreneur yet, but you can listen to the interview anyway :)

Buffett doing what he loves every day

I'm a big admirer of Warren Buffett. Not just because he's a wildly successful businessman by any measure, but because he's so down to earth, practical, and maintains a high standard of integrity.

I recently watched an interview/documentary on CNBC about Buffett, and I recommend it for anyone who's even mildly interested in learning about the man. It's refreshing to see someone worth over $50,000,000,000 living in the same "normal" house he's been living in for decades, driving himself around town, and walking around without a bodyguard or entourage. His example speaks volumes in the context of our uber-materialistic culture.

Here's one of my favorite quotes from the interview:

I tell the students that come out here ... they're living better than John D Rockefeller lived. I mean they're warm in winter and cool in summer and they can watch the World Series. They can do anything in the world. They literally live better than Rockefeller.... Really getting to do what you love to do every day — that's the ultimate luxury. And particularly when you can do it with terrific people around you.

Below is the clip at YouTube, where you can find the rest of the interview:

And if you're in the mood to read more about the man, cuddle up by the fire with Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist.