Getting Real

I’ve been reading 37 Signals’s book Getting Real on line. This caused a bit of stir when it came out as it self-consciously throws out the rule book(s) on application development and looks firmly towards the new dawn of Web 2.0, and (sort of) in the direction of an extreme “agile” methodology. All the rage.

I have no doubt that if I were them, I would do things much as they describe. Don’t document – just start building. Don’t have meetings – just create stuff you can talk about. Don’t listen to users first, listen to yourself, then listen to users when they’re using your prototypes. The application is never finished; iterate, improve and re-factor. And so on.

But I’m not them, and my circumstances could hardly be more different. While I have designed a system using the methods they describe (a project that had no budget and no official status), reading Getting Real is like looking at a documentary on some strange aquatic species. If I seriously tried to implement even half what they advocate then I’m confident it would be as much use to me as living with turtles. To be fair, they address my boring old objections in their introduction, although I think they’re overreaching themselves when they say that Microsoft is “getting real” – even 37 Signals won’t make pigs fly.

One accusation they don’t list is “You guys don’t have clients!” If it wasn’t for those peskey paymasters – we’d be having so much more fun. But I have to live with the fact that things have to be signed off before the “next stage,” and that there are contracts, incentives, and offshore developers to deal with. All of this, for better or for worse, means that prancing around ignoring requirements lists and refusing to document decisions or attend meetings would mean not only the loss of my job, but the complete inability for anything to actually get done.

Oh well, at least they design good stuff.

But do they? The project I’m on (a large, multi-agency/client engagement just like all the others) uses Base Camp. This is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to use this flagship system for real. Base Camp is the gold standard for the Getting Real method, so you’ll forgive me if I give it a good seeing to.

Here are some observations I’ve made in the last couple of months of using the system:

Form amnesia: Go to your profile, fill out phone no, etc. but don’t save the page. Then upload photo. Page refreshes and loses all the other data you just put in.

Unexpected behaviour: Click on a document name on the list on the overview page. You don’t get that document, but a list of documents (the “Files” list). You then have to look for the document you thought you were going to get, and click on that instead. Unless it’s a very recently uploaded document, it may or may not be near the top.

Hidden search box: Plenty of room in the template to have it permanently visible up top, but instead it’s behind a tab. Perhaps that’s because it wants to remember (and show the results of) my last search query. But why is that useful? I don’t think I’ve ever needed to go back after my session ended and re-run the same search.

Unclear message: Link to “elect to be notified of new comments to a discussion thread” is on the far right of page, message confirming this action is on far left top (although you do get a status message on tracked threads in situ, so it’s not too bad).

Inconsistent navigation: Click on some main nav tabs (eg writeboard) and the nav disappears to be replaced with unfamiliar buttons and a “back to project…” link.

Disjointed writeboard navigation: When looking at a writeboard entry, you have to click “back to project…” to see the list of all writeboard entries for that project. Somewhat unintuitive.

Space limits: it’s a money thing I know, but the project I’m on (not really that huge) hoovered up its disk space allocation ages ago. So we use an FTP site and post links on Base Camp to that. That’s a great indication of the health of the business model: limit the capability of your product enough to annoy users, but not enough that they will pay to rid themselves of the annoyance instead of simply using an alternative.

Campfire: Why? Everyone has desktop IM and it’s far better than a web-based system since it screen pops you and other things. Unless somebody is sitting behind a very paranoid firewall, or you need to chat with people not on your IM network then I suppose maybe it’s useful.

A mixed bag, I admit, and reading their book I can predict the response to at least some of them would be “Well, that’s what we wanted, so we built it. If you don’t like it, tough.” But I can’t see how plainly bad interaction design or IA fits into this new model. If getting real means embracing bad design because you can, then I for one don’t want to.