Khoi Vinh on Offending Experts and Pleasing Everybody

After reading Khoi Vinh’s thoughts on streamlining web apps to remove features that only a few users need, I think for the most part the choice to make apps work for everyone is a good one. But I have a particular issue with at least one of his examples – 37 Signals, who make Basecamp and Backpack. They have a less is more philosophy that works well – most of the time.

I was using Backpack with the Indyscribe author team to collaborate on some of our articles, and on documenting some of the information we need to run the site. I also used it to collaborate with my girlfriend on household management stuff. There are RSS feeds in Backpack, and I imported them into my feed reader to keep track of when my co-authors or girlfriend added or updated information. The problem for me was that the feeds are attached to your identity in Backpack, not to particular documents. That meant that when I updated my to do lists, which I also kept on Backpack, I’d get 14 unwanted messages a day in my feed reader, along with the 1 message I needed. I stopped checking that feed all the time, convinced it was my own changes coming through, and I’d miss the time-sensitive collaborative doc I was waiting for.

So last year when we went to the 37 Signals Conference, I mentioned this to the guys, and they gave me the standard brush-off that they give to people when they don’t plan to implement a feature. Which is fine – it’s their business to run, not mine. But a few months later, when Google Docs came out, I immediately tested how the feeds worked, and they were exactly what I wanted – messages about updates on only the documents I want to keep track of. I moved all my documents out of Backpack to Google, and I haven’t been back since.

I realize that’s a pretty specific use, but I don’t know that adding doc specific feeds, in addition to a feed attached to user id, would add a level of complexity that would be confusing – it’s a feature that could be pretty unobtrusive.

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