Clearly focused products unseat generalist products

The 37 Signals guys have a really interesting perspective on product development.  They commit to small chunks and singular functionality.  They aim to make the one thing that a product does the very best at that one thing.

This same philosophy is what made Pat McGovern of IDG the 321st richest man in the world.  When he founded Computerworld magazine in the late 1960's, he realized that the specific will always drive out the general in the media business.  He proceeded to build a portfolio of computer magazine properties around the globe on this basis.

What these guys all share is a clear vision of how their products help the consumer.  McGovern understood intuitively what his readers wanted and kept cutting new properties from the same mold based on a live, working, successful product.  37 Signals is following a similar strategy with online productivity tools.

The strategy wins, though, not just because of the focus.  It wins because these guys understand their users.

This model works for lots of things, including platforms that have a slightly different dynamic than consumer-facing products.  Platform products not only need to know what the software tool needs that it serves, it also needs to understand what end-users want.  

Take the neverending CMS project behind every media site.  The CMS platform's primary customer is not the editor.  The CMS must serve the site visitor first.  How many major media sites are now using MovableType, Drupal or WordPress as functional CMS's on one level or another?  How many have actually considered replacing their expensive CMS with one of these cheaper, easier-to-use tools?

The reason Vignette didn't end up dominating today's CMS market was not only because of technology issues but also because they lost touch with the real customer of the product...the site visitor.  MovableType, Drupal and WordPress all make it very easy to make web sites that people like.  Users like the site.  Site owners are happy.  The platform is doing it's job.

Platforms need to be clearly focused.  But, more importantly, if a platform product doesn't understand the end-user, they will suffer the same fate of the consumer-facing products that don't know their users...they will get replaced by better, more clearly defined and focused products.

Tags:  management, design


Re: Clearly focused products unseat generalist products
by Anonymous on Tue 14 Feb 2006 06:15 PM EST

Do you really think that MoveableType/Worpress beat out Vignette because it does a better job for the site visitor?

I'd argue it's just because the big CMSes got too complex. Vignette
is (was? is it a company anymore?) a huge, clunky, not flexible, complex system. MT is cheap
easy and somewhat flexibile.

I don't think they do a better job for the site visitor.

I eventually think we're going to see software that runs specific
parts of a website. So MT might run the blog post, some other service will handle the comments, another
service will archive the blog posts, ad sense on the side, etc.

I think there's just a general move towards being smaller and simple-r. (Is simpler a word?)

Some thoughts, thanks.... Rick Stratton


Re: Clearly focused products unseat generalist products
by Anonymous on Tue 14 Feb 2006 06:18 PM EST

Opps... I apologize if I didn't address the main point of your post, Matt.

I think you're on to something that concentration and doing a better, smaller job in web applications is a winning strategy.

37signals probably does the best job of this. The fact that they do so much with very few people is impressive as well.

It's like a mini-microsoft office product group located in a crappy Chicago suburb.


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