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Screenshot Rage

Or why the web is not just a big billboard

I'm a big fan of 37signals, in many ways. They build great products, push serious web applications forward and have been managing a solid blog for many years now. Most of the time they simply get it right.

Just recently, a new article on Signal vs. Noise emerged, entitled “Designing App Store screenshots”. Contrary to most publications by 37signals, this article caused quite some negative reactions — see the comments. Certainly, some readers felt betrayed by the misstep of such a successful company, but I think we must be aware of the bigger issue at work here. Let me try to explain.

Most of us remember the internet of the early days. We had been used to printed media, its metaphors and patterns for decades, when this new, exciting medium arrived. So we tried to apply as much as possible of the print world, simply because we were comfortable with that. Basically, we used websites like magazine pages, with huge billboards and ads everywhere.

It took us many years to understand that there is more to the web than glossy pictures and big claims. More or less suddenly, there was a certain culture and richness of information that was not pushed through a keyhole but rather connected organically. Since there were infinite sources for about everything, people started to care about the real thing — true representation, no bullshit information, a credible message — instead of a superficial advertisement, simplified for a simple-minded audience. I don’t believe you that your product is good, just because the model presenting it is languishing about on a paradise island, next to a diamond-pooping white tiger.

37signals understood that very early. Even when they were still a basic web design company, they cared for clarity of information, simplicity and honesty of whatever they communicated — ideals of the modern web. This lead many to follow them, to use their software, to read their books and even adapt many business decisions — Opoloo certainly did.

Now with that in mind, think about the issue of how to present your app or software to the audience you fostered and influenced over the years. This audience does not care for another marketing promise, an altered, beautified screenshot, a glossy shot of the device they probably already keep in their pocket. This audience cares for the real thing. They want to know exactly how the app looks on their screen before they install it. Did the developer care for pixel perfection? Are the buttons big enough and positioned adequately?

37signals: You helped tremendously in creating a culture of intelligent, caring users and professionals on the web. Just keep in mind that your audience might also be part of this audience next time you tell the them what to do and how to do it.

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