January 13, 2016

We Use Basecamp

The long, winding road to finding our perfect project management app

When I wrote about my misgivings with Slack as a productivity tool, I mentioned that my team had finally—after months of false starts—found our ideal solution for staying organized and in touch.

That solution is Basecamp 3, but you know what they say about the journey being as important as the destination. I want to unpack our decision a bit and chart our course to Basecamp in an effort to explain why we ended up there.

Trying New Things

Before we begin, it’s worth clarifying that this search was a project I was able to undertake because we’re a small team of people and my colleagues were patient and willing to put up with the process.

Switching project management systems is not only time consuming, but disruptive to work and annoying for those who don’t share the early-adopter willingness to explore. Trouble is, it’s nearly impossible to find the best solution in an active professional context when there’s work to attend to.

When we had a gap, I jumped at the opportunity to take a hard look at our workflow.

Here’s what our old system looked like:

  • Important discussion and brainstorming happened in email threads, making key info difficult to retrieve and client communications messier as we had to clean up” threads full of what should have been internal talk
  • Questions and chatter happened via iMessage, our personal communication platform of choice. The separation of work and personal life vanished
  • Events were planned and scheduled haphazardly, with each person manually adding things to their personal calendar of choice
  • Documents and files were shared more or less at random; some people used Dropbox, others used MediaFire, and sometimes one person would email another person the file to upload to their cloud storage solution…then that person would subsequently link the client (in another email, naturally)

Looking back at it now I’m not sure how we accomplished anything at all. I didn’t know what the solution was, but I knew we had a problem and needed to get organized.

The hunt was on.

Trello to the Rescue

My first recommendation was an old favourite: Trello.

This popular tool offers a card-based interface where each card can represent a task, a set of tasks, or a piece of information. Cards can be organized into columns, moved from column to column to indicate progress, and enriched with attachments, comments, mentions, integrations, due dates, checklists, and more.

It’s terrific.

But it didn’t stick.

Our adoption of Trello coincided with a large, difficult project. A trial by fire if ever there was one. To its credit, Trello handled the workload magnificently and was such an improvement over our old system that we were all feeling like we’d had a breath of fresh air.

Give a mouse a cookie though…better wasn’t good enough, and soon we were running into some shortcomings that I knew could be improved upon. While Trello is fantastic for visually organizing and keeping track of information, it wasn’t as great at answering some basic questions that come up in a productivity context: what’s on everyone’s plate? What events are coming up across all our projects?

It’s worth mentioning that Trello is the only other product that we’ve kept using for something. For us, that something is keeping track of our actor pool and contractors. Being able to see actors as cards with their head shots front and centre makes it super easy to pick and sort through them at a glance when we have need of their expertise.

For everything else though, we moved on.

We Tried Slack

Spoiler: it didn’t work out.

Rather than repeat what I said in that article, I’ll just clarify that I think Slack deserves the praise it’s gotten. It’s an excellent product made by smart, talented people. You should try it.

In a sense, my dissatislacktion (if I keep using the word, it’ll stick) is ultimately my own fault. Slack doesn’t claim to be a project management or productivity tool, just a communication system. The fact that I’ve encountered teams trying to use it as anything else doesn’t mean I had to try using it that way.

Nevertheless, I did try, and while Slack was lots of fun, my team abandoned it more quickly than any other solution. Having Slack tying things together was more hassle than help, as it turned out. Since we had to go to the various integrated services to get work done anyway, it was only a matter of time before we realized that Slack was only really solving one of our problems—separation of personal/work chatting—and not even doing a great job at that.

As a unified notification centre, Slack was fine, but it was also too distracting and ultimately not contributing to our workflow. The search continued.

Pause for Reflection

By this point, several months after my initiative had begun, we had more and more work to do and my team’s patience was wearing thin.

Given that the whole point of this endeavour was to find a better workflow and remove anxiety, friction, and annoyance, I stepped back to regroup and see if I could get some perspective. I looked at how other companies kept organized. I read books about team management and productivity. I ate a lot of Nutella.

Eventually, I looked inward at my own personal productivity system, which at the time had recently migrated from my own digital take on bullet journaling to a whole-hearted adoption of Todoist.

Todoist, or Not Todoist: That Was the Wrong Question

I had a lightbulb moment: Todoist has task scheduling, it has assignable tasks, it has commenting and file attachments and can be accessed from anywhere…I was on to something! In retrospect, I was too hasty to recommend Todoist because I had once again failed to consider the big picture of what problem I was trying to solve.

Like Slack, Todoist was ultimately a solution to only one facet of the problem—task management. Unlike Slack though, it was a terrific solution to that problem for us, and some team members switched to it for their personal task management as well and have been using it ever since.

While it didn’t encompass the totality of what we were after, Todoist was a step in the right direction and finally helped me internalize what I was looking for: an integrated solution that could encompass task management, scheduling, files, collaboration, and chatting.

With a renewed sense of purpose, I pressed on.

Milanote: An Open Canvas

Somewhere along the line, I signed up for a new service called Milanote that promised a powerful, flexible canvas for thinking and sharing together.

I found it more or less by accident, but at an opportune time. We were in the midst of a series of pitches, all of which required fairly extensive mood board and visual reference discussion with the client, and Milanote ended up being ideal for this.

We were able to clip content from websites to our project-specific boards, add our own commentary in the form of notes, attach documents from the client for reference, create infinite sub-boards to segregate content, and then use the resulting space as a virtual whiteboard both internally and on calls with the client thanks to the easy sharing.

For situations like those, Milanote proved its worth and garnered compliments both from the clients and from my team members, all of whom enjoyed the fluidity and intuitiveness of the interface.

Milanote is, of course, not a project management solution per se, but it became an important arrow in our quiver as we continued our search.

Go With The Flow

One of the final stops we made on the road to Basecamp was trying the revamped version of Flow. I had tried Flow for my own personal task management way back in its early days, but found its price prohibitive and didn’t renew.

Flow recently unveiled a rethinking of their product that offers both a fresh face and a new take on their service. Now that price was no longer an object and I had a team to work with, it seemed like an opportune moment to give Flow another shot. Over the course of a day, I painstakingly migrated all our content from its myriad homes into Flow. I introduced my team, endured their sighs, and launched into the month-long trial.

Flow does a great many things right: it’s beautiful, it’s supremely capable, and it has a Kanban system that’s a lot like having a mini Trello built right in. Initial impressions from me were positive, but my team was lukewarm at best about it.

They surfaced some salient points: its flexibility makes it confusing. By trying to be everything to everyone, Flow ends up presenting a chimeric face to its users, who have to sift through a salad of options to accomplish their goals. The bizarre separation between the tasks and chat apps on mobile is also an unfortunate decision. Who wants to install not one but two new apps just to access different features of the same product?

You’re not Facebook, Flow. Your chat system isn’t a messaging platform deserving of its own separate app, and it hinders productivity to have to switch back and forth between the two.

The Best Project Management Solution is Probably Asana…

While my team and I half-heartedly explored Flow over the course of our trial, Asana (another excellent product I’d tried years ago) unveiled a spectacular rebranding along with a rebuilt and very much improved version of their product. At this point, I knew my team was at their wits’ end with my constant offerings of a new and improved!” workflow, so rather than torment them with yet another switch, I tested Asana all by myself. Being a product tester is lonely work sometimes (by sometimes” I mean always”).

Anyway, Asana. While my time with it was short and solitary, it was enough to make me wish that we had tried it instead of Flow. If we had, we might still be using Asana because their new version does an amazing job of cutting out some of the clutter.

Why didn’t we try it as a team?

By this point, I’d realized that there was an important gap between what we thought we needed and what we actually needed, and Asana is ultimately a more refined version of Flow. That level of functionality veered into the realm of needless complexity. While that complexity might be crucial to some team workflows, it wasn’t for ours.

That being said, I think Asana may well be the overall best combination of features, performance, aesthetics, and thoughtful UX. If you’re choosing a solution for your team, I strongly recommend you try Asana. Chances are good that you and your team will love it.

Wait, I thought this article was about Basecamp!

Yes, dear reader, we arrive at last at our destination.

…But We Use Basecamp

I’m sure you’re as relieved as my team was when I assured them that this time it was final. In exchange for trying one final service, they made me promise that we wouldn’t change systems again for a whole year. No pressure.

Amidst all this turmoil, Basecamp—formerly 37signals—announced they were getting ready to release version 3 of their product. Having used an older version when we used it at Tutsplus and AppStorm, I signed up for the beta. At this point, it’s worth mentioning that version 1 of Basecamp was released in 2004.

Pop quiz: how many internet businesses can you name that are 12 years old?

I guess it should surprise no one that the people who invented web-based project management software (and the language it runs on, Ruby) are the people who make the best one (for our needs, at least). When you work on improving a product for more than a decade and have a business ethos based on sustainability, fair pricing, and healthy differentiation instead of insane growth, the results are remarkable.

Invisible On-Boarding

In short order, I received an email from Jason himself welcoming me into the Basecamp 3 beta. I did the migration dance once final time, brought everything in, assembled a wealth of on-boarding resources, took a deep breath…and invited my team.

Then a miracle happened—no one complained. About anything. They signed up easily, they explored easily, they answered their own questions easily, and that same day we were already back to work. Problem solved.

I was so thrilled that it took me a while to realize the enormity of what had just occurred. Where every other system had presented corners for them to bump into, Basecamp had somehow welcomed my team with no fuss, no mess, and no corners.

That was more than three months ago, and they’ve been the busiest, most productive, and most lucrative months my team has ever had. While this isn’t magically Basecamp’s doing, it was most certainly facilitated by how seamless and effective our workflow has become. And that is entirely thanks to Basecamp.

Smoothing Out the Wrinkles

It isn’t perfect, of course, but the concerns I have are minor, and some have evaporated entirely. What I first took to be a plain interface has, over time, revealed itself to be expertly crafted and endearing in its understated elegance. As a type geek, I was especially delighted to see the beautiful and friendly Fakt Pro chosen as the main interface font.

Still, there’s room for a calendar view of some sort, and the task system could use some improving (luckily, it’s being revamped this year). How do I know it’s being revamped this year? Because Jason told me so, in a personal answer to an email I sent with some feedback.

The fact that the company’s founder was willing to answer a random user email is admirable. The fact that said user wasn’t even a paying customer at the time makes it impressive. The fact that this founder is twelve years into running his company—long past the stage where most startups try to woo users with this kind of customer support—is nothing short of remarkable. The fact that he answered within an hour of me sending the email is just icing on the cake.

Needless to say, we became paying customers in short order.

Somehow, Basecamp has found a way to make approachability scalable. They’ve earned customer trust through small, meaningful interactions like mine and they’ve sustained that trust over many years and several product revamps. Crucially, they’ve done so without leaving anyone behind. Unlike so many tech companies, Basecamp isn’t in the habit of sunsetting” its previous iterations and forcing people to upgrade or abandon ship.

Why It Works for Us

The fact that we like it is both obvious and somewhat beside the point. A productivity system is not a problem with a single solution. Ultimately, every company has to go through some variation of the process we did to find the best fit for their needs.

For us, Basecamp won out for very simple reasons:

  • It’s intuitive, lean, and for somewhat mysterious reasons (is Ruby a drug?) everyone on my team gets along with it
  • It handles task management without unnecessary complexity: we know what needs doing, what project it’s for, who needs to do it, and who needs to know when it’s done—that’s it
  • It handles scheduling in a platform-agnostic way; all company items are scheduled in Basecamp, and everyone can add events to their calendar system of choice from there
  • This all falls into Basecamp’s notion of being adoptional, allowing each team member to use Basecamp as deeply (or superficially) as they want while still benefiting from its strengths
  • It handles documents just as elegantly, allowing us to attach files from our shared Dropbox or collaborate on basic documents right in Basecamp using its custom built editor
  • Tasks, calendar events, and documents all have a comment system in place to allow relevant discussion to remain attached to the very thing being discussed
  • The general chat system is robust enough to be useful but simple enough to keep us focused
  • Similarly, the private chats let us keep irrelevant discussion out of the general thread
  • Everything is named in a down-to-earth, affable manner that’s akin to how actual humans talk to each other—it’s not a collaborative chat environment, it’s a Campfire’; I don’t private message my colleague, I Ping’ them
  • The modular nature of each Basecamp means we can tailor each project environment to its needs, without the clutter of modules we won’t use
  • The Reports give us answers to questions that seem obvious but are somehow difficult or impossible to surface in other apps: what’s everyone working on, what do we all have coming up, what’s overdue, what did we accomplish today?
  • It respects the boundaries between work and home life, providing a Work Can Wait” (and that’s what it’s actually called) feature that allows each person to customize their availability and silence notifications on whatever schedule they want

I could go on, but you may as well check out the website to read about the features in more detail.

Working Together

Basecamp has become an indispensable part of our company.

For a while, I thought my team was being quiet and not voicing complaints because they were afraid I’d make them switch to something new again, but after a while I stopped asking if they were really okay with Basecamp. They weren’t voicing complaints because they don’t have any. At long last, they are genuinely happy with our workflow. And as a result, so am I.

I’ll admit, I felt a deep sense of panic when I promised that we would stick to one service for a year. As an early adopter and product tester, that felt claustrophobic. But now I’m already a third of the way through that commitment, and in perfect candour I have no desire to switch to anything else.

Naturally, I keep an eye on new products and services—after all, the intersection of productivity and technology is one of the core themes of this blog—but for my team I’m perfectly at ease. As more nuances reveal themselves over the course of using it, I keep emailing Basecamp with suggestions, ideas, feedback, and bug reports. I get a lightning quick response every time, and seeing my suggested changes implemented and my reported bugs fixed makes me feel like I’m not just a customer but a collaborator. It’s a good feeling.

It took a lot of searching, but I finally found our ideal solution.

Yours may be different, but you owe it to yourself and your team to try Basecamp.

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