Why Basecamp May Not Be Perfect and How Less can Sometimes be Too Little

I break out in a cold sweat when I consider saying ANYTHING negative about Basecamp out in the open –  I have seen others bombarded with hate mail for mentioning 'Basecamp' and 'Not perfect' in the same sentence. However, over here, we're thinking very seriously about web 2.0 applications, what is missing and what holes need filling. So my eyes just got a whole lot more critical. 

Is Less More?

We have a running joke about how 37 Signals can proclaim 'We just cut features from Basecamp' and have crowds flock to sign-up/pay more. How they have the perfect marketing pitch – 'You can pay us more to offer you less!'. For the most part I love it, but recently I worked on a project that involved 3 seperate businesses and 22 page layouts, and Basecamp left a lot to be desired.

3 Business 22 Pages, Not Huge Right? 

But a couple of weeks into it, I had no idea where each page was at, and the only way to find out was to trawl through the messages to locate the last message/comments posted about a particular page. Tim can vouch that it drove me insane. We even resorted to email just to de-clutter our project space!!! It struck me that we weren't so unique. All projects have tasks, and all those tasks need tracking. If you have more than about 5 individual tasks, I'm just not sure how Basecamp caters for you.

So Is Less More? Or is it Just Less? 

Maybe this is more of a rant about extreme simplicity in the general Web 2.0 space. Can you seriously use something that just doesn't do much? I'd say Basecamp is one of the more complex of the web 2.0 tools, and it's just managing to balance successfully right on that line between exceptionally cool, and kinda useless. And I wonder if it would be so bad to add a feature or two (I mean, Basecamp is quite well established now as a product), add a little task tracking functionality, even in it's most simple form (ie. Assigning messages/files to an item (task) on a to do list)? 

But 37 Signals are so clear on there 'less is more' approach that I can't help but be peer pressured into believing that I'm of the old school of complex software, that I'm just not making full use of the simple, elegant flexibility they offer. And even though I was left frustrated and confused at many points in that particular project, it was still completed on time, which may mean that 'project management utopia' simply means something a little different from what I had imagined?


12 thoughts on “Why Basecamp May Not Be Perfect and How Less can Sometimes be Too Little”

  1. I don’t know if you have to change your definition of project management utopia. You may just be outgrowing the software or becoming more sophisticated in your needs.

    Things like more advanced search capabilities don’t become necessary until you have a larger number of projects. Also, the way project data is organized changes when you are taking about a larger number of projects and resources involved.

    There is definitely a balance between simplicity and functionality. You need to find the tool with the right balance that works for you. [Caveat: I work for a company that makes project management software.]

  2. Perhaps the real challenge (at least the one I can say we are trying to tackle and struggle with) is not so much keeping the complex out, but exposing it at the right time – contextually when you are ready for it. That’s part of the power of nextgen web services – exposing advanced features more or less when you need them; and keeping them tucked away when you don’t and/or when you are still getting up the learning curve.

  3. Thanks for those responses. As I said, I got confused because Basecamp claims top cater to a range of project sizes, of which I thought that last one would come well within.

    You're right, when you've got one or two small projects you simply don't want to see any complexity! But when you've got a few running, a few collaborators and the projects themselves are more complex, you need to be able to have a few more features. I understand Basecamp still gets a lot of new sigups every week, so would never consider expanding their basic product in fear of confusing the 'newbies', but after this amount of time, I would have thought a few advanced features you can switch on would be a reality. 

    Maybe it's time to look for alternatives – I see project management systems are cropping up daily, anyone got any reccomendations? 

  4. Hi Natalie,

    You should give TeamWork Live a try: http://www.teamworklive.com

    TeamWork Live is a hosted project management and team collaboration app aimed at Basecamp users who have outgrown Basecamp. We have had many happy Basecamp converts since our launch in June. You’ll find all the features of Basecamp (except time-tracking and client/employee roles, both of which we are currently working on) and many others aimed at making you more productive. Some features include the ability to comment and attach files/info with the task itself, contextual messaging, email blast to the entire team (with file attachments), a full-search engine, personal/shared calendars, and more. I think you will find that it addresses many of your frustrations with Basecamp. Feel free to contact me if you need more info.


  5. I think the reason nobody desires to make complex software is because nobody buys complex software.

    Building complex software is akin to asking Microsoft to make Office a single program. Or combining Photoshop and Illustrator and InDesign all in one.

    I think software can be complex, but it just has to do that one thing very well.

    Once a web app or any app for that matter treads into the territory of being able to do two things, and then three, it suddenly introduces new reasons why it doesn’t work for people.

    Gives them more reasons not to use your product — because it did one thing that they need, but then maybe it also did something they didn’t need.

  6. The big guys (Adobe/MS etc) build all the features, and then serve at your complexity level appetite. When you dont have IPO/M&A money up your sleeve you perform a balancing act of features vs. market demographic. This money issue often channels a lot of 2nd/3rd tier developers into a ‘Simple’ product approach first, targetting the simple/small user-type demographic. Often small or micro businesses, one-man-shows etc are their customers. They spin this into a ‘feature’ (because they have to) and then helps sell it as you identify. Nat, sounds like you have simply outgrown the demographic they are targetting. BTW.. we just use our wikka and love it.

  7. Absolutely. I'm a prime example of someone who will get put off even looking at something if I don't 'get' it immediately, or if it trys to constrain what I'm doing. Hense the reason products like basecamp don't change an awful lot, and why I am resistant to moving away from Basecamp, regardless of my complaints. 

    I suppose what I'm after is the next level of 'simplicity that offers functionality'. A few different views on projects, or in my case, 1 new view – that of each tasks status. Tis a tricky business… :)

  8. We have been using base camp for about 6 months after not being happy with more complex systems. It has worked better, but I am in charge of auditing and tracking and have not been happy with the reports and trying to find things. I agree with you and the comments here.

    What I would like to add: If you simplify what you offer into sets of tasks, you can probably build a custom application that will streamline your whole business. We are doing that now. Simplicity is needed in the business, not necessarily in the software.

    That said, we are building the software to be simple as well.

  9. Nat – good to read your posting as usual. What struck me was your hesitance to say something “not perfect” about the software.

    I am always taken back by the rigid opinions and near fundamentalism that arises among technology folk.

    Glad to see you dared to be a heretic!

    Thanks for offering up the conversation – Mike

  10. Well, one that can surely handle complex projects is my Teamwork, at http://www.twproject.com.

    I’ve tested Basecamp yesterday and to me it feels like reading an A2 sized book, with no index. So maybe its not perfect.. .

  11. I couldn’t understand some parts of this article Simple and Loveable, but I guess I just need to check some more resources regarding this, because it sounds interesting.

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