Needmore Designs was founded not long after 37signals launched the first version of Basecamp. This project management service has never aspired to be sexy, but within the confines of project management software, it’s honestly been about as sexy as you could get. 🤷🏻♂️
It’s also damned useful. It got us through our first dozen years, from one version to the next, to the point where we kind of took it for granted. Its simplicity stood in stark contrast to Microsoft Project or whatever was popular in the early 2000s. Over time, our clients came to genuinely value how good we were at managing projects, and at making them feel like they were working with a super responsive studio.
And then, when version 3 came out, we had kind of a problem. We’d started moving over all of our projects by hand, because that’s how you did it back then… but we started to have problems with our clients.
And our clients are pretty damn important to us.
(Client Service) Trouble in Paradise
When Basecamp 3 launched, it relied on a feature called “Clientside” for talking to your customers. The idea here was that all interactions within Basecamp would trigger a sort of email event, wherein your clients got an email. They could respond to the email, and you would see the response in Basecamp. You could choose which tasks or conversations clients could see, and everything seemed so simple and clean.
The problem is that it was a huge pain in the ass.
Our clients chafed under the (new in this version!) requirement that they only interact with us via email. In the past, they had been able to log into the system at any time and see what the project status was, even if they were clicking on a link in an ancient email. The project lived in the system, and they could check on it whenever they needed to.
Without this ability, our clients grew extremely concerned. Would they have to email us to check on the project? That seemed strange. Why were we suddenly taking all this power away from them? Did we have something to hide??
Clients want to feel empowered. They want to feel invested in the process, and they should. They shouldn’t have to feel like they’re asking a favor of us just to find out where things stand. Asking how things are going shouldn’t automatically be a big, public event.
Leaving the Basecamp
So we left.
We started out slowly, evaluating other systems, and finding one that let us interact with clients in a more trustful way, and so we ended up on ActiveCollab. It had been around for a long time, it had a system that made sense, and it had all the client features we needed.
But it sucked. Every interaction felt like filling out a pile of forms at the DMV. And the typography was angry, with a font that felt like it was designed by a computer and then sat on by a human. The mobile app was frustrating. We were not happy.
We had a system that let us communicate well with clients, but what about the rest of our business?
Piling On the Services
We discovered Slack, which was just then launching. It allowed for realtime chat, which we were giving up by leaving Basecamp. We started posting more and more things on there. But being a separate service, we (re)created a room for every project. And being a chat service, what it could do for us was fairly limited.
So to keep track of issues in our development, we started using Github. That let us track issues in a sophisticated way, but with a passable design, and in a place clients couldn’t see. Because we couldn’t necessarily tell what clients would see, or because they saw everything, ActiveCollab couldn’t be trusted. But another issue system could.
While those systems are good for structured issues, there was no place for us to keep simple, quick todo lists and notes. So we turned to Dropbox Paper, since we already had the service for filesharing. This gave us a place to jot things down and make quick lists, and even share folders with clients. But it was separate from all the other systems we used.
This led to Trello for some other things, my personal use of Things for task management and personal projects, and Apple Notes for quick notes. And this resulted in a ton of different places I had to search for every single thing.
And clients? They just fell back on email.
Back to Basecamp!
During this extended period, we’d actually spoken to some folks at Basecamp. They were receptive to our feedback, but rethinking these features takes a lot of time and effort, and one can never assume that another’s business is being built and designed just for helping you. You’re just one of many customers.
But it turns out that this past April, Basecamp changed all that. They ditched the Clientside feature and went with something completely different — and completely appropriate for our needs.
It works great because it lets you know, per-list, per-discussion, and per-asset, which ones are being shared with clients. This gives our team a lot more confidence to post on a shared project without worrying that we’re accidentally talking to the client, or that we are, if that is our intention.
That’s huge. In other systems like ActiveCollab, you either share a project with a client or you don’t. While you can hide discussions from them, they are shown by default, and it’s difficult to discern when one is hidden. It inspires a lot more confidence when new items are private to your team by default, and you can choose to show them to the client.
Perhaps more importantly, the folks at Basecamp are really good at progressive disclosure of complexity. If you haven’t invited a client to a project, you never see those options. If you’re not using categories for posts, you don’t see categories to filter.
It does a great job of showing you just what you need to know, and nothing more, until you actually need it. This level of attention to detail means our team—and our clients—can jump right in and figure things out for themselves.
So returning to Basecamp has, for us, replaced ActiveCollab for projects, Slack for discussion, Github for issues, Dropbox for client file sharing, Dropbox Paper for documentation and task planning, and Things for my own tasks that slipped through the cracks. That’s at least five different paid services.
Not to mention the benefits of a single shared project system, which lets us check a lot fewer places before we know what we need to work on. And unlike Slack, Basecamp makes it simple to share a chat room with a client, should you ever need to.
All under one login and one notification system. A single app on my iPhone and iPad.
They even switched to a really nice font.
If you’ve moved away from Basecamp because it didn’t work for your client-service business, I’d suggest you give it another look. It’s not cheap for a small studio like ours, but when you factor in the cost of all those other services, as well as the time you save being better organized, it might be a bargain.
Most importantly, we are happier, and our clients are happier.