Around eight months ago we made the decision to start using Basecamp to manage nearly all our projects.  Prior to the move to Basecamp, we used a patch work of tools to manage our work.  We had an internal wiki we used for many of our task lists and project documentation.  We used a bug tracking system for some of our more intense programming projects.  We used Basecamp for some work.  And for some projects we relied on emails, Outlook task lists, whiteboards and Excel sheets.

While in retrospect this random approach to project management seems dysfunctional, it really wasn’t a huge problem until we started growing and hiring new people.  When you have a small group of people that have worked together a long time, formal process and tools are less important.  You just sort of know how people work, where they saved their files and how they want to be communicated with.  However, this reliance on personal relationships falls apart when the volume of work increases and you have to integrate new employees into a poorly defined process.  It doesn’t scale.

So we started using Basecamp.

The Bad

Our experience has mostly been positive, so I figured I’d start with the problems we’ve had using the system and then close with the positives.

  1. Our developers don’t really like it.  For our programming heavy projects, our developers feel Basecamp’s bug tracking (which has to be done through tasks) and project management tools simply aren’t powerful enough.   They want and need more features than Basecamp has.  This held us up for a long time, but we ended up compromising.  We use Basecamp for 90% of the firm’s work and manage a few, programming heavy projects using other tools.
  2. It is easy to fall off the wagon.  Basecamp is most useful when you use it to manage every task on a project.  If you don’t have the discipline to enter everything in Basecamp, you’ll have an incomplete picture of what is going on with a project and be driven crazy.  If you have one person that stops using Basecamp on a project, the value of the tool drops dramatically and things we’ll be forgotten.  You either need to use it all the way, or not at all.  Using it halfway really doesn’t work, in my experience.  Note this same criticism could probably be written about all project management tools.
  3. People forget to check off tasks. Along similar lines, it is really important for people to check things off when they complete a task.  If you don’t, the system will be riddled with out of date tasks and Basecamp will lose value.  Constant vigilance is the way to go here.
  4. The calendar function isn’t intuitive.  Basecamp has a system called Milestones, which are key dates in the life of the project.  You can associate a task list with a milestone, but can’t give a due date to an individual task the way you can in Highrise.  This doesn’t really fit our work flow.  As a result, we enter milestone dates and put due dates in the task description, which isn’t really ideal.  The  end result is that we really struggle to keep our Basecamp calendar up to date and relevant.
  5. It is not a great way to share work with a client.  Basecamp allows you to add other companies to the system and grant them access to certain projects.  Theoretically, this would allow you to grant clients access to the tool and use it to collaborate with them.  Unfortunately, this doesn’t really work, as doing this is the equivalent of inviting a restaurant patron into the kitchen.  No one needs to see how the sausage gets made.

The Good

Now on to the positives:

  1. It is super easy to use.  In most bug tracking / project management systems you have to fill out a complicated form in order to submit a new task.  In Basecamp, you fill out one field and can add/check off bugs without loading a new page due to the use of AJAX.  Using Basecamp doesn’t take a lot of time and is mostly a pleasant experience.  This is vitally important to getting people to use it.
  2. Our designers like it.  While our programmers have been resistant, Basecamp is the first tool our designers have really embraced and used consistently.
  3. Everything in one place. The Files feature is simple and really powerful.  We try to store all iterations of wireframes and design comps in Basecamp.  This ends up saving lots of time that would be wasted searching for files, and creates  a centralized way to collect feedback.  Simple, but extremely useful.
  4. It is great for collaborating with partners.  We have a variety of projects that we work on with other firms to meet the clients needs.  Basecamp is a great way to make sure everyone is on the same page.  It also is very useful in managing telecommuters.

The Bottom Line

We have given Basecamp the greatest compliment we can give a product – we are actually using it and have made it an integral part of our work flow.

No project management tool is perfect, and no product is going to make everyone happy.  Most software is too feature rich, and tries to make you adapt your work flow based on the way the software works.  We’ve spent a lot of time over the years fighting with, and then abandoning, these types of tools.  Because it focuses on the basics and has a terrific user experience, Basecamp is flexible enough to work in nearly any environment.  It succeeds because it doesn’t try to do to much.

We plan to keep using it.

About the Author
Todd Zeigler
Todd Zeigler serves as the Brick Factory’s chief strategist and oversees the operations of the firm. In his sixteen year career in digital, he has planned and implemented campaigns for clients including the Pickens Plan, International Youth Foundation, Panthera, Edison Electric Institute, and the American Chemistry Council. Todd develops ambitious online advocacy programs, manages crises, implements online marketing strategies, and develops custom applications and software. He is bad at golf though.