Tuesday, April 19, 2005

basecamp review

I became interested in basecamp since it seemed to "scratch an itch" that I've had for simple project management for everyday group activities. Since the majority of my friends are non-technical by trade I can never get them to sign-on to services, download software, or any of the myriad things that would allow me to simplify my life. So, I've got Skype installed on my PC ready for VoIP chatting with nobody to chat with (except Cote), Shinkuro for secure IM and file transfer, and a whole bunch of other things with no network to interact with.

So when Basecamp came along I set out to find projects to use it for. Coincidentally, I was planning a camping trip with my friends, the majority located in different cities, so we decided to try it out to organize the trip. What follows is a review of my impressions of using Basecamp with non-technical users on a non-technical project.

First, I had to set up our group site. No problem there, I simply went to the Basecamp website and selected the free, one project plan. The one thing that wasn't clear to me was that you set up a "company" that can have multiple projects within it. I named my "company," northpadrecampingcrew, which I regretted the instant I logged on to our website and saw that I had to create a project. The company is used to set up the virtual domain for your project site, which means that this site can't be reused for other things now that the camping trip (our project) is over. Basecamp allows you to delete the project and start a new one under the free membership plan, but the domain name is so specific it's too much of a hassle to explain it to people for other projects. While not a big deal (I can create another free account and just delete this one), some sort of explanation of the project/company relationship during the setup process might be helpful, though it might the setup process a little slower.

Once I logged onto our site, I created our project "Camping Trip," and began adding people to the project. Once again, the project vs. company issue reared its ugly head because I invited some people from the company page, and others from the project page, which meant that some members didn't have default access to the "camping trip" project. Despite what seems like criticism, I will say that once you realize you've made a mistake with Basecamp, it becomes relatively easy to identify what is going on and how to fix it.

Editing categories, developing to-dos and milestones are all pretty easy to do and comprehend, so I began putting in initial items and assigning them to various people (who brings food, what camping gear we needed, etc.) Once members started logging in and giving their thoughts I realized that the concept of Project Management is a little foreign to non-technical users. First, the delineation between messages and todos are fuzzy (intentionally flexible by design), but this led to some people posting todo items in response to other todo items. For example, there might be a todo item "bring 5 gallons of water - assigned to Paul created by Ed" and beneath that you would see a todo item "I'll bring the water, no prob - assigned to Ed created by Paul." The concept of moving the dialogue to another screen in the webapp was a little unintuitive to a lot of people.

Second, the Dashboard is your default screen when you log-in. The Dashboard gives a running log of recent activity since your last log-in in reverse chronological order . This means you will see comments to messages, messages, recent todo items, etc. all in a big giant list. While not a problem once the user gets familiar with the site, it's a little intimidating to the non-techie jumping into a project mid-stream once activity has been started. The most common complaint I heard, after, "why are we using a website to plan a weekend camping trip?" was, "I logged on to the site, it made no sense, so just tell me what I need to do so I can do it." I think a lot of this confusion would've been avoided if the Dashboard wasn't the first page these people saw. Maybe a default action of going straight to the todos or messages when a member logs in for the first time would be helpful.

Finally, I didn't like the way the interface seemed to default to emailing todo items to people. At one point I decided to just make a todo list for gear with each item being an item we needed to bring so people could just check off if they had something. I didn't realize that the email default was set, so everybody involved in the project got emails like, "Tent" or "50' nylon rope" that didn't make much sense to them.

On the plus side, I have to say that the more that people used the site, the smoother things seemed to flow. Once people got over the initial "culture shock" of the site, they seemed to use it pretty well. I found that using my administrator powers to move erroneous todos and post messages with the deleted information seemed to help people understand what each aspect of the site was used for. We posted directions to the campgrounds, got equipment needs divvied up, and placed member contact info in one easy to lookup place. The comments sections were soon used for in-jokes, conversations, and generally made the group planning easier and more fun.

All in all, I would recommend Basecamp for use for personal, social projects. It was worthwhile and the price is right. However, I would advise people that they should ignore the Dashboard when they first log-in and just poke around the site (starting in the Milestones, Todos, and Messages) and just post a message or comment or two to get acclimated.

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Blogger Derek Organ said...

sounds like your should be using there new product backpack. Basecamp is more for copanies with multiple projects as opposed to social events.

7:50 AM  
Anonymous Paul said...

I'd try OnStage. It might fit your needs a little better.

4:53 PM  

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