Basecamp as a project management tool for web projects

Launched in 2004, Basecamp is one of the oldest web-based project management and collaboration tools on the web.  With 150,000 companies using Basecamp, it’s definitely one of the most successful PM tools out there. 37signals, the company behind Basecamp relaunched Basecamp as “New Basecamp” back in March this year. The “old” Basecamp Classic is still available and it is still possible to sign up for a Basecamp Classic account. Since the classic version is not actively promoted any longer, this blog post refers only to the “New Basecamp“.

Instead of reviewing all features of Basecamp and comparing them to other tools, let’s focus on five real life requirements for a project management tool which is used for managing web development projects. These requirements are experiences we gathered in the last couple of years.

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Email integration and notification

You might think that email integration and notifications are just nice little handy features of a web-based PM-tool. With 2.9B users, email is still the lowest common denominator of communication. Our experience showed, that working with different clients on different foreign project management tools requires decent notifications to keep project members informed about progress and updates. Whereas notifications within a PM tool are handy, receiving relevant project updates by email is crucial for a consistent adoption of all team members. This is specifically true for slowly evolving projects.

How to invite other people to a Basecamp project

Invite your friends to your project.

Set up what Basecamp should send you.

Basecamp sends emails to invite new team members to join a specific project which makes it easy to let customers participate in the project management. It also sends optional daily recap emails every morning to start the day with an overview. If a task gets assigned to a person, he or she will be also informed by email and the owner of a completed to-do will also be notified.

Tasks for project management!

Divide and conquer: smaller chunks of work are better manageable. Tasks are therefore the atoms of each PM tool. Basecamp’s user interface for adding tasks is extremely simple: tasks can be easily assigned to project members and each task can have an optional due date. However, the only way to organize your tasks in Basecamp are task-lists.  Such lists do not have a due date, which means that there is no possibility to organize a project in a milestone-approach.

How to assign a task in Basecamp

Assign tasks to your team members and add a due date.

This might be an aftermath of their vanished but still accessible BasecampHQ Manifesto, where the founders of Basecamp cast their believe in the inherent chaotic nature of projects and generally don’t believe in visual representations of projects, such as Gantt charts. If you don’t share this ideology, Roadmap integrates well with Basecamp and adds the missing parts for visual people.

If you want to collect feedback or want to track bugs within a to-do list, Usersnap can create automatically to-do list entries including an annotated screenshot – the annotations are added as searchable text and the screenshot will appear as attachement of the corresponding to-do entry. Instead of creating a task and subsequently adding a screenshot, issues can be added were they appear: directly in the browser.

Getting an overview

Freshly set up projects always have a clear starting point and a specific due date.  However: chances are, that a project does not follow a clear start-stop lifecycle but rather gets halted or delayed for a couple of weeks or months. Sometimes this can happen within short notice, and as fast it was stopped it’s reopened again. Such dynamic processes are hard to be controlled as they are often introduced by customers. Therefore, one of the most important features of a PM tool is to get a quick overview of the prior evolution of a project, not only because it was interrupted but also to get new people on track quickly.

How to get an overview in Basecamp

The Basecamp Progress should get you an overview of all project activities.

The new Progress-feature shows you past events and allows to re-establish an overview if you want to see the last activities. The information provided is pretty dense, but one can at least track the evolution of the project. Another new possibility is the “Everything” feature, which provides individual links to every discussion, every open to-do and so on which yields nothing else but a specific sliced view of events in your project.

Project specific knowledge base

Apart from having the possibility to add documents to a project it’s extremely useful to have a simple wiki or note-tool to collect thoughts or protocols from meetings or to prepare draft documentations. It’s not only the content, but often the evolution of a document which allows a project state to be understood. That is: having access to prior versions of a document is invaluable to understand certain decisions.

Basecamp allows to add simple notes to a project which can be discussed by the team members below. It also offers a minimal history of the evolution of the document, which shows changes but is not comparable to a full version controlled document management system.

Basecamp's notes editor

The simple notes editor.

Basecamp's history for notes

One can get at least an idea who modified a note in the past, comparing different versions is not possible.

Apart from adding notes, Basecamp allows to add files to tasks, but only as comment, which takes some getting used to. Documents such as PDF or images which should be accessible project-wide can also be added. Linking those files in comments or in notes is not be possible, anyways – all files have their own discussion panel where the content can be discussed.

Calendar integration

Basecamp’s integrated calendar shows all tasks with due-date and all events of a project on a different calendar. Calendars can be integrated to your own favorite calendar application via iCal, which is not password protected. A quick test with Google Calendar worked well, however it is a read-only integration, that is: to mark a to-do list entry as completed one has to use Basecamp’s own integrated calendar application.

add an event to the basecamp calendar

The integrated calendar works well – adding events is very easy. Anyways, it would be nice if a event could consist of a couple of tasks to mimick a milestone.

events in overview

Events appear in the project overview – unattached to anything else in the project.

What’s missing. Angle: web development projects

The new Basecamp is a slick and reduced general project management tool with a clear focus on the core functionality of a PM tool. The on-board features might suffice for small general purpose projects. Specific requirements can be added via Basecamp’s approach of a marketplace – Basecamp Extra. Pricing is reasonable, starting from 20 USD / month for 10 projects and 3GB storage. With some Addons, Basecamp can be tweaked to fulfil the requirements for web development projects. Given that they launched the new Basecamp only a couple of months ago, it remains exciting to see what 37signal decides to add as core features and what functionality must be added by 3rd party extras.


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