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What Basecamp is Missing

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Users rightfully criticize massive project management systems like MS Project for having too many features and being too confusing to use. To satisfy the backlash from this corner of the market, 37 Signals created Basecamp, a simple project management tool that puts just as much effort into deciding which features not to include as which ones it should.

Unfortunately, Basecamp has swung the pendulum so far in the opposite direction that it's actually too limited, except for very small companies. Here are a few reasons why.

1. No Subtasks or Task Dependencies

We've mentioned before that the “waterfall” approach to management isn't for everybody. Certainly, not all projects are made up of sequential tasks, where every single step must be followed in perfect order in order to work. Basecamp's acknowledgment of this is a good thing.

Unfortunately, they take things too far by not even allowing for subtasks and task dependencies. Certainly, every business encounters projects where some of the tasks depend on others. By failing to even account for this possibility, Basecamp is leaving a gaping hole in their product.

In practice, this means that Basecamp users will end up creating a list of tasks and using a naming convention to indicate which tasks go first. Worse, they have to manually change the dates of every sequential task if an earlier task has its date changed.

Task dependencies acknowledge the way that projects work in the real world. Certainly some tasks overlap and influence one another, but other tasks really do need to be followed in order.

Likewise, subtasks allow teams to identify not just their end goal, but all the pieces of that goal that need to be met, and often assigned to different people. Real-world projects are organized in a hierarchy, not thrown together in a list.

2. A Single Project Focus

Despite aiming for simplicity, Basecamp falls victim to the same nearsightedness that plagues more complex project management software. It's really only built to help team members collaborate on a single project. To its credit, it does achieve this quite well. Unfortunately, it's not especially useful for companies that work on more than one project at a time.

Missing from the interface is a cross-project view that would help managers and employees see a bird's eye view of what's happening with the company.


3. No Native Time-Tracking

This change was a deal-breaker for many fans of the “old” Basecamp. While the classic version included time-tracking capabilities, the new version does not. Time-tracking is more than a way to organize your budget and resources. Time-tracking allows both managers and employees to understand where their time is going.

The purpose of management is, in large part, to ensure the effective and efficient use of time. Time-tracking allows a team to identify which projects are most effective as a function of how much time was spent on them. Without time management, time gets wasted. It all comes back to Drucker's “What gets measured gets managed.”

4. Limited Search Capabilities

Basecamp's search capabilities are rudimentary at best. This is one example of how, as we've said before, limited features aren't necessarily the same thing as user simplicity.

A simple keyword search in Basecamp turns up a mixed list of every kind of result: to-do's, messages, comments, media, milestones, and so on. Perhaps more importantly, Basecamp doesn't have a full text document search capability. You don't see results from within documents, just from the title of the document.

This is far from trivial, since it means that it's nearly impossible to find a relevant document unless you already know the title.

While Basecamp's goal of simplicity is admirable, it comes at the expense of the product being too simplistic, for all but the simplest situations. Simplicity is about giving users an intuitive experience. It's about integrating features, not removing them entirely. Thankfully, there are Basecamp alternatives that strike a balance between simplicity and functionality.
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