Basecamp is arguably the most well-known and well-used of online project and team management web apps, but with attention and use comes criticism and complaint. Rashmi Sinha of SlideShare finds it’s not keeping up with her team’s needs. Emily Chang, founder of eHub, recently expressed her […]

Basecamp is arguably the most well-known and well-used of online project and team management web apps, but with attention and use comes criticism and complaint. Rashmi Sinha of SlideShare finds it’s not keeping up with her team’s needs. Emily Chang, founder of eHub, recently expressed her frustration with the lack of Basecamp-Highrise integration. And Douglas Karr canceled his Basecamp account today (though more because he disagreed with the 37Signals’ blog than because of his issues with the software).

Basecamp provides to do lists, messages, milestones, collaborative documents, chat, time tracking, and a shared file repository — so it seems to offer nearly everything a smallish team needs for project management and knowledge capture. It’s simple to use, but sometimes too inflexible. For example, I use Writeboards (collaborative wiki-type documents) to manage Web Worker Daily’s weekly conference call agendas but cannot reorder them or sort them by date. They are always ordered alphabetically, leaving the current agenda often buried amongst other Writeboards.

Rashmi suggests that Basecamp demonstrates little “findability.” You have to go to a separate page to search and then it doesn’t even search everything (to dos, for instance, aren’t included). Basecamp doesn’t support tagging or sub-categories or search within categories.

Rashmi wonders what might serve as a better alternative. Here are a few ideas.

Online project management apps. That is, direct competitors to Basecamp. Offerings include Goplan from Webreakstuff, newly launched Lighthouse, activeCollab available as a download that you host yourself or hosted at collab.ws, and Atlassian’s Jira. The main benefit of using a dedicated project management system, besides the dashboards and notifications that keep your project on track, is the structured data and process it provides. You don’t have to define how to dos, tickets, and milestones work; it’s already defined for you. But this can be their greatest drawback as well, because these applications may force you to work in ways that don’t suit you, your project, or your team.

Wikis. You can choose from hosted services like PBWiki, Wetpaint, and Wikispaces or host your own with free downloadable wiki software such as MediaWiki or Socialtext Open. Wikis are great for capturing and archiving team knowledge. However, they’re not designed with specific support for task management, issue tracking, or scheduling — so if you need extensive structured support in that arena, you might want to consider another option, or use wikis in tandem with some more structured project management application.

Online office suite. Take GMail, GCal, plus Google Docs & Spreadsheets and you could manage a project reasonably well. On the pro side, you could keep the information pretty well structured using the calendar and spreadsheets. You could capture knowledge in online documents. It wouldn’t force you into any particular project management processes, but wouldn’t give you the benefits of those either. If you wanted dashboard or notification-type features, you’d probably have to custom-build them yourself, though, and that’s a serious undertaking.

Concoct your own. Stowe Boyd has described how he’d like to use Stikkit’s semi-structured information capture with Zoho document editing capabilities and Box.net file storage and file access control to create an interpersonal organizer. This may be the way of the future: taking discrete tools and combining them (or using integration the toolmakers build) to put together a system that suits your needs and your team’s needs better than anything anyone else designed with their own needs in mind. Again, you’re not going to get a detailed dashboard or complex workflow with notifications if you go this route, at least not without some fancy programming of your own. But you might come up with something that fluidly and frictionlessly encourages project success.

What’s best for your team and your projects? Of course it depends on what kind of work you’re doing, with whom you’re working, how many people are on the team, and numerous other variables. While you’re deciding, check out these tips for getting your virtual team started on the path to productivity.

You’re subscribed! If you like, you can update your settings

  1. activecollab is great and preferable, in my opinion, to basecamp. i’ve been using it with my clients for a while now and it serves my needs rather well.

    on the hosted wiki front, i find stikipad to have the best options with the lowest barrier for entry.

    1. Activecollab isn’t the greatest in my opinion. Using basecamp now, but still unhappy. Found the RULE.fm productivity tool (http://rule.fm) on twitter and signed up for the August 3rd, launch. Looks pretty sweet, but there was no product tour…guess their waiting to show it till launch.

  2. One other option that you did not mention is the project management feature in Jotspot (now owned by Google).

  3. Rashmi nails it — findability is the achilles heel of Basecamp. Poor search experience; no headlines-only view of messages; no filter-by-author view of activity within a project; inflexibility with respect to sorting message, writeboards etc.

    I live with these things because of the things that Basecamp does well, but many of the people I work with absolutely hate the program, and their reluctance to use it is frustrating me nearly to the point of jumping ship.

    The thing is, none of these findability problems seem hard to fix to me, from either a technical or design standpoint, and I can’t see how solving them would run afoul of the 37signals creed, either.

    Here’s hoping Jason and crew get on the stick and continue to improve their bread-and-butter offering.

    1. 3 years later, and Basecamp has made no noticeable improvements. Like personal RSS feeds.

  4. It’s easy to complain about anything. I defend Basecamp because of its ease of use and the low price. And unlike more robust project management software apps like MS Project, its not a project in itself to use. You just use it.

  5. A new project management site I already like better than any of the above mentioned, and it’s free to boot:

    From their about page:

    “We’re keeping it free, as we’re hosting on our own server, out of our apartment. We already had the internet link and server in place from other projects so we have no running costs, other than our time.”

  6. Erlend Simonsen Sunday, April 8, 2007

    I just thought I’d mention that ClockingIT is open source as well, so it’s quite possible to grab a copy and host it on your own server.

  7. Anne Zelenka Sunday, April 8, 2007

    Since Jotspot isn’t taking new registrations, it doesn’t seem like a viable alternative right now. I’m really interested to see how it looks once it’s googlified though.

    Ian: I agree, the findability problems don’t seem technically hard to fix. On their forums, Jason Fried mentions they’ll be working on search this year, so perhaps enhancements are on the way.

    Yes, Figgy, it’s easy to complain about anything — and Basecamp does a lot of things right. It’s really easy to get started using it. It does a ton for you that a wiki or office suite wouldn’t do. Certainly it’s easier to use than MS Project though it’s not a substitute for that, lacking as it is in advanced project management features like resource scheduling, PERT charts and Gantt charts.

    Thanks for the pointer to ClockingIT, Bjorn and Erlend. I’ll check it out.

  8. Proletarium : Alternativas a Basecamp Sunday, April 8, 2007

    [...] en Hipertextual lo usabamos bastante pero donde este la lista de correo, que se quite todo. En WWD hay una par de sitios interesantes para cambiar de Basecamp a otro [...]

  9. I agree on Basecamp no being flexible enough, it’s the reason I dropped it as well. I’ve looked at all of these (except Lighthouse), and run activecollab myself twice now on trial runs. As a freelancer, I’m not usually needing collaboration, and many of my clients don’t or won’t even look at these methods. Most prefer email and phone calls, so the software ends up having to be for me.

    I’ve decided to try building my own, using ExpressionEngine as a backend. Since I use EE for most of my clients and my own site, I’m already familiar with it, and it’s ability to flex into whatever situation I throw at it makes things easier. The only problem is that it takes time to do this, so it’s a work in progress.

  10. Mark Phillips Sunday, April 8, 2007

    Here’s a blog post from our blog comparing Basecamp to other web-based alternatives (including our own offering).


    Describes many of the issues discussed above.

Comments have been disabled for this post