Basecamp is a hugely popular and (at least in the web design industry) ubiquitous project management tool used by many web agencies, helping them to manage projects and collaborate with clients.
37 Signals - the makers of Basecamp clearly understood the needs of web designers/agencies, creating an online tool/service which has proven to be the most popular online project management platform around.
Why so popular?
The key principals of why Basecamp proved to be some popular are:
- Simple functionality - did not try to do everything, just did what it did but did it well
- Clean design - designed by designers for designers
- Right place, right time..achieved critical momentum and lots of PR
Ultimately Basecamp was simple and elegant to use, avoiding the trap of trying to do everything but instead focusing on doing a few things really well.
Basecamp was also one of the first software as a service companies to hit that perfect sweet spot where agencies didn’t feel £35 or so per month for such a slick service was a big deal.
So why is Basecamp frustrating the hell out of me?
So if Basecamp hit the right mark, then when am I looking for an alternative to Basecamp?
Don't get me wrong - there’s loads to like with Basecamp, however what started as a lovely, simple tool which ticked the right boxes, now just frustrates and angers me... 37 Signals has failed to grow and develop Basecamp and instead (in my opinion) chosen to ‘milk the cashcow’. It appears that 37Signals decided not to improve Basecamp in any meaningful way, but instead chose to create additional services such as Campfire, and Highrise.
Whilst each new app is great in its simplicity (just like Basecamp), none of the tools quite do the job either. Combining them together (whilst paying 3 times) almost gets you there but the integration between Basecamp, Campfire and Highrise is far from perfect and you are left still lacking in key functionality.
After all these years, how can Basecamp still fail to provide:
a) Tasks to be allocated to multiple people - really?
b) Track time against time estimates/quotes - doh!
Task tracking and time tracking that lack this basic functionality is quite simply, pointless.
When 37Signals interdicted a major upgrade of Basecamp (A.K.A ‘New’ Basecamp as opposed to ‘Classic’ Basecamp), they decided to removed any form of time tracking arguing that no one was using it. Well we were and it was a showstopper. So we started the hunt for some alternatives...
Since this original article was written, Basecamp 3 has been released bringing in a number of changes and improvements including (finally) allowing you to assign multiple people onto tasks and simplifying the pricing by making all packages unlimited users & projects. The upgrade did however fail to introduce usable time tracking, requiring 3rd party extensions to fill the gap, which is from our perspective a glaring hole.
Whilst the update made a number of changes, as you can see from the comments below, many old time users did not appreciate the new design or the simplification of functionality.
Having revisited Basecamp V3, I am sorry to say that the upgrade is not compelling enough to draw me back!!
Trying to find an alternative to Basecamp
Year after year we looked for alternatives to Basecamp, exploring many options such as:
Frustratingly each of these solutions is excellent in many ways, proving to be much more powerful, or flexible and capable than Basecamp, but they each were tragically flawed in other ways. Each year we failed to find an alternative that met our needs, instead staying loyal stuck with Basecamp and a number of in-house tools we developed.
Finding an alternative to Basecamp
Finally we decided to bite the bullet and do something different. The realisation that there is no perfect solution...each one has strengths and weaknesses..the simple question is which medicine will you prescribe to you and your team?
Understanding that there are many great solutions and they either fall down because they lack something, are not-cost effective or simply horrible to use, we had to find a criteria for selecting the right project management tool.
Going back to basics we focused on what frustrated us about Basecamp - not being able to allocate tasks to more than one person and not being able to estimate/quote time on a task and then track against it. Whilst many of the wannabe Basecamp alternatives offered this in one form or another the critical assessment to also apply was usability and transparency.
Using these simple criteria, selection became far simpler, resulting in a replacement for Basecamp - enter ActiveCollab
Having originally assessed ActiveColab many years ago, and rejected it as it was just too basic, we missed the fact the ActiveCollab had grown up (unlike Basecamp) to become a mature project management platform.
ActiveCollab offers all the core functionality you expect
- Task management
- Gantt Charts
- Document management
- Project Quotes
- Time tracking and invoicing (with integration to Xero)
Whilst most solutions on paper state the similar core functions, what made ActiveCollab stand out was that it allowed the tasks to be allocated to multiple people (kinda seems obvious) and also allows time estimates to be allocated to tasks, with users then tracking their time against this - which is absolutely essential if you want your team to see how much time they have spent and how much time they have left to complete the task.
Another nicety is that you can either use this as a SAS (much like Basecamp) starting from about £15 per month for 5 users and (get this) unlimited projects, or you can buy the software at a reasonable (approx. £300) one off cost and install it on your own web servers, allowing you to customise and extend it further. There’s a wide range of extensions and plug-ins offering a much greater degree of control.
Whilst from a usability perspective, ActiveCollab may not be as sweet or elegant as Basecamp, it delivers the key features and functionality we require in a reasonably usable manner and at an affordable price. I can find faults like the lack of drag'n'drop for re-ordering tasks, but the benefits outweigh the downsides.
ActiveCollab may not be perfect, but I am delighted to finally bid farewell to Basecamp.
Update - The upgrade to ActiveCollab V5 radically overhauled the interface, dramatically changing the UI, introducing drag-n-drop and a cleaner more usable layout.
From a usability perspective the Upgrade was welcomed as it dramatically improved the usability and experience of ActiveCollab, however in revamping AC from the ground level up, many features and functions that we were accustomed to using were reworked and in some cases dumbed down or over simplified. Here AC has fallen into the same trap as 37Signals.
The actual rollout of the v5 upgrade was quite a painful process as it introduced bugs which took time to iron out, however the guys at AC allowed us to roll back to earlier versions and engaged with us to solve the issues....in this respect they were great.
Whilst some functionality was lost, new features and functions were introduced including new tasks views such as a Trello style card based view and a Gantt chart view on tasks, allowing for more intuitive visual ways of viewing and managing your tasks. Trello is still slicker, but this is pretty close.
All-in-all the upgrade really enhances ActiveCollab and we love the redesign, however we do miss being able to allocate multiple people on tasks (please bring this back), although this is resolvable using sub-tasks. The other gripe is the design change to time tracking, which is visually less intuitive compared to the old version which made it really easy to see the time used vs time estimated on each task. A final niggle is the fact that AC now frustratingly hides other users time tickets making it harder to check in on how time is being used by colleagues.
Update - So how are we doing with ActiveCollab?
Since the original article we have had many people getting in touch with suggestions of alternatives (yes we know many of these are just trying to promote their own tools), as well as others wanting to know how we are faring with ActiveCollab.
On the second point of how we we getting on with AC, we would have to say things are going really well.
After working with ActiveCollab for the last couple of years, we can say it is not only allowing us to better organise our task management and improve how clients interact with us, but most importantly it is helping the team to work within estimated times, leading to improve efficiency and accountability.
Have you found a project management tool that you think beats Basecamp or ActiveCollab?
We’d love to hear about it!
Finn is a founding director of Liquid Light, and he still (after 22 years of web design) likes to get involved in projects. When he is not worrying about the clients, he is studying Chinese medicine, working with young criminals and doing spartan challenges.