Last updated January 16th, 2024 at 07:09 pm
Basecamp is one of the online collaboration tools I currently use with clients (Trello is another; I wrote about it here). This article — a work in progress — explains how Basecamp is structured, how it works, and how you can make the most of it.
(A project of 37signals, Basecamp has several versions. nSiteful’s Basecamp account uses Basecamp2, and that is the version covered in this article.)
It helps to have a basic understanding of the structure of Basecamp before diving into some guidelines for its effective use, so here goes. (If you want, skip this section and jump down to the actual Basecamp Guidelines & Tips section.)
A Basecamp project is a self-contained online forum space used for discussing and collaborating on a real-world project. In my case, pretty much every Basecamp project I manage is for a website project.
To “join” a project, you must have a Basecamp user account (free for clients), and you must be “invited” to a project by the project manager (usually me) and accept the invitation.
(You could be a member of multiple Basecamp projects. If so, you’re presented with a list of your projects upon logging in, and you can jump between them at will.)
Discussions represent the heart of a Basecamp project. Think of discussions as email threads. Any project member can start a discussion, and any project member can contribute to that discussion by posting comments, which are like replies, and/or by attaching computer files.
A discussion consists of a starter message and, optionally but usually, comments, which can be thought of as email replies. Basecamp refers to all of the posts in a discussion thread as “messages”.
A Basecamp “To-do” is a special type of discucssion, in that it can have a due date and an assigned member associated with it. To-dos are organized into To-do Lists. Project members can comment on To-dos, just as they can to other types of discussions.
Files of various types (PDFs, images, videos, audio recordings, etc.) can be added to a project in one of two ways: Most commonly, members attach documents directly to a discussion message, as a way to illustrate or elaborate on the topic of that discussion message. Alternatively, files can be uploaded to a project directly, without attaching it to any specific message. Project members can comment on files uploaded in this manner.
Basecamp Events are another special type of discussion. Events can have dates, times, attendees, and comments associated with them.
Text Documents are unlike all the above elements. Text documents allow members to collaborate on a document in real time. Revision history is shown, and project members can see who made which changes. An example of a use case for a text document would be an announcement letter for which the project manager wants input from all project members.
Basecamp Guidelines & Tips
Get to Know the Main Project Screen
The main project screen is your friend.
At a glance, it displays an overview of activity in your project, along with links to get you where you want to go.
Here’s a keyed diagram with explanations.
This main navigation menu lets you jump to discussions, To-dos, Files, Events, and Text Documenhts.
Latest project updates:
The Lastest project updates section shows the three (3) most recent messages, along with excerpts of each message, a link to view the full message, and a link to view all project messages, displayed in reverse chronological order. Viewing all project messages in date order can be extremely useful: If you’re looking for a particular message, you might be more likely to find it by date and time than by the subject line.
Note that the term “Update” is synonymous with “message” here.
The Discussions section shows the five (5) most recently updated discussions, along with an excerpt of the most recent message in that message thread, a link to the first message in that discussion thread, and a link to all open discussions.
Note also a link to “Archived discussions”. In order to keep the project uncluttered, inactive discussions can be archived. When appropriate, archived discussions can be unarchived.
If your project has multiple To-do lists, they will all display in this section, along with the yet-to-be-completed to-dos. From here you can view the lists, the active to-dos, and any completed to-dos.
Use Meaningful Subject Lines
When posting a new message, use a meaningful and concise subject line. (This is the same advice I give and try to follow when sending emails.) Ask yourself, “In a month, when I want to review this discussion, what subject line would I search for?”
For example, if you want to discuss the top hero section of your home page, use a subject line like “Homepage Top Hero Section” rather than “Home Page” or “Thoughts” or “Update”.
One Specific Topic Per Discussion Thread
When posting a new message or replying to an existing one, please stick to the specific topic at hand. (This, too, is the same advice I give and try to follow when sending emails.)
I think this guideline “violation” tends to occur when a project member has added a relevant comment and then thinks,
Hey, while I’m here, let me talk about these other things that are on my mind. Please try to avoid that. Instead, start a new discussion.
Bundling multiple topics into one message is a false economy. Sure, it’s easier for the person posting the message in the short run, but it makes it harder in the long run for everyone to find and revisit messages.
One Discussion Thread for a Specific Topic
This is the flip side of the above tip (One Specific Topic Per Discussion Thread).
Avoid creating a brand new discussion thread if you’re wanting to discuss a topic that already has an existing discussion thread. Doing so only makes it difficult for project members to find what they need when they need it.
This is NOT to say that you shouldn’t create a new spinoff discussion thread when it’s called for (keep reading).
Create Spinoff Discussions When Appropriate
It’s not unusual for a discussion thread to veer off in a slightly different direction. In such cases, don’t be afraid of starting a new spinoff discussion.
Here’s an example.
Suppose there is an existing discussion thread about your website’s About page. The subject of the discussion thread is “About Page Content”. Presumably, project members used that thread to identify and briefly describe the desired content sections for the page (e.g., Our Team; Our Vision; Our Facility).
Now, it might be time to discuss in greater depth the “Our Team” section of the About page. By all means start another discussion entitled something like “About Page: Our Team”.
Don’t Hijack Discussions
This guideline is closely related to the “One Specific Topic Per Discussion Thread ” guideline.
Here’s the difference.
In my experience, some people have a tendency to reply — to emails as well as Basecamp messages — by simply finding SOME message and then clicking “Reply”.
Please don’t do this.
(You know who you are. Enough said.)
Post Replies Directly from Email
Every time something (a message, a file, etc.) is posted to a Basecamp project, the poster has the option of instructing Basecamp to send an email notification of that post to any or all of the project members.
The beauty of this is that the recipients of the Basecamp email notification can reply to that email notification from their email inbox — without clicking over to Basecamp! That reply will be inserted into the discussion in Basecamp for all project members to see.
All you have to do when replying by email is enter your comments above the line indicated.
Choose Whom to Notify
Before posting something (a message, file, event, etc.) to Basecamp, you can select which members of your project should receive email notifications of the post. In the case of an existing discussion thread, Basecamp will — by default — preselect the members who were selected to receive a notification for the previous message in that discussion thread.
Not every project member needs to receive notifications of every post. So, to avoid bombarding people, uncheck names of project members who don’t need immediate notifications. Remember: Your messages will be there in Basecamp for all project members to to see, whether you’ve checked their names for notification or not.
The Basecamp search box can be very helpful, especially in preventing duplicate discussions from being created. Remember: Having multiple discussions about the same topic can make things difficult for your project team. If you think the topic has already been discussed, take a moment to look for it. Note that when entering a search term in the search box, you can select the context for the search to be “Search within this project“.
When in Doubt, Let Common Sense Rule
All of these guidelines and tips focus on the most basic requirement of any project management system: the need for team members to find information as efficiently as possible. In a sense, all of these recommendations and admonitions stem from the mis en place principle: A Place for Everything and Everything In Its Place.
Not so long ago (in fact, much more recently than I like to admit), I had what I thought was a brilliant realization. I was looking for a tool I had misplaced. I didn’t find it in the first place I looked or the second place I looked, but I found it in the third place I looked. After I used the tool, I started to put it back where I had found it. Thankfully, I had a palm-to-forehead moment and put it where I had originally expected to find it (the first place I looked) rather than where I did eventually find it.
Ever since then, whenever I store something away (whether it’s a tool, a piece of paper, a computer file, etc.), I try to take the time to ask myself,
Where would I look for this the next time I need it? rather than
How can I put this away as quickly as possible?
The point of my analogy is that whenever you’re posting messages to Basecamp, I urge you to think about making it as easy as possible for you and others to find that message when they need it rather than making it easy for you to post it. Does that make sense?
All tools and systems have learning curves, and Basecamp is no different.
I hope you find the suggestions in this article useful. If you’re a client and think you might have been the inspiration for one or more of these guidelines and tips, (a) no offense intended, and (b) you probably have company.
I’m interested in your thoughts on this topic. If you use Basecamp, is there anything in this article you think might help you use the tool more effectively or efficiently? Is there anything you learned today that you didn’t know before? Do you have other suggestions? What do you like about Basecamp? What don’t you like? Please let me know in the comments below.