As the lead on a major new project, Perpetual Media, I have been searching for a better project management app. For the past year I’ve been using Trello. Trello is great for simple task lists for myself and for the single-man-show that is Charleston Software Associates. However Trello falls far short when it comes to large complex projects with a big team, many tasks, multiple documents, due dates, task dependencies and more.
Having been at this software and management gig for two decades, I’ve come across Basecamp many times in the past. I’ve used it both for my companies and as a consultant for other companies that ran the Basecamp projects. After a brief search for alternatives I moved the Perpetual Media project from Trello to Basecamp as the project team grew and task management became more complex. Within 48 hours I had logged a significant number of shortcomings.
Sadly, every time I communicated with Basecamp support they very quickly responded to my inquiries with “Sorry, you cannot do that in Basecamp at the moment.” Yes, Basecamp support was lightning fast. That was great. But fast support is easy when you only need to press the canned “you cannot do that” response button. Makes it easy to work through an incoming support queue.
What Is Wrong With Basecamp?
Here is my short list compiled in the first 24 hours of use while managing a team of 3 other people that are not as geeky as I. The biggest problems by far are the TONS of duplicate links and content, disconnected discussion threads, and search that does not always find what I need within the project.
Cannot link existing discussion to new task.
Start a discussion, then derive a task from that discussion. You cannot make this discussion the default thread for the task.
This is an issue as now any comments made under the task creates a second discussion. Which leads to the next issue.
Cannot merge discussions.
Not too mention you cannot merge multiple related threads into a single discussion.
Every Task, Discussion Etc. Creates A New File
Start a discussion, attach a Google Doc file (GD file) i .e. a Pitch Deck . It adds a file to the file list on the project.
Create a task based on that discussion. There is no way to reference that pre-existing GD file. Thus you need to attach the very same GD File, creating a second copy of the GD file.
Cannot Assign Task To Multiple People
Create a task to assign to a team or a few individual people? Cannot be done. Hugely lame. Should allow for at least assignment to a team.
Cannot Create Subtasks
Create a task that has subtasks? Not possible. Good-bye any concept of dependencies or “this needs to be done before that is done” or even “this big task requires these several small tasks be done”.
BC Docs (Notes/Text Docs) has no indent feature.
Docs, like this on Basecamp, has no way to indent paragraphs. Or bullets lists so you can have standard bullet indents.
Create a Link in a BC Doc – links you off-BC
Add a link like this: http://www.google.com/ to a BC note and now every time you click it you are off BC instead of having it open in a new tab.
Cannot Rearrange Order of Primary Sections on a Project
You cannot re-arrange the page layout of a project. For example you cannot put the To Do list above the discussions. As per the above topics the current layout leads to people creating stand-alone discussions first when they should be discussions attached to a To Do item. Since there is no merge discussions this creates threads about the same topic that are never connected. It become a laborious process to track down all relevant comments/discussion.
Seeking A Solution
Gahhh…. the more I use BaseCamp the more cumbersome it becomes! I’ve reviewed at least 6 other PM tools. Most are overly complex. BaseCamp is the best SIMPLE interface I’ve found so far.
However, after searching for a phrase I know I had in a discussion and getting 12 WRONG results, I’m on the PM search again this morning.
Someone, somewhere MUST have made a Project Management Tool that does not SUCK!
Before we make another jump, which consumes far too much energy, I am going to research and setup, and try to get things done in whatever tool I find before inviting anyone to the app. For now use BaseCamp but I don’t think it will be long-lived.
Based on their canned “sorry BaseCamp cannot do that now” response and how many people I’m finding that have complained about the very same shortcomings for YEARS, I don’t think BaseCamp has any real interest on improving their user experience. Sad for such a good start.
A lesson for PM: continually innovate & improve or die.
Alternatives To Basecamp
Here are some alternatives I tried. I did not perform in-depth reviews. My primary goal is to get a job done. If something was difficult/confusing when getting started I dumped it. Apps should be intuitive and get you “out of the gate” without performing 10 hours of setup or reading 12 pages of documentation (yes, I know I MUST improve that for my Store Locator Plus experience for my customers!). If a project management tool required me to perform ANY setup other than start typing a project name, inviting some people, and typing a task name before using it the project was out. Here is what I found.
Pros: Simple account creation, simple setup, good user interface that makes it very easy to start creating “task groups” (lists) and tasks (cards). Easy to assign multiple people and due dates to cards.
Cons: Hard to find and manage the calendar interface, event/time based entries seem secondary, no good overall document management/pool, no over-arching “view or discussion” for a project as a whole, my users found it difficult to find things.
Bottom line: for a large complex project you quickly end up with far too many cards and lists due to the “task list is king” focus of Trello. Great for simpler projects and to-do list. I use it for my personal “do this today/tomorrow/next week” reminders and task management.
I’ve used JIRA in the past. It is a big complex beast that takes some time to setup. I didn’t evaluate that tool this time around due to multiple crashes and problems when trying to get it setup as the “next step” in my Bitbucket repository management. I tried to setup a small team of programmers to help with Bitbucket tasks, but JIRA imported things incorrect, took an inordinate amount of time to configure and setup, and after spending hours on email and live chat with the tech support team to be left with a “we need to look into this” result, I decided JIRA was not for me. A week later they got back to me to tell me they “reset the project” and “try again”. Try wasting 12 hours getting it to work for a second time and hope it went OK? No thank you.
Why I didn’t consider it for this project? I am familiar with the UI and it is far too complex for my team to work efficiently in the system.
Software should NOT be training users it should be serving the users silently and without fail.
I signed up for Mavenlink and tried to get my first project and tasks started. After 15 minutes answering questions to get the project configured, half of the time spent on “set the template and look-and-feel of the project”, I gave up. Far too much time configuring and “turning dials” rather than “jumping right in” to creating projects and tasks and attaching related documents. I should not have to decide on the best UI for my users. They should provide a default and let me tune it later. I don’t want a tool I need to configure.
There are also far too many buttons and menus all over the place. This will confuse the members of my team as they hunt for “what to click” to get their job done.
I quickly dismissed Mavenlink due to the “overloaded UI”.
Podio, now owned by Citrix, was written off almost immediately. It took me far too long to dig around their overly-enterprise 90’s style web menus to find screen shots and information about the Podio product. Once I found what I was looking for I could tell that simple UX and modern design style was not their strong suit. They are geared toward large bloated enterprises that are used to 80’s and 90’s style user interface architecture with 3,000 menus and a myriad of complex setup rules that they feel make an app better. Bigger is not always better. Sometimes simple works best.
I got a little further with TeamworkPM than some of the other apps I tried. The sign up was simple and the interface is a decent compromise between overly-complext menu-driven systems like Mavenlink and Podio and the simplistic UI of Basecamp or Trello. I created projects and tasks quickly but the next major element for my project management tool was adding Google Docs to the tasks.
The failure to quickly and easily attach pre-existing Google Docs to the tasks was a failure. We use Google Docs extensively as I prefer their collaborative editing and discussion suite over solo desktop-based solutions. The inability to easily add Google Docs to the project was an immediate set back and terminated my evaluation of TeamworkPM. When I go to files/add files it should provide me with a Google Docs or Upload option. Basecamp nailed it. TeamworkPM would do well to emulate that part of the Basecamp experience.
I am on the quest to find the right PM for us. I need a simple UI. I need to be able to add my team members, create a project, assign tasks, and attach Google Docs with ease. When I attach a document or start a discussion I should not end up creating 300 duplicates of the same content. Finally I must be able to search and find the relevant content within a project or across all projects with ease.
On to some more project management app reviews. I may even post about my findings if I find the right one or add to the list of failed attempts.
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