Why Do People Dislike Basecamp? “Blank Canvas” Syndrome?

By Spicer Matthews

I collaborate with lots of different teams, and collaboration often involves project management software. I myself am a Basecamp junkie, but when I suggest Basecamp or ask others why they do not use the application I frequently get responses ranging from the relatively benign “Basecamp does not do what we need” all the way to the snarky “Basecamp sucks.” I always find these appraisals of Basecamp curious. I typically make a small sales pitch for Basecamp and then back off, assuming that I might learn something new by collaborating with a different tool. Sadly, I never learn anything new. Every small team I work with uses project management software in the same way: as one big to-do list. So, in my experience, the debate is not about features.

At its core Basecamp is just a fancy to-do list tool. But the folks at Basecamp have done a world-class job of building an amazing application. Adding, assigning, and communicating about tasks is fast, easy, and enjoyable. Basecamp messages are never lost and it is very clear if someone is waiting for you to complete a task. Too often other project management software products on the market fail to achieve the same objectives. As a result, they can be more of an annoyance than a tool.

This post is not a review of Basecamp. What I find so interesting is this: Why isn’t Basecamp used by more of my colleagues? My theory is that Basecamp suffers from “blank canvas” syndrome. When you first create your Basecamp account there is no predefined way to organize your projects. You have an empty window waiting for you to create to-do lists. You have to decide with your team how to use Basecamp. Other project management tools tend to guide you into their way of organizing a project. Being guided is good for getting off the ground—but can be bad for long-term satisfaction with a product.

Do you want software that you can craft to meet the needs of your team (hello Basecamp) or do you want software that your team has to adjust to? When you frame it like that Basecamp should always win. But the blank canvas seems to scare people off before they even come to this realization.

In my experience when a team gets to decide how they engage their project management software the team stays more organized and gets things done faster. When choosing software don't forget that a "blank canvas" might be more powerful than it appears to be.