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Captured by quality

David
David wrote this on 7 comments

Making stuff good is rewarding, making stuff great is intoxicating. It’s like there’s a direct line from perfection and excellence to the dopamine release. And the reverse is true as well. When you make crappy stuff, you feel crappy. No one likes to work in a broken shop on a broken stool.

So it’s hard to fault people from being attracted to sayings like “Quality is Free”. It validates the good feelings that flow from making stuff perfect, and it makes it seem like it’s a completely free bargain. Win-win and all that.

But like anything, it’s easy to take too far. Almost everything outside of life-critical software has diminishing returns when it comes to quality. Fixing every last bug, eradicating every last edge case, and dealing with every performance dragon means not spending that time on making new things.

You can make the best, most polished, least-defective saddle out there, but if the market has moved on from horses to cars for general transportation, it’s not going to save your business. And it doesn’t even have to be as dramatic as that. Making the best drum brakes is equally folly once disc brakes are on the market.

So you have to weigh the value of continuing to hone and perfect the existing with pursuing the new and the novel. This often happens in waves. You come up with a new idea, and a crappy first implementation. You then spend a couple of rounds polishing off the crap until the new idea is no longer new and crappy, but known and solid. Then it’s time to look hard at whether another round is worth it.

The bottom-line is to make that which is not good enough, good enough, and then skate to where the puck is going to be next.

The Great M&M Taste-Off

Dan Kim
Dan Kim wrote this on 23 comments

We spend a lot of time in Campfire chatting and debating—it’s our virtual water cooler. Recently one particular debate stuck out that had to get settled…

What’s the best tasting M&M on the market today?


Left to right: Our office frog presiding over the event, Peanut M&Ms, M&Ms, Dark Chocolate Peanut M&Ms, Peanut Butter M&Ms, Reese’s Pieces (for contrast, and because we love E.T.)


After careful consideration, an esteemed panel of six judges voted on their favorite. By the narrowest of margins, Peanut Butter M&Ms claimed the throne. The votes broke down as: (3) Peanut Butter M&Ms, (2) Peanut M&Ms, (1) Dark Chocolate M&Ms.

What do you think—are our judges crazy? What other M&M’s should have been included? How did the Peanut Butter M&M disrupt a decades-old market of traditional M&Ms? ;)


Next up: Twix v. KitKat

Drive development with budgets not estimates

David
David wrote this on 11 comments

Much of software development planning is done through estimates. You give me a description of the feature, I give you a best guess on how long it’s going to take. This model has been broken since the dawn of computer programming, yet we keep thinking it’s going to work. That’s one definition of insanity.

What I’ve found to be a more useful model is simply to state what something is worth. If a feature is worth 5 weeks of development, for example, that’s the budget. Such a budget might well be informed by an estimate of whether some version of that feature can be possibly built in 5 weeks, but it’s not driven by it.

Because most features have scales of implementation that are world’s apart. One version of the feature might take 2 weeks, another might take 6 months. It’s all in where you draw the line, how comprehensive you want to be, and what you’re going to do about all those inevitable edge cases.

The standard response to the estimation approach is to propose a 100% implementation that’s going to take 100% of the effort to build. Some times that’s what you need. Nothing less than having everything is going to be good enough. I find that’s a rare case.

A more common case is that you can get 80% of the feature for 20% of the effort. Which in turn means that you can get five 80% features, improvements, or fixes for the price of one 100% implementation. When you look at it like that, it’s often clear that you’d rather get more done, even if it isn’t as polished.

This is particularly true if you don’t have all the money and all the people in the world. When you’re trying to make progress on a constrained budget, you have to pinch your development pennies. If you splurge on gold-plating for every feature, there’s not going to be anything left over to actually ship the damn thing.

That’s what proposing a budget based on worth helps you with. It focuses the mind on what assumptions we can challenge or even ignore. If we only have 5 weeks to do something, it’s just not going to work to go through the swamp to get there. We have to find a well-paved road.

In the moment, though, it can be frustrating. If we just had a little more time, we could do so much better! So much better for whom? Your developer pride? Or the customer? Will the latter actually care about all the spit and grit you poured into these particular corners? Don’t be so sure.

In the end, accepting a budget is about accepting constraints. Here are the borders of scope for our wild dreams and crazy colors. Much of invention lies in the fight within those constraints. Embrace that.

Responsive design works best as a nip'n'tuck

David
David wrote this on 15 comments

It’s pretty amazing how far you can take responsive design these days. Between the latest CSS tricks and a splattering of JavaScript, you can turn an elephant into a mouse, and make it dance on a parallax-scrolling ball. It’s time to reconsider whether you should, though.

There’s a point on the trade-off curve where rearranging everything, hiding half the page, and then presenting it as “the same template, just styled differently” is simply not meaningful. Nor is it simple. Nor is it efficient. A one-size-fits-all HTML base document is not a trophy-worthy accomplishment in itself, lest we forget.

The way we think about this at Basecamp is as a nip’n’tuck. If you’re just stretching or shrinking things a bit, then responsive can definitely be easier (we do that on this blog, for example). But the further you move towards a full make-over, the less it makes sense.

This is particularly true if your framework of choice doesn’t make it needlessly complicated to use separate templates for separate purposes. Rails 4.1 has a feature called variants that makes it trivial to share the controller and model logic of your application, but return different HTML templates when the devices call for it. It’s this feature we’re using for the Basecamp mobile views (which in turn are embedded in our mobile apps) instead of the prevailing responsive paradigm.

By going with dedicated templates, we don’t have to include needless data or navigation that’s going to be hidden by the responsive rules. We have less variables to think about on the individual page. It’s just a simpler workflow where it’s easier to make changes without considering a smather of side effects.

So the next time you’re marveling at a responsive design that’s able to make the best use of a 27” iMac at full screen and a fit neatly on a 3.5” iPhone as well, you might want to ask yourself why you’re trying to make one performer do so many tricks.

Hybrid sweet spot: Native navigation, web content

David
David wrote this on 41 comments

When we launched the iPhone version of Basecamp in February of last year, it was after many rounds of experimentation on the architectural direction. The default route suggested by most when we got started back in early/mid-2012 was simple enough: Everything Be Native!

This was a sensible recommendation, given the experiences people had in years prior with anything else. Facebook famously folded their HTML5 implementation in favor of going all native to get the speed they craved with the launch of their new app in August of 2012.

Thus their decision was likely driven by what the state of the art in HTML and on mobile looked like circa 2010-2011. In early 2010, people were rocking either the iPhone 3GS or 3G. By modern 2014 standards, these phones are desperately slow. Hence, any architectural decisions based in the speed of those phones are horribly outdated.

Continued…

Introducing THE DISTANCE - the business magazine about businesses that haven't gone out of business

Jason Fried
Jason Fried wrote this on 19 comments

I’ve always had a fascination with old. Old trees, old buildings, old people, old objects, and old businesses.

The world is constantly pushing the old out of the way to make room for the new. So if something can stand up to the world, push back, and go the distance, then there’s probably something special about it. I believe those things are worth celebrating.

Today we launch THE DISTANCE, an online magazine that celebrates one type of old thing – the old business. THE DISTANCE is about interesting private businesses that have been in business for 25 years or more.

Everyone talks about how hard it is to start a business. It is hard, but it’s not as hard as staying in business. Every business is new at least once, but very few actually survive to old age (or even adolescence). We want to celebrate those who’ve figured out the hardest thing to do in business: how not to go out of business.

Some of the businesses we’ll be covering have been in business for a hundred years or more. Some are still run by the original founder. Some are now run by a long-time employee. Some are run by the son or daughter of their father’s grandfather who founded the business way back in the day.

Every month we’ll be publishing a new article about one of these businesses to thedistance.com. We’ll introduce you to some real characters, some amazing stories, a few secrets, and the sustained blood, sweat, tears, and persistence required to keep the lights on for so many years.

Our first article is about the Horween Leather Company out of Chicago Illinois. A fourth-generation business founded in 1905, Horween makes leather the old fashioned way. As the last remaining tannery in Chicago, they’ve stood strong, learned how to survive – and thrive – in a challenging environment. They have a lot to teach us.

If you like these kind of stories, we invite you to follow @distancemag on Twitter. We’ll be sharing all sorts of things about old businesses, long-time employees, and other tidbits you may find interesting. Whenever we publish a new story to THE DISTANCE, we’ll announce it first on the Twitter feed.

So, here we go! Head over to thedistance.com to read the story of Horween Leather, the last tannery in Chicago.

And BTW, if you know of great little 25+ year private businesses that would be a good fit for THE DISTANCE, we’d love to hear about them. Could be the mom and pop shop around the corner. Could be the holdout manufacturer on the edge of town. They’re all interesting to us! Drop an email to tips@thedistance.com and we’ll follow up. Thanks for helping us with THE DISTANCE.

audioicon.png

Great UI in Chrome here… I had about a dozen tabs open, and some audio was playing. It was an auto-play ad, so I didn’t initiate it and I didn’t know where it was coming from. I happened to look up in the tab bar and spotted a little speaker icon in one of the tabs (see the middle tab in the photo). I clicked it. Sure enough, that’s where the sound was coming from. When the video ended, the little speaker icon went away. Great little touch that answers a common question… “Where’s that sound coming from?”

Jason Fried on Apr 24 2014 11 comments

Reading the difference

Claire Lew
Claire Lew wrote this on 2 comments

“All that work, and that’s it?”

I remember thinking this to myself a few weeks ago. I’d been building a new homepage for Know Your Company. But I didn’t feel I’d made much progress.

I’d rewritten copy, collected stories from current customers, designed several new pages, made the site more mobile-friendly…

Yet despite these changes, the site didn’t look much different than before. I began to question if I’d accomplished much at all.

Luckily, as I started to feel this way, I happened to be chatting with Jonas, a designer at Basecamp. He’s also the original designer of Know Your Company, and has helped me transition the product into its own company.

Jonas said this to me:

“Claire, go read what the homepage had before.”

I went and did that.

“Okay. Go read it now with your changes.”

I went and looked at my new site.

“See? Before, people looking at your site didn’t know what customers thought about your product. Before, they couldn’t request a product demo as easily. Now, your revised design helps people do those things. So don’t get discouraged because your design doesn’t look different. If you read it, you’ll see it’s much better than it was before.”

What a great reminder.

I’d forgotten my progress simply because it didn’t look different. When you just look at the difference, you might not see much. Text looks like text, regardless of what it’s saying. But if you read the difference, you see how big your changes actually are.

Progress isn’t measured by how different something looks. It’s measured by how useful something has become. Is it making this person’s life easier? Is it doing the job you want it to do? Reading the difference, not just looking at it, reveals your progress.

So the next time you doubt how much progress you’ve made, don’t look at the difference. Read the difference.

You’ve probably accomplished more than you give yourself credit for.

My door is always open... Whatever.

Jason Fried
Jason Fried wrote this on 8 comments

Nearly every boss has said it. And just about every employee has heard it. Yet it’s one of the most meaningless lines ever spoken in the office:

“My door is always open.”

The statement usually is followed up with some version of, “If you ever have an issue with anything, please come talk to me.”

What’s wrong with this? Isn’t it important for your employees to know that you are open to hearing their suggestions, concerns, and criticisms? Of course it is.

But let’s be real here: In most cases, “My door is always open” isn’t really an invitation to speak up. It’s a cop-out. It makes the boss feel good but puts the onus entirely on the employees. You might as well say, “You find the problems and then take all the risk of interrupting my day and confronting me about them.” How many people have taken you up on that offer?

Your employees have lots of opinions about everything—your strategy and vision; the state of the competition; the quality of your products; the vibe in the workplace. There are tons of things you can learn from them.

But how many of these ideas and opinions have you actually heard? A tiny fraction, I’d bet. The reality is that companies are full of things that are left unspoken. And even when they are out in the open, the CEO is almost always the last to know.

I like to think of myself as a leader whose door is always open. But I recently learned that an open door isn’t enough…

Read the rest of the article at Inc.com

Looking into The Distance

Wailin Wong
Wailin Wong wrote this on 8 comments

Let’s take a break from the business news cycle. I love the news and I’ve covered it for a decade: what new startup is launching, why a stock price just moved, who’s being hired or fired. But there’s a whole universe of fascinating stories waiting to be covered about what’s old in business.

That’s why we’re launching The Distance, a new online magazine featuring original journalism about bootstrapped businesses that are at least 25 years old. If you’ve ever been curious about your favorite family-owned restaurant or that little shop on the corner, this is the publication for you. These businesses might not make headlines, but their owners have compelling stories about how they started, what they’ve learned, and why they keep doing it.

This is a heady time for people interested in great stories, whether it’s telling them or reading them. From newer sites like Vox and FiveThirtyEight and Narrative.ly to legacy media outlets that keep producing indispensable work (I still subscribe to two print newspapers), today’s readers have a lot of choices competing for their limited time. The Distance offers its own kind of storytelling – enjoyable reads about long-lasting businesses and the people behind them.

We’ll be publishing one story a month starting in May. We hope you find the companies of The Distance as interesting as we do and come back each month for more. (And while Basecamp is sponsoring the magazine, The Distance is editorially independent and we will not write about Basecamp customers.)

We’d also love to hear from you. If you know of any companies that would make good profile subjects, please let me know!