You’re reading Signal v. Noise, a publication about the web by Basecamp since 1999. Happy .

iPad Spinners

Shaun wrote this on 32 comments

Last March the iPad team asked me to design some custom loading screen spinners for the Basecamp app. None of these have made it into the app yet, but I thought it would be fun to share some of the tests.

Admire someone? Write them an email, you might be surprised.

Dan Kim
Dan Kim wrote this on 11 comments

Last week I attended the Digital PM Summit in Austin (Basecamp was a proud sponsor of the event!). There were a lot of great speakers, but the one I really wanted to see was Mike Monteiro. I’ve admired Mike’s work from afar for many years because it’s so honest and direct.

I watched Mike’s entire talk – What Clients Don’t Know (and Why It’s Your Fault) – and enjoyed it thoroughly. It was so great, I wanted to say thanks—it’s the least I could do for something I liked so much. I looked through the crowd for a while, but was never able to find him.

But I still wanted to say thanks, so I took a shot and sent him an email, fully assuming he wouldn’t read it. I kept it brief – I introduced myself, let him know that I’ve admired his work for many years, and thanked him for a great talk.

Later that morning as we hung around the lobby, Mike walked up to me and said hello. We shook hands, and he mentioned he got my email and said thanks for that. The whole interaction was maybe 30 seconds, and I probably made a fool of myself.

But my foolishness aside, I got to meet someone who I admired. All it took was the simple act of saying thank you in an email.

This isn’t a unique story, either. Before I started working at Basecamp, I would occasionally email Jason – just to say hello and to thank him and the team for Basecamp. Eventually those individual emails turned into conversations. And those conversations ultimately turned into my dream job.

Our friend and current CEO of Highrise, Nate Kontny, has written about a similar story. He’s cold-emailed hundreds of people over the years. And while most have been ignored, some have started some really important conversations (like the one that led him to become the CEO of Highrise!).

So if you admire someone, want to say thank you, or just want to strike up a conversation, don’t be afraid to send a nice email. All the headlines keep declaring that email is dead, but it absolutely isn’t. Let your ideas, genuine gratitude, and personality shine in an email. You might be surprised what it leads to.

How Basecamp helped the Golddiggers get our act together

Emily Wilder
Emily Wilder wrote this on 1 comment

My relay team goes by the name “Alaska Golddiggers,” because race officials frown on us calling ourselves the more accurate “Team Shitshow.”

For a group of otherwise competent women, we’ve managed to screw up a lot during our annual participation in the Klondike Trail of ’98 International Road Relay, a 10-leg, 175-kilometer race that follows the trail of the gold rush stampeders from Skagway, Alaska to Whitehorse, Yukon. Past oopsies include failing to renew passports on time, forgetting our running shoes, traveling with 11 people on an RV that sleeps 8, misestimating the correct start time so our final runner doesn’t have a finish line to cross, and filling the RV’s holding tank to capacity and then some. (Glad you asked — why yes, that is as gross it sounds!)

Half of the team in 2010. If I recall correctly, the ‘K’ in ‘YUKON’ is slightly crooked because we accidentally pulled it off the sign.

We’ve always planned the event either via email or our Facebook group, which worked OK, although details always inevitably fell through the cracks. This year we switched to Basecamp, and the consensus was that planning went much more smoothly. (Full disclosure: Basecamp sponsored us this year, so I didn’t have to work too hard to convince anyone to get on board. Thanks Basecamp!)
We used a to-do list to discuss and assign race legs — they vary from 9 kilometers but steep to 25.6 kilometers but relatively flat. Another to-do list helped determine what everyone would bring to the pre-race washers tourney fundraiser, and yet another served as our packing list. (Item #1: Passport!!!)

We used the hell out of discussions, and it was so nice to have everything in once place, to refer back to: Who is bringing camp chairs? Don’t buy mint; I have some in my garden! What is everyone’s drivers license number to provide to the RV rental company? No, don’t make hummus; we always bring a ton and no one ever eats it.

“I think one one of the coolest things about this year was just how absolutely stress-free everything was,” one teammate said. “I think a lot of the advanced communication set us up to understand our boundaries, how things would work, and to get to know each other in some cases. When it came time for the actual road trip it was like pushing play and just sitting back.”

Perhaps much of that is that after six Klondikes we’ve begun to learn from our mistakes, but Basecamp also definitely helped everyone stay on the same page. We still emailed and texted a bit, but for everything we needed a record of, it went in Basecamp. Of course there were still a few bumps in the road — we neglected to outfit our leg #1 runner with a timing chip; we got rained on a little. Whatever. We still had a blast, and it was the easiest, most relaxed trip we’ve had to date.
And no one felt guilty wasting any hummus.

Finding Apps: a Personal Experience

Jamie wrote this on 6 comments

This morning I needed an app, but I had no idea where to start. I knew what the app should do, but did it exist? Here’s my story.

The Problem
We received this in the mail this morning. It’s a ticket warning issued by the City of Chicago.

I know what you’re gonna say. See, we do follow the speed limit. The thing is—this was issued to my better half. And she is way more cognizant of the speed limits around the city. What probably happened was the speed limit was 35 mph then in the speed camera zone it dropped to 30 mph. The City of Chicago issues you a ticket when you’re going 5 mph over the limit. At least that’s what I think happened. Either way, it’s beside the point:
There must be some type of app that warns you of these speed zones.
Where to start?
I Googled “chicago speed camera app.”

Interestingly, the first two results are apps for Android. Not sure if Google knows that I use Android. Well, of course they do. Anyway, awesome! Here are two apps that I can check out right away.
The first result
The first app, Speed Camera Alerts gets great reviews. No brainer right?

Except that it looks too European for me. Not the design, but too European in the vein of “Are they going to have Chicago speed camera information?” I thought, well, let me check out the second result…
The second result
The second app is called Chicago Speed Camera. You can’t name an app any more obvious than that. Again no brainer right?

Except it only had 18 reviews. The first two reviews weren’t great. And there was a huge all caps disclaimer on the app description.
Going back to the Google results
So I went back to the Google results to look at the 3rd link. No one does that! (Except for me.) It’s an article called How to avoid all those new speed cameras.
Interestingly, the article is about a 53-year-old local company Cobra Electronics and their smartphone app called iRadar. I’m about to check out that app, but this quote catches my eye:

The app update comes just as Cobra Electronics faces tough competition, including from popular apps such as Trapster and Waze. Trapster has 16 million users; Waze has 50 million; and Cobra’s laser radar-detector version has 1 million.

Waze is a competitor for this app? I have some experience with Waze because Google sends me Waze alerts if there’s an accident on the highway. I’m not a Waze user, and I really don’t have any experience with Waze other than those notifications Google sends me.

I remember seeing a couple friends’ homescreens a while back. Yeah I know, that’s creepy. Anyway, I think I saw the Waze icon on there. So I ask them via Instant Message:

He’s an iPhone person. So I ask my other friend who has Android. I thought I saw Waze on his screen too (yes, I know creepy). How’s the Android app?

I asked them both about speed cameras and how Waze works in alerting you. Waze seemed like the app I was looking for, but there was one small problem. For Waze to work, you have to open the app before you drive. Then when you’re done driving, you have to stop the app.
I asked my Android friend about turning it on automatically by listening to Bluetooth. He replied, “yeah. or, you can just get into your car and turn on waze :/” I don’t want to remember to do that though. Well, actually I know myself too well. I’ll definitely forget to do that.
Surely there must be some way to automate this?
When I get into the car, my phone automatically connects to the stereo via Bluetooth. I figured there must be a way to launch Waze by listening to the Bluetooth connection.
I’ve heard a lot about IFTTT. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem capable of listening to Bluetooth connections. I’ve also heard a lot about Tasker. Tasker is one of those apps Android users will tell you makes Android awesome. I’m sure it’s awesome, but I just want to do one simple thing: Listen for Bluetooth and launch an app.
One of the nerdier things I do (I do a lot of nerdy things, but this is up there) is listen to the All About Android podcast. Every show they have a segment where they review apps. One of the hosts mentioned an app called Trigger that was positioned as a simple version of “Tasker”.
I checked out Trigger’s product page, but it wasn’t clear if it did exactly what I needed. Luckily, I found a review on YouTube.

It works perfectly!
After that initial path of Googling for an answer, I have a setup that works: I get into the car, the phone pairs with car’s Bluetooth, and Trigger launches the Waze app. Now I get alerts like, “Speed Camera Ahead” while I’m driving.
OK so what’s the point?
I wanted to share this with you because often times when we’re marketing something we’re looking for a Silver Bullet. One awesome spot or placement that will get people to use your product.
Look at my experience. I had a need—find a speed camera app. Searching on Google gave me 2 clear app results, but I didn’t end up downloading those. The Google result did get me an article about another app, but I ended up asking friends on IM about one of the competing apps because it was mentioned in the article. Their personal recommendation got me to download the app and set up an account. I wanted to improve my experience with the app by automating it based on my car’s Bluetooth connection. I remember hearing about that app on a podcast. Then I watched a review about the app on YouTube. Now I have the perfect solution from all these disparate unrelated sources. That’s pretty fascinating.
If I was to pick the most powerful point in my decision-making process it would be the recommendations of Waze by my friends. It would take a huge leap of faith to install the app and create an account for something I wasn’t sure would work. It was ultimately because of their recommendations that I chose Waze. But I wouldn’t have known that Waze could do what I wanted if it wasn’t for Google either.
One more thing
I started out by saying the ticket warning was issued to my wife. The problem is, she has an iPhone. Waze will still work for her, but now I have to look into automating Bluetooth, etc on iOS now… Any recommendations?

Extra Drawings

Nate Otto
Nate Otto wrote this on 6 comments

For the last ten months at Basecamp I have been the guy that draws stuff. After making occasional contributions at 37signals over the years, they tapped me to make hand drawn images for the Basecamp marketing site that first appeared in February. Since then my drawings have crept into the app itself, into email blasts, onto banners at Pitchfork, all up in The Distance, plastered on the walls of the office, and into several employee’s avatars. We came up with a creative contract that allows me time to work on my other career as an artist while still providing substantial input at Basecamp.


The joy (and a good dose of pain) of my first few months at Basecamp

Conor Muirhead
Conor Muirhead wrote this on 23 comments

A few months ago I started at Basecamp. It’s my dream job. I get to work with the people I’ve dreamed of working with, on the product I dreamed of working on. It didn’t come easy though, it took me a couple tries to get their attention—apparently that’s a thing for designers here :).

Getting the job

My first attempt ended pretty much before it even began, I submitted an application and simply never heard back. The second time (a few years later) I sent an email and heard back within about 20 minutes. I couldn’t believe it! 10 days later I was working on the most important (and thus stressful) project I’d ever encountered—the project that would determine whether or not I got hired.

For 18 days, from 5am till 11pm (and often in my dreams), I thought about very little beyond this project and the potential of getting the job. Somehow I pulled it off, and they hired me.

Holy cow, I got hired! I couldn’t really believe it at first though. In fact as I went to quit my old job, I had to triple check my emails to make sure this was really happening. I even remember receiving a company credit card in the mail one day, and breathing a sigh of relief—nobody sends a company card to someone they haven’t hired, right?

Then I started the job. Oh my goodness, I started the job! Again, it was surreal to actually be working with these people at this company. I was finally living my dream. That is, until I wasn’t.

My dream became a bit of a nightmare

Within a month or two I felt like things were going south. I was unhappy, extremely stressed out, and ridden with guilt. I had worked so hard for this job, but somehow I was feeling miserable in it.

I worried all the time that I wasn’t a good enough designer, that I wasn’t funny enough, that my teammates were regretting their decision to hire me. Each day I felt panicked to put out work that was good enough to stack up next to my new peers. I wouldn’t allow myself to be one of the team—I felt like I just wasn’t good enough for the team.

I was psycho-analyzing every email, every IM, and every word uttered over Skype. And the worst part was that I just bottled it all up, and tried to put on a happy face.

I felt like I should just be satisfied with what I had (it was my dream job after all), and that talking to anyone about it would just make me look ungrateful.

Outside of work, friends and family would ask about how my great new job was going, and I’d smile and lie. I told them it was great, that I was so happy, and that there was nowhere else I’d rather be. I hated those conversations.

Opening the door to be vulnerable

Eventually I considered talking to Jason about what was going on. I knew I should talk to him about it, but I was too worried about what he might think of me if I did. One day, over a Skype call, Jason could tell something was up. He waited a day and asked about it the next morning over IM.

Jason: Feeling good?
Jason: Seemed like yesterday was a tough day back for you.

As I read those words, I could see the door opening up for me to talk. I sent my response:

Me: yeah, I’d love to talk a bit more about it if you’ve got time

As soon as I hit [enter] I felt this huge sense of relief that the cat would finally be out of the bag.

We had a call and I talked a lot. Jason listened patiently, he was understanding, sympathetic, and encouraging. Somehow weeks of worry, obsession, and generally awful feelings were unravelled in a few minutes of candid conversation.

As I’ve thought about that conversation and tried to figure out what caused the change, two things seem to have made the biggest difference:

1. Leveling up a relationship with vulnerability

When I think about the people I’ve gotten close to, or the moments where I really connect with someone, there’s usually some vulnerability at play. One or both of us share something that isn’t easy to share—and that builds trust and respect in an incredible way.

That call with Jason really wasn’t easy for me—and he knew that. When I trusted him with that vulnerability, I leveled up our relationship. Now I trust him a lot more, and it’ll be that much easier to be honest with him the next time I need to talk.

Even cooler though, is that Jason leveled us up again by telling me about his own self-doubt, and how he’s often just figuring it out as he goes. Suddenly he was a little more human to me, and that allowed me to trust him even more.

With that new trust in hand, Jason told me that he’d be the first to let me know if there was any problems with me or my work. And I believe him.

2. Shining a bright light in a dark corner

One tricky thing about self-doubt is that I tend to want to hide it and keep it to myself. I want to stash those feelings far far away in a deep dark drawer in the basement corner where nobody will ever see them. But that’s exactly the wrong thing to do. You see, self-doubt thrives in dark, musty places, it feeds on seclusion.

Talking about my feelings of inadequacy, and sharing my fears with someone gave me hope. The fresh perspective I received from Jason was like shining a UV lamp on a vampire of self-doubt—it just couldn’t hold up.

With just a flash of light, that monster withered up, my confidence was restored, and I could be myself again.
So it turns out I wasn’t a horrible designer, my team didn’t regret hiring me, and there wasn’t a problem with my job. My pain was self-inflicted.

Fortunately the treatment was simple. I just had to push myself to be vulnerable, to trust in my teammates, and to open up and let a little light in. There’s no more need to worry about my standing with the team—I’ve got their honesty and mine to do that job now.

So from here on out, when I feel anxious, distraught, or discouraged, I’m gonna swallow my pride, take a risk, be vulnerable, and talk to someone about it. I’m going to remember that I’m not alone—we all feel things like this. We can trust each other to understand, to lend an ear, and to offer some kind encouragement.

Here’s to getting things out in the open, acknowledging feelings, and being willing to be vulnerable with another human being.

Are you using your data to write a reference book or tell a story?

Noah wrote this on 1 comment

I’ve been working on some analysis about the usage of our various mobile applications for Basecamp in advance of our next company-wide get together. As I’ve been going through the process of gathering and analyzing various sources of data, I was reminded yet again of a fundamental question you have to ask yourself before you can really do anything with all that data. Are you writing a reference book or are you trying to answer a question?

Reference books like encyclopedias or statistical abstracts contain many facts about a topic with little or no higher level analysis. The point is to take raw data and summarize it in a form that’s easier and faster to refer to for future analysis, not to break new ground. They’re wonderful to have (I happen to have copies of The Statistical Abstract of the United States ranging from 1880 to 2013 on my bookshelf), particularly if someone else compiles them. That’s because making a reference book is thankless work; the goal is to create accurate summaries of data, and comprehensiveness is valued over creativity.

Analysis to answer a question is far more interesting. Instead of writing an encyclopedia of facts you get to tell a story. You start with a hypothesis that you seek to prove or disprove, and because of that you’ll end up looking at data in a different way than if your goal is just to catalog it. Sharing a story with others is far easier and more impactful than sharing a compendium—people like hearing stories more than they like reading a thesaurus, and they’re far more likely to remember the story. Most importantly, if you choose the question you’re trying to answer properly, you can deliver real and immediate value to a company instead of delivering a work product that may someday be used to answer a question.

It’s hard to go from making an abstract to telling a story, but it’s even harder to tell a story without knowing what question you’re trying to answer. Sometimes it takes a little bit of abstract making to figure out how to articulate the problem you’re really trying to solve. Eventually though, you need to find that key question to tell your story around if you want to be relevant. Think about where people keep their reference books: do you want your analysis to go on a high shelf next to the dictionary, or sit on the top of someone’s desk?

I’m forever thankful for people who produce reference books, but I’ll choose to spend my time and energy telling a story over compiling a fact book any day of the week. Hopefully I have an interesting story to share with the rest of Basecamp in a couple of weeks, but I’m certainly more likely to have an impact than if I just set out to give them a catalog of facts.

Apple has quite a few more rules than the Android Play Store when it comes to preview videos so we had a little fun with this one.

The other side of version-less software

David wrote this on 9 comments

The wonders of version-less software as a service are extolled from all corners of the internet: Nothing to install! Updates come to you automatically! Everything just gets better all the time. And that’s all true, but it’s not the whole truth.

The flip-side of this automatic wonder is that you’re forcing constant change on everyone. The only way to prevent that from being unbearably grating is to make it incremental, and exclusively additive.

There’s no room to change your mind about the fundamentals once a sizable customer base has been trained to expect the familiar. Anyone who’s ever tried to remove a feature from internet software will likely be so scarred from the experience that they never attempt it again.

This is where it’s so easy to cry boohoo as a developer: “Oh, those damn users just can’t see or accept the brilliance of newness! If only they would be patient, relearn everything for me and my creations, we’d all be better off!”

The fact is they probably wouldn’t. Most software just isn’t important enough to warrant a steady stream of newness friction. Makers eat and sleep their software all day long, so most changes seem small and inconsequential. But users have other worries and changes to face in their daily lives; learning your latest remix is often not a welcome one. They invested attention to learn the damn thing once, then went on with their merry life. And what’s so wrong with that?

Nothing, I say. We have a very large group of customers who still enjoy Basecamp Classic. It’s been 2.5 years since we released the new version, but the Classic version continues to do the job for them. It just hasn’t been a convenient time for those customers to disrupt their work to upgrade Basecamp, or maybe they just don’t like change. It really doesn’t matter.

That doesn’t mean they’re not happy customers. Just the other day one wrote to say how much they loved Basecamp, yet felt obliged to apologize for not yet upgrading to the latest version. There’s nothing to feel bad about! Except that the software business makes us feel like there is.

Installed software didn’t have this kind of tension because of versions. If you were using Photoshop 3, you weren’t forced to upgrade to Photoshop 4 until you were ready. (Though other network effects, like sharing files sometimes forced the issue, but that’s a separate story). Something important was lost when we moved away from those clear versions.

Users lost the ability to control the disruption of relearning and adjusting to changes; developers lost the will to commit to revolutionary change.

Yes, splitting versions, like we did with Basecamp Classic, isn’t without complication. But from someone who’s been through the experience, the complication is not only overstated, but the benefits have also been under explored.

Maybe it’s time to ask yourself: What could we do if we weren’t afraid of revisiting the fundamentals of our software? What if we just did a new version and kept supporting the old one too? 2.5 years after we committed to this strategy, we remain happy with this rarely chosen path.

Faith in eventually

Jason Fried
Jason Fried wrote this on 20 comments

Making something new takes patience. But it also takes faith. Faith that everything will work out in the end.

During the development of most any product, there are always times when things aren’t quite right. Times when you feel like you may be going backwards a bit. Times where it’s almost there, but you can’t yet figure out why it isn’t. Times when you hate the thing today that you loved yesterday. Times when what you had in your head isn’t quite what you’re seeing in front of you. Yet. That’s when you need to have faith.

There are designs that are close, but not there yet. There are obvious conflicts that will need to be resolved. There are lingering things that confound you, confuse you, or upset you, but you know that eventually they’ll work themselves out. Eventually you’ll find the right way to do something you’ve been struggling with.

It’s hard to live with something that isn’t quite right yet – especially when it’s your job to get it right. It’s important to know when to say “it’s fine for now, but it won’t be fine for later.” Because moving forward is critical to getting somewhere. And, eventually, you’ll figure it all out. It’ll all work out in the end.

This is what I’ve always believed, and have always tried to practice. A dedicated faith in the eventual resolution of a problem, the eventual execution of a concept, and the eventual realization of the right design. Even when something’s poking out you don’t like, or something isn’t aligning quite right, or the words aren’t as elegant as you’d hoped, or something just isn’t easy enough yet, you need to have confidence it’ll all come together eventually.

Remember that what you’re making is in a perpetual state of almost right up until the end.

In the meantime, you just press on and keep making things, trying things, and getting closer and closer to the time when you can tie the loose ends into a perfect bow and present it to the world. What fun it is!