How we achieve “simple design” for Basecamp and HEY

Yesterday I got an email asking how we achieve simple designs for Basecamp and HEY, so I hastily tweeted a screenshot of my answer, and a lot of people responded to it. A few folks pointed out that my screenshot was illegible for blind users, so I’m reposting it here in full text, with a bit of additional commentary below.


At a high level it boils down to a handful of foundational principles that affect the decisions we make:

  1. Always choosing clarity over being slick or fancy. Internally we call this “Fisher Price” design. We aim to make the UI totally obvious and self explanatory, by keeping individual screens simple, showing only one focused thing at a time, and so on. Good product design eliminates the need for an instruction manual!
  2. Preferring good copywriting, and taking the time and space to explain things with words, instead of making minimalist UIs with lots of unlabeled buttons, etc. (Although we’re still guilty of having a few of those.)
  3. Prioritizing respectful interfaces that don’t overwhelm or try to nag the user into certain behaviors. We intentionally don’t include things like notification counts/badges, 3-column designs, and such unless we absolutely can’t avoid them. We don’t like the idea of having “sticky” interfaces—we want our customers to use our products to get the job done, and then go do something else. That makes the whole design approach more peaceful in general.
  4. Having a strong editorial sensibility, and knowing when to split complex concepts into simpler individual parts. This one is more of an art than a science, but we have a good instinct for breaking down problems until they can be easily understood in simple UI flows.

There’s one other thing that’s important for simple design. It’s not merely a matter of having clear or basic-looking interfaces. (It’s easy to make a simple UI that doesn’t really do much.)

The magic combo is having simple interfaces paired with powerful capabilities below the surface. HEY looks simple, and it’s straightforward to use, but it’s backed by some deeply considered opinions, logic, and machinery that empowers people who use it to be better at email than they were before—and with less effort! The interface itself is simple, but the thinking and the system behind it is extremely complex. The product is valuable because it saves people time and anxiety dealing with the terrible email mess that they had just learned to live with.

For more on this line of thinking, we highly recommend Kathy Sierra’s Badass: Making Users Awesome.

(P.S. many thanks to @waynedixon and @redcrew for calling me out on the inaccessible screenshot tweet. Appreciate that.)

The evolution of HEY: from humble beginnings to a multi-platform email service

Two weeks ago we released HEY into the world, the culmination of 2+ years of explorations and intensely focused work.

It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: inventing a new product from scratch is one hell of a challenge. It’s the toughest thing you’ll ever do as a product team. There are a million reasons why it won’t work, and zero guarantees that it will, so the whole project is a massive gamble. You just have to buckle up and trust that you’ll figure things out.

Since HEY made a big splash on arrival, I thought it’d be fun to share the backstory of how we ended up reinventing email. Because we certainly didn’t start by wanting to reinvent email. (That sounds hard and intractable!)

Keep reading “The evolution of HEY: from humble beginnings to a multi-platform email service”

The joy and power of being the independent underdog

I was up late last night and watched Tesla’s Cybertruck announcement. I was immediately energized watching creative people shaking up an entire industry with a completely new, super weird design vision. I ABSOLUTELY LOVE IT when people do this.

Will this bizarro truck sell? Who knows. It almost doesn’t matter. Its mere existence will put a deep dent in the brain of every single person who sees it. This is going have long-term ripple effects for what people imagine as possible in car design. We’ve had 3 decades of vaguely bubbly, rounded-edge, safety-first cars churned out by every manufacturer, and now there’s something new on the menu.


If you walk back a few years, there are other moments like these…

Volkswagen made a little rounded car for working people when everything else out there was big and expensive and brutal.

Apple released a colorful bulbous computer loaded with personality, when everyone else was shipping ugly rectangular beige boxes.

Some upstart web design punks made a project communications app that worked nothing like any of the other tools at the time.

Panic invented a simple monochrome handheld game system (with a crank!?), in an era when people expect big color screens and byzantine features.

What did these companies and products all have in common?

They were independent underdogs. They didn’t have to settle for people’s preconceived expectations for products or markets or advertising or anything. They didn’t have to ship a million units—they could ship a thousand units and that’d be plenty great. They could chase whatever ideas they wanted to chase, because they didn’t have to answer to anybody.

It’s hard to be the underdog. Building a viable profitable business is unbelievably tough. You usually don’t have the resources you need, and people don’t take you very seriously. The deck is stacked against you in countless ways.

BUT.

It’s powerful to be the underdog. Creatively, it’s the best place to be. There’s no other circumstance where you can continually try your wildest creative pursuits and see them through to fruition.

I used to think that the goal of an independent underdog should be to become a massively successful Top Dog, but I was dead wrong. You don’t ever have to do that. You can stay independent, keep doing exactly what you want for your whole career, and have a joyful time along the way.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at my favorite independent underdogs, They Might Be Giants. They stayed true to their deeply weird vision through 4 decades and 20+ albums in a constantly changing industry that spits out even the toughest cookies. Are they on the radio? No. Have they maximized their revenue growth potential? No. Do they have a fervent fan base and total creative freedom to make the stuff they want to make? Hell yes!

We need a lot more underdogs. You can become one today. Please stop reading this immediately and go invent some Cybertrucks.

Nobody really owns product work

A few years ago I helped design the search feature for Basecamp 3. We’d invented a unique Mad Libs-style interface, and I was rather fond of how it turned out.

About six months later, other folks at the company had a new idea for the search UI, and they replaced my design with a completely different version. The new version was much faster to use, and worked better in every way, but I was still slightly bummed that my original design was erased out of existence.

Fast forward a couple years later.

We’ve been working on lots of new stuff lately, and many of my prototype concepts have already been obliterated or mutated several times over by other teams with better ideas.

But now, I’m finding that process to be exciting and exhilarating, instead of disheartening!

What changed?


Somewhere along the line I realized and accepted the truth: nobody really owns anything in a product made by a team.

Whatever ownership you have over an individual contribution is immediately forfeited the moment you commit the code. At that moment, the work becomes part of the ever-evolving organism that comprises a software system.

Each piece of work is a mere pebble tossed into a flowing river. Maybe your pebble will become bedrock—sticking around for a long time and altering the water’s trajectory. Or, maybe it’ll quickly dissolve into dust when new pebbles come along and crash into it. Both of those outcomes are completely natural and worthy of celebration.

In this way, collaborative software work is egalitarian. It doesn’t matter who did what, as long as the team is collectively accomplishing something greater than any one person could have done alone.

(This also goes for people with the title Product Owner. They don’t actually own the whole product or any of its component parts. They just own accountability for decisions about what to build and when.)


Once you realize this basic truth, you can separate yourself emotionally from the work you’ve done. But this is easy to say and hard to do, because it’s so counterintuitive! How can you be deeply, personally invested in making something, and then immediately stop caring about it when you’re finished?

The trick is to change how you evaluate forward progress: the long-term survival of your own contributions is irrelevant. The important thing is that the product is evolving into the best version your team can create together.

The more you appreciate the power of the group over the individual, the sooner you’ll become a more effective collaborator. You’ll be more willing to hear and absorb others’ viewpoints. You’ll be more eager to seek out everyone’s best ideas, instead of digging in and defending your own. And you’ll be able to celebrate other people’s achievements with authenticity instead of territorial resentment.

This also requires self-confidence, which is especially difficult to come by when you’re early in your career and trying to prove yourself. Imposter syndrome is a powerful beast.

Here are a few ways I’ve talked myself out of moments of weakness.

  • Since my work got changed later, does that mean I did a bad job?
    Usually not. If your project got shipped, and you completed it on time, and everyone was satisfied with the work, it met all the requirements it needed to meet at that moment. That’s great.

  • If my ideas didn’t get traction, should I just stop speaking up?
    No, keep trying! Often the right idea is built upon many not-quite-right-ideas. Suggesting the wrong thing can quickly lead to discovering the right thing.

  • How can I be sure I’m having an impact, when my work didn’t last for the long haul?
    Measure your work against what came before it, not what came after it. In my case, I designed Search v1, which later got replaced by Search v2. But what came before Search v1? LITERALLY NOTHING. We made a giant leap forward by building and shipping that foundation, and then we improved on that foundation later. That’s successful impact!

Our monkey brains are weird, so even with this rationale, you might never be able to completely eliminate that moment of gut-reactive sadness when something you created is overwritten. That’s OK. Just appreciate the journey you’ve been on, look ahead to future destinations, and it’ll subside quickly enough. ✨

The right amount of perfect

Everybody knows that perfect is the enemy of good, but it’s one of those tenets that’s easy to say and hard to live by. When you’re working on a creative project, there’s almost always something you wanted to do better, or some little detail that didn’t quite live up to your standards. That can be tough to accept.

This is why thoughtful project scoping and timeboxing is so important: if you don’t have a structured process and an end date for your work, you’ll be more likely to wander out into the perfectionist weeds. The farther out you get, the more time you’ve spent—mostly for diminishing returns.

At Basecamp, we protect ourselves against these problems by carefully scoping our projects and scheduling them in 6-week increments. This forces us to keep a regular cadence of shipping new things. Along the way, we have to make tough calls, and give up on always being perfect.

But even with that system in place, there’s still another tricky aspect of perfectionism: what perfect means for one project doesn’t necessarily apply in the same way to another. You have to redefine your standards every time.

Here’s an example.

Keep reading “The right amount of perfect”

Why I ignore the design industry on purpose

I’ve been a designer for nearly twenty years now (😮), with the last seven years spent happily at Basecamp. I enjoy my work and I care about it a lot.

Since I’ve been doing this for a long time, occasionally people ask me to predict next year’s big trends, or reflect on some industry controversy that’s been brewing.

That’s when I have to sheepishly admit: I pay almost no attention to what’s going on in the design industry. I don’t hang out on Dribbble or Product Hunt. I don’t read Hacker News. I don’t go to design conferences or Creative Mornings. I don’t look at inspiration sites or read designer blogs or tweets. I’m also not out there networking, hustling to make connections, hard-selling my personal brand, or fighting to stay on top of the game.

…I guess I’m kind of a professional hermit?

Keep reading “Why I ignore the design industry on purpose”

Working in quality time instead of clock time


One of the things I love about our flexible work environment at Basecamp is the freedom to step away from something whenever I need to.

Right now I’m exploring designs for a new product idea. R&D work like this depends on having good mental and emotional energy. Sometimes you have it, sometimes you don’t.

When you’re energetic and motivated, great things happen spontaneously, in unpredictable bursts of inspiration.

But when you’re tired, distracted, or in the weeds on something, it’s usually better to stop working. Just admit (temporary) defeat and give yourself a chance to regroup. Do something else that’s less taxing, or call it quits and start again later.

I always find this difficult to do, because the working world tells us that full-time employees should put in 8+ consecutive hours no matter what. So what if you’re frustrated, burned out, or not making much progress? Too bad, gotta punch the clock! Back to the grind! Grind it out!

The problem is, grinding it out is counterproductive for creative work, because creativity doesn’t happen on a linear time scale. Forcing it usually makes things worse. If you drain your human gas tank all the way to empty, you’ll get even more burned out. And then your bad mood and low energy spills over to another workday, prolonging the creative drought.

Don’t do that! Walk away instead, and leave it for your future, better self to look at with fresh eyes.

Then start thinking about productivity in terms of quality time instead of clock time. You might end up making the same progress with only 20 energetic hours that you would have made in 60 tired hours.

Once you get in the habit of that, you can optimize your schedule around your own energy and enthusiasm. I’m usually at my creative peak in the mid-morning and lose steam after lunch, so I shuffle my work accordingly. I do exploratory freeform stuff in the morning, and I save routine tasks (like implementing something I already know how to do) for the afternoon. I also have a rather short attention span, so I take tiny breaks a lot.

Your schedule might be the opposite. But whatever it is, give yourself the freedom to go with the flow, or shut off the flow altogether. Some days suck and you have to cut your losses. Other times you just need to walk away for 20 minutes to get a flash of inspiration.

The key is to be self-aware and completely flexible about time. Dump the clock. You’ll be much happier and more effective, and your work will still get done in the end.

Oh by the way, we have a new book about this sort of thing! Check out It Doesn’t Have To Be Crazy At Work.

How You’re Being Manipulated By Software

(And what you can do about it)

The Book of Life (1898)

There’s a term we use in software design called the happy path. It describes a best-case scenario, in which customers use a product exactly as intended, without bumping into any edge cases or uncommon problems. This includes the interface you see when you sign up, setup steps you have to complete, and so on.

For software designers, a happy path is also an extremely powerful psychological tool that allows us to control people’s behavior and direct them to do whatever we want.

If that sounds surprising—and slightly terrifying—think about how many times you’ve blown past a lengthy software license agreement and clicked the Agree button without looking.

Were you thinking deeply about what you were doing?

Probably not. And you’re not alone! Research shows that humans have a natural aversion to decision making. As Smashing Magazine describes it, people simply don’t like to make choices unless they have to:

Making an explicit decision requires effort, after all. Time, thought and consideration are often required to determine the best choice. It turns out that people are remarkably sensitive (and averse) to the amount of effort that making a choice demands.

And therein lies the trouble.


If you pay close attention, you’ll notice something else about software happy paths. Like a tell in a poker game, they subtly reveal a company’s underlying motives.

Since designers know you’ll probably avoid making difficult decisions, they take advantage of your passivity and coax you into doing anything they want.

For example, if you’ve ever installed the Facebook Messenger app, you were likely encouraged to continuously upload all of your phone’s contacts to the service. This is framed as a way to help you text people quickly.

Look at that screen for a moment. There’s no opt out button! You can only choose OK or Learn More.

And who wants to Learn More when they’re signing up for a chat app? Almost nobody.

I’m guessing at least 80% of Facebook’s users just tap OK and move along immediately. There’s even a little animated arrow encouraging you to tap OK, in case you momentarily considered doing something else.

But let’s say you’re among the 20% that happens to pick the Learn More button. You’ll get a cutesy second screen:

This screen finally has an opt-out button, in plain text, buried underneath some repetitive copywriting that vaguely implies you’re wrong for questioning any of this.


What’s more, Facebook’s designers neglected to mention a rather important detail: continuously uploading your contacts helps them collect a ton of data about people who aren’t even on Facebook.

Tapping that OK button is a trivially small decision. It takes just one minuscule tap of your finger. It’s done in less than a second.

But the impact is quite large indeed! You’re implicitly agreeing to send Facebook little bits of info about everyone you know. Now imagine the network effects when you multiply that by the millions or billions of users who also tapped OK in the blink of an eye.

This little happy path is feeding a massive data beast, which probably has details about almost everyone on Earth. And Facebook had ample space — two separate screens! — in which to mention anything about this.

So why didn’t they?

Because endless growth and data collection is the foundation of their business, and that necessitates doing gross invasive things to their users.

They need you to feed the beast, and they certainly don’t want you to think about it. So they use cartoon animals and sneaky happy paths to make sure you stay blissfully ignorant.


Now, of course happy path design also happens at companies that don’t have any nefarious hidden intentions.

When you sign up for Basecamp, we don’t trick you, coax you, or collect any more information than we need to get your account working properly.

However, we’re also a for-profit software company, and business performance is one of our considerations when we design our interfaces. When you sign up for Basecamp, we encourage you to take actions that give you the best chance of having success, and (hopefully) becoming a paying customer.

The difference is, our approach is fully above board. If you have success with Basecamp, your life gets a little easier, and we earn a new paying customer. We promise to support you and protect your data. You pay us for that. Cool for everybody.


Using software is inherently a handshake agreement between you and the service provider. It’s not unlike paying for a physical service.

The problem is, many of the dominant software makers are abusing your handshake in increasingly dastardly ways. They treat their customers like sitting ducks — just a bunch of dumb animals waiting to be harvested. And when growth slows, they resort to deceptive and creepy tactics to keep the trend lines pointing skyward.

So what can we do, as consumers?

First, keep your eye out for sneaky manipulation, especially when you’re first signing up for a service. If you’re asked to share personal information or forced to commit to something that makes you feel uncomfortable, you’re probably being used.

Second, slow down and thoroughly consider the choices you’re making. You’ll end up discovering weird, surprising things about services that you thought were harmless.

Third, be wary of any “free” software platforms. Sure, you’re not giving those companies any money directly. Instead, you’re giving them something else they’ll use to get money — your attention, your time, your personal information—all things that are arguably more valuable than money.

And finally, pay for software! When you pay real money to software creators, you’re supporting them, and they’ll support you in return.

More and more independent software makers are standing up and defending users against data misuse and manipulation. Recently, Feedbin significantly altered their tech to protect their users from being tracked by the likes of Facebook or Twitter. That’s a great example, and there are many others like it.

Vote with your wallet, and support the people who really do have your back.

New in Basecamp 3: Image Galleries

At Basecamp, we write a lot—from announcements to pitches, and everything in between.

Quite often, we’re presenting something that has a Before and After, like a mockup or interface design that’s been revised. Until now, this was always kind of frustrating. Basecamp only supported full-width images, so it could be difficult to quickly compare two images at once.

Today we’ve added support for side-by-side image galleries inside written posts!

This is a subtle but substantial change: galleries support and enhance your writing by making it more fluid, expressive, and precise. They’re great for sharing screenshots, comparisons, mockups, sketches, photos, and so on.

Here’s how it works.

Creating a Gallery

In any rich text field in Basecamp 3, you can make a gallery of images by uploading multiple images at the same time. You can do that in the file-browser dialog, or by dragging and dropping files into Basecamp directly.

Dragging images to make a gallery

When you do that, Basecamp will automatically group the images together in a nice arrangement. There are a few different layouts based on the number of images you’ve posted together.

If you upload two images at once, they’ll be oriented side by side.


If you upload three images at once, they’ll be shown 3-up in a row.


If you upload four images at once, you get a 2×2 grid.


And then finally, if you upload 5 or more images, they’ll be arranged in 3-up-sized rows.


You can also make a gallery by uploading images one by one. Just upload one image, then immediately upload another. Basecamp will notice that the images are directly adjacent and bundle them for you.

Adjusting a Gallery

If you don’t want the gallery layout, you can split it up by putting your cursor between images and hitting return. That will break up the gallery at that spot and resize things accordingly.

If you prefer a different arrangement (for example, maybe the second image should be first) you can drag and drop them to reorder.

You can also drag and drop images outside of galleries into galleries, and vice-versa.

It all works like you’d expect images in a text editor to work!

Related Changes

New toolbar for images

Clicking on attachments in Basecamp’s text editor has changed a bit. You’ll now see a balloon at the top that shows the file name, size, and the trash button. (Formerly this was just a trash button.)

New attachment toolbar

A more prominent caption field

Did you know you can write custom captions for any image you upload in Basecamp? If you didn’t, you’re not alone! This feature used to be rather hidden, but we coaxed it out of its hiding place.

Now just click on any image in the editor and you’ll see the Add a caption… field at the bottom. Click on that to type any caption you like.

This is a caption for the picture that shows adding a caption. 🌀

Popup menus on gallery images

Every image in a gallery has a small ••• menu adjacent to the caption. Click that and you’ll see a popup with the original file name and file size, plus links to download the image, or view it at full size.

Popup menu for details

That’s it!

Galleries work everywhere right now, in our mobile apps and on the desktop. We hope this update helps you create richer posts, and makes writing in Basecamp a little more enjoyable. Let us know how you like it!


New to Basecamp? Head on over to basecamp.com and see what it’s all about.

Introducing Boosts: an all-new way to show your support in Basecamp

We gave up on Likes and invented a totally new form of tiny communication.

If there’s one thing you can’t avoid on the Internet, it’s Likes. They’re in nearly every software platform where people post photos or write text messages.


Sometimes Likes are called Faves, Hearts, Reactions, Claps, or something else, but the basic idea is the same: they’re a small, quick way to express your feelings about something, usually accompanied by a count of other people who had that same feeling.

Until today, we had exactly this sort of feature in Basecamp 3. We called it Applause. If you liked a post, you’d clap for it. Everyone who clapped was shown in a row.

Basecamp’s applause feature.

This was fine, of course—it worked just like all the other Likes.

But a couple months ago, we started thinking more deeply about this pattern, and we noticed it has a lot of insidious problems.

  1. Likes are vague, especially in a professional setting. Let’s say your boss liked someone else’s post, and not yours. You might start questioning what happened. Was she just busy and not paying full attention to everything? Or did she do that intentionally? What does it all mean!? There’s no way to know, because there’s not enough information — just a bunch of digital grunting.
  2. Likes are obligatory. How many times have you felt obligated to SMASH THE LIKE BUTTON because you didn’t want to seem like a jerk, or because everyone else was liking something? There’s a subtle peer pressure and herd mentality hiding behind those thumbs up.
  3. Likes are vanity metrics. Whenever you post something to a social network, do you obsessively check to see how it was received? That’s because those little Like counts are a drug for your brain: you get a dopamine rush by observing your own mini-popularity contest. It’s a psychological trick to keep you coming back for more.
  4. Likes are thoughtless. Has there ever been a more mindless form of communication than merely tapping a button? Liking something requires almost no effort or consideration whatsoever. Here’s what you’re really saying: “Thank you for spending your precious time posting this. In return, I have clicked a button. It took me less than one second. Bye.”
  5. Likes are canned. In most apps you have to pick from a predefined set of acceptable symbols (or in Basecamp’s case, just clapping.) That’s not great for addressing the infinite range of nuanced human emotions, and it’s also totally impersonal. Why should some software company decide which 3 emotions you’re allowed to have?

Now, it’s not all bad. There are some good things about Likes too:

  1. Sharing support for others is wonderful. We want to encourage that, of course!
  2. It’s nice to respond to something without making a fuss. You might not have much to say, but you still want to let someone know you appreciated their ideas. Notifying a bunch of other people on a thread merely to say “good job!” is overkill.
  3. It’s helpful to know that people saw your posts. When you see that 10 people liked your post, you’ll know they received it and thought about it (at least a little.)

With all of these ideas in mind, we went back to the drawing board and came up with a fresh new approach that’s never been done before. We’re calling it Boosts, and it’s way better than all of those crummy digital grunts.

Here’s how you boost something in Basecamp.

In various places in Basecamp, you’ll see a new rocket icon:

Boost button!

Click that, and it’ll morph into a small text field.

A field in which to boost

You’ll notice there are no predetermined options or smiley face buttons to choose from. That’s on purpose. You have to make it up yourself!

Add some emoji or write a tiny text note, up to 16 characters max. Then click the green check mark to save your boost (or the red X to cancel.)

You can add more than one boost if you want, and they’ll collect into a little bundle like so:

Boosting twice

Your boosts won’t notify anyone other than the original poster. So if you’re on a comment thread with 10 other people and you boost Dave, only Dave will get a notification about it. This is in contrast to comments, which send a notification to everyone on the thread. So if you just want to say “Great job!” or “I agree” or “👍”, but you don’t want to bug everyone with a notification, boosts are best!

If you messed up making a boost, click on it and a trash icon will appear. Click the trash to delete it. (If you’re an admin, you can delete anyone’s boosts in the same way.)

Deleting a boost

After a lot of people have boosted someone, you’ll see a sweet block of small supportive comments, where everyone’s message is totally unique! There are no vanity counts or anything like that.

Here’s how it looked when I announced that we’d be launching Boosts:

A block o’ boosts

Other times, boosts work like a silly mini-conversation.

lol juice boosts

When you’ve received some boosts, you’ll get notified about them every 3 hours as long as there’s something new to report—otherwise Basecamp won’t notify you.


Why every 3 hours? We think it’s the perfect amount of time: infrequent enough that you won’t be bombarded about little responses, but frequent enough that you won’t miss anything for too long.

When you click on that notification, you’ll see all your boosts, ordered by date:


You can also unsubscribe from the boosts notifications, if you prefer. Just hit the button in the top-right corner of the page above.


What happened to applause?

Applause is no more (it’s been replaced by Boosts.) But old posts that had applause will still show it—those claps have simply been turned into boosts instead.

Clap Boosts.

So that’s Boosts — we hope you like them! (Pun intended)

We’ve been using boosts for over a month, and we’ve found them to be a much richer form of communication than our primitive old applause system. They’re far more contextual, freeform, and creative: perfect for posting short, thoughtful responses.

After a few days, you’ll notice you won’t feel obligated to boost something unless you genuinely have something to say. Boosts are far less susceptible to vague interpretations, since every little boost is unique to the conversation at hand. And with no buttons to smash, there’s no more mindless button smashing!

Give boosts a try and let us know what you think. We’d love to hear from you on Twitter or in the comments on this post.

🚀🚀🚀


New to Basecamp and want to see what it’s all about? Sign up for a 30 day free trial over yonder.