You Aren’t Gonna Need to Design It

A short tale of building what matters and skipping the rest.

We just started a new email campaign at Basecamp, and it’s something we’ve never tried before. It’s a sequence of three automated emails that we send to new customers who fit a certain criteria. In these emails, we ask if the customer needs help getting started, and what they were hoping to do with Basecamp.

We originally thought of this project as a marketing exercise, but so far it’s giving us insights that reach way beyond marketing.

One thing that’s special about this campaign is that the messages are sent directly from me (and a couple of other folks), and we’re personally responding to anyone who writes us back. The replies go straight into our real inboxes — not into our company’s support help desk or some no-reply black hole. This is a ton of work to maintain, but we’re learning a lot and developing new relationships with people.

While we were setting up the nuts and bolts for the campaign, we got stuck on a tricky detail. We wanted the automatic sequence of emails to immediately stop if a customer replies, because it would be weird if we sent more canned messages after personally interacting with someone.

Tom asked me how it should work…

There was no obvious way for us to stop the sequence automatically. We probably could have devised some fancy system with an administrative interface to handle it, but would it be worth it? At that point we had no idea what was going to happen with the campaign as a whole.

How many replies would we get? Would this unsubscribe issue be a serious problem or just a minor issue? Was the overall campaign any good, or would we stop it after 3 days because it was performing poorly? There was no way to know.

In cases like this, you can either anticipate all the likely possibilities and build lots of things to insure yourself against potentially bad situations, or you can ship what you’ve got, wing it, and be prepared to make changes as you go.

As is our style, we ran with the latter…and it was completely fine! Most people leave our original email quoted below when they reply. Then we click the Unsubscribe link for them. That’s it. It’s lo-fi and works in 99% of cases. If the quoted email isn’t there, Tom programmatically unsubscribes the person by hand. We have to do that a couple of times per week. No biggie at all.

So this is YAGNI in practice. You might be familiar with YAGNI as a programming-specific concept, but I think it’s just as applicable—if not more so!—on the design side.

Design is often a matter of diving headfirst into an unknown abyss, and preparing to modify your thinking based on what you learn. When you’re doing that, there’s no sense in trying to protect yourself from bumps along the way. The bumps are the whole point of the exercise.

It’s certainly prudent to have an escape button handy so you can shut everything down if your world quickly descends into utter chaos. But otherwise, get ready, strap yourself in, and go for it! That’s the only way to find out what happens next.

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