Last week we introduced custom color schemes to Backpack. While our customers love the new feature, we’ve also gotten questions about why we chose to build a color picker for Backpack. Aren’t there other things we could spend our time on? Why was customizing colors a priority? Actually custom colors were the latest push in a series of updates to take Backpack a level up. Here’s a look at the string of updates and how custom colors fit in to the story.
In late 2008 we decided Backpack was due for some development. The last major push was “BPMU”—Backpack Multiuser—in February ‘08. The multiuser capability gave businesses and small teams the chance to organize their lives and work with Backpack. Adding multiple users to Backpack was a big effort. As usual, we did the bare minimum necessary, but there were still a lot of details, edge cases, and challenges. By the time we launched in February ‘08, we were glad to be finished and also really excited to use Backpack together as a team.
Marinating with multiple users
The best part of building ‘as little as possible’ comes after launch. Every feature you skipped or held off on is free open space in the app for later development. Instead of a lot of baggage and maintenance, a bare-minimum release means new possibilities for feedback. After we launched BPMU in February, the customer feedback and personal experience we accumulated became a magnetic field that gradually pointed our compass for development. By late 2008, we knew where to go next.
Mere access versus real collaboration
While Backpack can do a lot of things, the core of the app is Pages. One thing we learned is that giving access to Pages isn’t enough. Notifications are the blood that keeps distributed communication alive. Plenty can happen in your application but if nobody ever gets an email notification then changes are likely to go unnoticed. So our first priority was to work notifications into Backpack Pages. On December 6 we pushed a feature allowing customers to send email notifications to everyone sharing a page after they create a page or any time they make updates to a page.
Improving permissions for multiple users
We also learned that “on or off” wasn’t enough access control for our customers. People wanted to use Pages to share knowledge with their teams, and they also wanted to be sure their knowledge was safe from unintended changes. Feedback from customers taught us that read-only permissions deserved a place in Backpack. So along with the page notification push in early December, we revised the “Make a new page” screen so that permissions could be set up-front before the page was even created. This set the stage for stronger permissions. Two weeks later we followed through with a read-only option on the permissions section of the “Make a new page” screen.
We included a Messages section in the original BPMU release for discussions. In the months after BPMU’s launch, we discovered that discussions often relate to a specific task or note on a Page. It felt wrong every time we had to leave the Page we were working on to start a discussion about it somewhere else. The solution was “comments-everywhere”—a feature we actually built in September 08 for Basecamp to-dos and milestones. The change allowed customers to post comments directly to list items and notes on their Pages. These in situ discussions hit two birds with one stone. First, customers could create a discussion directly attached to the piece of content under consideration. Second, each comment in the discussion generates email notifications, which keeps teams actively involved in the app even when they don’t log in to manually check for changes. On January 17 we launched commentable lists and notes on Backpack pages.
Managing a growing collection of Pages
Team collaboration on Backpack also created an itch to organize Pages. The more people on an account, the more Pages are created. Before long the All Pages section and each person’s sidebar of bookmarked pages can become unwieldy. Two features fought back to give customers control over their pages again. We added drag-and-drop reordering to the sidebar on January 8, and three weeks later we followed up with a new feature that allows customers to add Tags to their sidebar. Tags in the sidebar give you quick access to a collection of pages on a particular topic. Both of these features have cleaned up the sidebar and helped our customers to organize their growing collections of Pages.
Topping it off with branding and ownership
All the updates from December and January were functional changes that affected the mechanics of what customers can do with Backpack. The decision to add custom color schemes at the end of our sprint was a bit different. The previous updates were about notification, permissions, and organization. Custom colors are about ownership and identification. We want teams and individuals using Backpack to feel their account uniquely belongs to them. Colors may seem trivial, but in everyday life we make choices about fabric, furniture and paints that transform the objects we acquire from the outside into “my clothes,” “my room,” and “my desktop.” Identification and intimacy of this kind improve our customer’s experience, and any way that we increase their satisfaction with a product of course benefits us as well.
But most of all, colors are fun. And in a way, the custom color picker celebrates an exciting set of improvements to Backpack and tops them off with a free interaction—one that exists only for the fun of using it.
Here’s a 500 foot view of the improvements to Backpack since December:
January 8: Drag and drop to reorder sidebar links
January 17: Post comments on list items and notes
January 24: Bookmark tags in your sidebar
February 7: Custom color schemes