What I Did with My Summer at Basecamp

“Talk to one user…start jumping to a solution. Talk to 5+ users…start understanding the problem.” — Luke Wroblewski

As I looked on from a corner of a cramped camera storage room, the junior Production Assistant asked a simple question about film editing. He and his team were in the middle of a tense conference call, trying to understand why they should use the cameras sent to them by their client. Once asked, the client poured forth about why the editing options she had with these cameras were so advantageous. The question prompted all that.

And I started to understand the problem.

Basecamp hired me this summer as part of their intern program. They asked me to explore a question: is Clientside solving the right problems? Basecamp doesn’t do client work anymore, so they designed Clientside around what they remembered and envisioned about client work.

I knew that to answer this question, I would need to learn the ways that people actually accomplish client work. But where to begin? I knew from my previous research experience that I would need to start by gaining a wider understanding of client work. First of all, what do we even mean by “client?” We took the broad view: anyone who hires a company to do work for them. I decided to start with a low intensity, wide reaching research method: phone interviews. I knew I could hear what many different kinds of businesses thought about their client work.

I conducted phone interviews with twelve people working in fields from web design to social work. Some used Basecamp and Clientside, some used just Basecamp, some didn’t use Basecamp at all. Some were contractors and some were clients.

Once I had some domain knowledge, I wanted a closer look. I decided to do on-site observations to see how people actually accomplished the client work they told me about in the interviews. I met with six Basecamp users at their work places and had them show me how they accomplished seven tasks that I learned about from my pilot interviews. I asked them, for example, to show me their client onboarding process and how they get client approval of their work.

That was how I came to watch that junior PA ask his question. That is how I began to understand that clients are not so separate from their contractors. They are working together and like all teams, they need strong, contextually appropriate tools to support their communication. But I didn’t just learn about client work. I also learned a few valuable lessons about research:

  • Transcribe all your data. It will be easier to review or mine for quotes later.
  • Plan more time for observations, and plan on visiting more than once. The more time you spend, the more your participants will get used to your presence and act naturally.
  • Your results are only as useful as your ability to communicate them. If you don’t work for clear communication, no one will hear what you learned.

Most importantly, my experience this summer reinforced what I learned in my master’s program. I only really understood what users were doing when I went to see for myself. There is a world of difference between someone telling you that they check in with their clients and you actually watching them choose what line of communication to use, choose who to include on the message, compose the message and send it out. If you want to understand people’s problems, you have to go watch them work.