Basecamp and The Law of Unintended Consequences

When Basecamp first launched, Needmore was psyched.

We were still a young business, but Basecamp proved to be invaluable. We’ve used it religiously for many years now. It provided a way for clients to log in and check up on their project. They could see todo lists that we follow, they could discuss things with us, and over time they’ve added great features like milestones, time tracking, better image support, and even chat integration.

All in all, it’s an amazing resource for clients when working with us on projects.

But at some point, 37signals broke Basecamp.

You see, when we post a message on Basecamp, we have the option of sending an email to clients. Instead of writing them directly, we write them in Basecamp and check some boxes and they get an email.

For the longest time, our clients then had to log in if they wanted to reply to the email. They’d sometimes try replying, but it wouldn’t work. Sooner or later, they’d effectively be forced to log in. And thereby enjoy all the benefits of the Basecamp site – they could see todos, milestones, discussions, documentation, and so on.

But then something changed. They added the ability for people to reply to their emails. A feature we ourselves requested for years! But it had the unintended consequence of making it much easier for our clients not to bother visiting Basecamp in the first place.

It’s now much more common for us to get halfway through a project and discover that our clients haven’t even logged in. They’ve just been replying to emails. They haven’t gotten any of the benefits of the Basecamp site because they’ve never visited it. So few of them are enjoying what Basecamp has to offer that it’s almost a detriment. Why bother using it when we can just email our clients directly? What’s the benefit to having this great system if hardly anybody uses it?

This is called “the law of unintended consequences,” and it can be a problem.

Raymond Brigleb

Creative Director, dreamer, partner, father, musician, photographer. Has been known to ride the rails. Pulls one heck of a shot.