two, no three, redesign misfires

We use 37signal’s Basecamp project management application. We love it. Makes projects so much more manageble and a cost we can even afford as a tiny design shop. I freely endorse it, and this is without even an affiliate agreement—they don’t need this because their application is that good. The criticism that follows is purely aesthetic—has nothing to do with the way Basecamp works (both as an application and as in “works for us”).

And it’s this: switching to a pale gray background looks sucky. Wimpy. And it screws up the way our logo looks. All I want to be able to do is select a white background, or be able to set it to match our branding rather than some idea of what the 37 Signals designer think looks good. Because it mucks up our branding, that hideous pale gray background. It sucks away my pleasure with using Basecamp. I don’t grok why the folks at 37signals think we should have to re-do our branding to work in an application that we PAY to brand with our logo and our colors—this is so contrary to what I thought was their overriding, customer-centric philosophy. I’m trying to live with it but, really, when I go to the log-in screen and see how awful it looks to have my logo forced into a white box floating on a sea of wimp gray, it really irritates me. Makes me less productive.

I did let Basecamp guru Jason Fried know what bugged me about it. He just said, “Thanks for your feedback and thoughts.” [whine]Maybe we have to get one of those premium subscriptions to matter more.[/whine] That’s not really fair—Jason Fried and the Basecampers have been exceptionally responsive to subscriber requests. They just missed on this design decision.

Ok, next. Salon. Salon’s redesign is so bad I hardly know where to begin. Setting aside the rapid deterioration in its content under new editor-in-chief Joan Walsh, it still stunned me that a redesign that they claim to have spent a year working on is so bad. The design is bad, and the implementation is so half-assed it never should’ve been tried. Didn’t they ever hear of dev servers? Beta testing? Usability testing? Sheesh.

There is so much white space it’s painful to look at the screen. It looks like a blog instead of an ezine. The colors are strange. The text is too hard to read. The line-width can get ridiculous. There is no sense of place—if you click on, say, News & Politics, you get a list of stuff under the heading “Directory” with an alpha box—WTF ? There are links to nowhere, and links that go to the old design (which I liked just fine—at least it looked like you were on Salon instead of in the middle of one of a million blogs that look just the same). Search is not yet re-implemented, which wouldn’t be so bad if the directory worked—but it doesn’t. There’s a lot of wasted real estate in this redesign—what’s with all the white space at the top?

To Salon’s credit, they did implement a commenting system (even this is half-assed, though) and subscribers are very vocal about the badness of the redesign. It remains to be be seen if Salon responds. My guess is they’ll make a couple of tweaks, and that will be that. If they spent a year working on this, they’ve spent A LOT of money on it, and they won’t want to do much about it. I have a hunch there are Salon staffers who think the redesign is a big mistake, but not enough of them in the right position in the pecking order to have enough impact to force the issue to be dealt with. So, things won’t get fixed other than a token twitch or two, and I bet they’ll just hope we, as premium subscribers, will just drink the kool aid.

If Salon isn’t fixed—and I’m not talking about the look, I’m talking about the navigation and wayfinding—and the content continues to sink into the sludge (they launched a blog for women only—what kind of bullshit is that? I think they should launch one for men only, whites only, gays only, blacks only, etc.—if they think setting up a ghetto is the way to go), I’m not spending another nickel on Salon.

And, last but not least in the redesign department, is WTNH. WTNH is what passed for our local broadcast network—we’re caught here in Fairfield County in this bizarre news deadspot—the New York City outlets don’t really cover Connecticut, and the Connectcut stations don’t really cover Fairfield County. I’m not really sure why, especially if you consider the demographics (which I won’t get into now). The local Cablevision channel, News 12, is a bit of a joke.

At any rate, the WTNH redesign. It used to be that when you loaded WTNH, you knew exactly where you were. No doubt. Now, it’s a generic news site. I miss the blues. They revised the navigation so that you have to use those stupid drop-down menus to get anywhere (and not all of the links work the same). The drop-downs either close too fast, before you can click, or they open and won’t close if you move your mouse over any of the buttons (buttons—ugh). They need to change this to onClick rather than onHover.

Then, the width is too wide. It’s a corporate width, not a consumer width (people might have big monitors at work, but not necessarily at home). So you have a horizontal scroll if your browser is opened up to 1024 pixels or more. There are at least three blinking ads per page so that it takes time to find the news. Oh, and in addition to blinkitis , there is a scroll on the header bar. So there are four things moving around at the same time—maybe that’s why I get so seasick when I try to read anything there.

Old familiar and well-used sections, such as the traffic cams, are gone. Kaput. Where is the consumer section? The boxes break inFirefox. And it’s SLOW. Really slow. It’s done in ASP—and ASP is slow. Especially in non-Microsoft browsers.

There’s a LOT of stuff on each page—half of each screen is taken up with ads of various sizes. It’s very confusing. But, on the other hand, there is a LOT of content there—it’s definitely not slim pickings.

I guess what bugs me is it looks like a template site, like some corporate VP designated that this package had to be used with very little latitude for what’s popular or serves the local population well. Or any room for creativity, uniqueness.

Some things are done right. The text size can be made very large. The search is available at the top of the page (although I missed it twice since it’s a bit of an unusual location). A site map would help. And the content is updated constantly. I’m just disappointed because it’s so 2000, so homogeneous ...

Ok, enough bitching for one day.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 10/28/05 at 06:33 PM
  1. I’m posting under “Anonymous” because I am a BaseCamp customer but don’t want them to retaliate if they see this comment.

    BaseCamp is nice, but has been way overhyped. It looks and feel really great at first, but when you get deep into it you realize you are painted into a corner.  You can’t backup/export data, and you can’t move tasks, milestones, or people around.

    Also, the people at BaseCamp are dissmissive to customers about their needs. On their forums they tell customers: “We want to keep BaseCamp simple, so we are not going to address your need. If you don’t like that, there are plenty of other options; why don’t you go find one?”  This of course after many months of my data is now held hostage by their system with no way to get it out!!!

    BUYER BEWARE. Check out their feature request forum to see for yourself:

    Posted by Anonymous  on  10/31  at  03:50 AM
  2. Basecamp is not perfect. It would be great to have a visual view, but there are no plans to add this, for example. And there are some sucky design decisions, which are sucky enough to be irritating. Jason won’t tell anyone why he decided to center the headings—he says there are reasons for this but I think the reason is he just likes it that way.

    But, considering all of the web-based project management systems out there that are both 1) easy for non-techie clients to use (except for the email reply bounce, which remains a real problem for us) and 2) cheap enough for a tiny design shop (as most of them are, I would hazard a guess), Basecamp is the ONLY one I’ve found that even comes close to filling the bill. So it’s about 65% for us. Good enough and solves several problems for us (file uploading alone is an ass saver). And easy enough to learn that I don’t have to spend a hell of a lot of time learning it (I don’t HAVE much spare time—so if it were too hard to use or not worth it enough, I would’ve canceled it pretty fast).

    That said, there is still plenty of room for improvement. It’s annoying that time tracking features make the app cost twice as much as needed—but then, I read that it isn’t really time tracking anyway and does not export to Quickbooks—so I’ll stick with the free QB timer.

    Would LOVE to see all the milestones with attached tasks displayed for printing out.

    Would love to be able to see all To-Dos on the same screen, not just by assignee.

    Would REALLY like to be able to customise my home page since I don’t use a good percentage of the main dashboard (like 75% of it is wasted space for me).

    Would really love a way to see the big picture, a quarter or at least a month in advance.

    And I hate mystery buttons that appear and then go away, but I can live with it to some extent.

    You CAN export your data, by the way. It’s all exportable in XML.

    And there’s a way to set up templates for use across projects, though I haven’t yet found this particularly useful as we have very few cookie cutter projects (and those I don’t need to plan out any more—after so many years of doing this, it’s pretty much rote).

    I don’t think there’s any reason to be paranoid about criticizing Basecamp, though. The forum participants are pretty vocal, and I don’t think the folks at Basecamp are petty or stupid enough to do something that would provoke either a backlash or litigation. Though Jason has a few blind spots (I have my own set of ‘em), he does seem to pay attention to what people say and I’ve never gotten any backlash for saying something sucks.

    I still hate that wimp-ass gray background though. I won’t even get into the hackneyed drop shadow ...

    Posted by lee  on  10/31  at  07:49 AM
  3. I’m also a basecamp user but I’m currently trying to find an alternative.

    Also, 37signals has never really had a customer-centric philosophy. They have quite a few posts on their blog where they say, “don’t listen to the customer because they don’t know what they want. Do it our way.”

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/02  at  11:26 PM
  4. I did a search for “Salon Redesign Sucks” and wound up here.  I’ve tried to find some ways to resolve the usability problems my wife is complaining about with Salon’s new redesign.  In doing so, I came up with the following:

    User override of styles:


    Editing the userContent.css file

    Although, I found one additional resource which also looks to be a good fix:

    I thought would post this here and get some feedback from some web designers (as opposed to the general Salon subscriber) before I pose this as a workable solution on Salon’s TableTalk list.

    Your thoughts?

    Posted by JohnT  on  11/18  at  04:34 AM
  5. I tried the third fix, which changed the colors (and was pretty easy to implement). Will take a look at the others when I get a chance.

    Not knowing what, exactly, your wife’s usability issues are, I don’t know what she needs or if it’s even possible to provide it via a stylesheet tweak. Font color, font family, font size, line height, link colors, letter spacing—these things can be fixed with that bookmarklet application (which is quite handy).

    My primary usability problem is I can’t find things—as I’ve hollered about on Salon a few times (I post under the name wordsilk on Salon). The way the content listing is displayed is not a stylesheet thing—it’s a problem with the way the Salon “designers” have ignored fundemental things such as designing for the reader and not for 1) designer ego and 2) ease of updating content.

    The redesign is so not ready for prime time I’m embarassed for them—and unless it gets fixed, I won’t be renewing my subscription. It’s not that unique any more and if I want to read blogs, I’ll read blogs.

    Another thing you could do is use an RSS reader to read Salon—if it’s still worth the trouble to you to get it all working. I don’t care for RSS feeds that much myself because I like the whole experience of sites themselves and reading RSS feeds make me feel too isolated. But that’s just me.

    As far as RSS readers go, I recommend Feed Demon (—probably because I cut my CSS teeth using the Feed Demon author’s stylesheet editor (TopStyle) and find his stuff easy to use.

    One last thing: just post the stuff on Salon. Might trigger a spate of solutions others have tried that work even better.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/18  at  06:46 AM
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