A Breakdown of Basecamp’s Product Design Process for Software

By Rob Williams

How do you follow Basecamp’s awesome motto: “your company should be your best product,” when you’re not totally sure what that should look like?

That’s what I talk to Jonas Downey, product designer at Basecamp and co-founder of Hello Weather, about in this interview.

We jump into how and why Basecamp has designed a 6-week cycle structure for their team and why it’s helped them embark on scary new projects with confidence.

Key takeaways from the interview:

  • Jonas has a self-proclaimed “weird background” that includes writing, programming, fine art, web design, etc. As a result both Jonas and Basecamp have a healthy dose of design/tech industry skepticism. Basecamp’s values and principles are important and constantly guide the company.
  • Basecamp’s project planning and execution includes: 6-week work cycles, strategic pre-planning to avoid future failures caused by existential uncertainty, structure around how individuals pitch ideas, and grouping projects into Big Batch and Small Batch.
  • To guide execution and project management, Basecamp utilizes: epicenter design, the 80% rule, a constant examination of what’s core vs. what’s not, and incremental decisions that ask: is this better than what we had before?
  • To track and discuss work, Basecamp uses: one place for people to communicate across roles, not only in real-time, task organization by scope of work, not by responsibility, hill charts which allow them to seeing the big picture, and asynchronous discussions in a permanent place.
  • Takeaway trick for success: constantly zooming in and out: zoom out to reflect on your principles, vision, and process and zoom in to consider planning, scoping, and communication.
  • An aside on running successful side projects: they should be FUN, not a hustle, attention drain, or obligation, they should let you do all the things you don’t get to do at work, and they should turn your discontent into action.

Favorite quotes

“When you embark on a project, at the beginning there’s all these existential questions like “what should we build?” “why should we build this?” “when does this need to happen?” and “how are we going to do it?”

That stuff comes first and has to be decided on before you jump into the execution of the work. If we didn’t do that pre-planning upfront we’d have a lot more blowing budget and failing.” (14:30)

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About Rob Williams...

I run Folyo which helps freelance designers find the work they were meant to do. I also host Freelance a podcast about how to be more effective at independent work featuring remote companies like Disney, Basecamp, YNAB, ConvertKit and more.

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