Conversations should be task centric

By Giovanni Collazo 20 Nov 2013

Conversations should be task centric

This is our fifth post on our open design project series. Remember that you can subscribe to the project’s email newsletter to get notified when new posts are published. Let’s begin.

TL;DR

Free form messages are bad for project communication because they allow lazy people to just throw everything into a huge message that everyone has to read in order to find a sentence or two that they actually care about. Team communication around projects should be task centric. Every conversation should happen around specific tasks that need to be completed. On Blimp 2 we are going to remove the discussions feature and we are going to add a notes field to all tasks. The notes field will allow the use of Markdown to provide formatting.

**We don’t like free form messages

** Blimp is a communication tool. Our main goal is to allow teams to collaborate effectively in order to allow them to invest their time and energy doing the really important things. When Blimp fails to facilitate communication we are doing it wrong.

As many of you might know Blimp is a bootstrapped company with a team of three. We all do design, development, customer service and marketing. During the past year while developing Blimp we took a few consulting gigs so we could invest more resources into the product. Thanks to those gigs we now have a pretty long runway but more about that on a future blog post.

On most of those gigs we used Blimp to manage everything. We even found a few bugs and places where we could improve things. Some of the learnings from that experience have been discussed on previous posts. We are very happy about what we did and Blimp is better for it.

Now, in one of the projects we had a pretty large advertising agency as the client and they use Basecamp exclusively. Once the papers were signed we told them that we wanted to use Blimp to manage the project since it’s our main focus and it’s better than what they were using. The answer was no, citing a bunch of ridiculous reasons (none of them product related) so we just looked to the other side and accepted to use Basecamp for the project. After all, we had been using Basecamp for years and the frustrations with the product drove us to build Blimp. This might be a great opportunity to refresh our minds on why we are doing all this work.

The project begins with a message from the agency’s project manager detailing what had to be done. So, we read the message and created a bunch of tasks and everything went smooth until we showed them the results of the first iteration of design. We started getting a lot of messages on a discussion thread. Very long messages. From that point on, no one on the team ever used any other feature of Basecamp. Just messages,  messages, and more messages. Yes, now I remember why we’re building Blimp.

It’s really painful having to read dozens of very long messages just to find a sentence which contains all the info you need to do your job. It’s mostly noise and very little signal. This doesn’t help make communication better. It’s actually worse. You have to read every single message to stay synchronized with the team. Miss a message with a very important note and you are in trouble. So you have to read everything and it takes a lot of time. No wonder you spend so much time “doing emails”.

After a few days of getting flooded with messages (and their corresponding emails) I remembered a little hack I used to prevent this issue from happening. I had a messages called “Basecamp Police” in which I detailed how we should communicate. A very short list of best practices in the form of bullets.

Basically, if you want me to do something make a task and assign it to me. If you want to discuss something related to a task leave a comment. If you want to brainstorm random ideas, a message is ok but don’t copy everyone on the team, limit notifications to the correct people. Well, that didn’t work. The main issue is that it’s really easy for managers to just create a “brain dump” message and move on. Everyone on the team doing the actual work hates it and wastes time because of it.

Blimp discussions are going away

When we launched Blimp a lot of people requested we added a discussions feature similar to what they had on Basecamp. We gave up to the temptation and built it. The feature works quite well and in contrast to what Basecamp does we put a lot of emphasis on tasks so most discussions happen on that side and fewer happen on the discussions feature. But that’s not enough. We’ve had clients collaborate with us on Blimp and once they find the discussions tab that’s all they use. This produces the same problem Basecamp has, which we can’t tolerate since it prevents us from making team collaboration better. In fact it makes it worse.

So, we made the decision to simplify things. The discussions feature will not be a part of Blimp 2. Instead we are going “all in” on the task centric communications approach. We think that most conversations should happen around specific tasks and we must do whatever we can to limit the amount of “brain dumps” users can do within the app. We also must make sure that if a user does a “brain dump” we can transform that into actionable things.

Better task centric communication

We already encourage tasks centric discussions with our very robust comment and attachment systems. Within a task, you can leave comments or attach files from you computer, Dropbox or Google Drive with just a few clicks. But that’s not enough. Sometimes tasks need further explaination and we don’t have a specific place for that.

What we want to do for Blimp 2 is add a new notes field inside tasks. The idea is to have a field in which you could use Markdown to leave details on what the task means or any other additional information that doesn’t fit the title. That notes field can also be treated as a very light-weight embedded document since you will be able to do formatting. Users could keep that document up to date with any information coming from the client or other team members.

We think this little feature will help the team have more focused conversations which makes team communication more pleasurable.

What do you think?

Do you use the discussions feature? Are we crazy? Do you know what Markdown is? Let us know what you think. We really want to hear what you have to say. That’s the whole idea behind this open design project.

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