New Adventures In Collaboration (Part 1)

Apps & services for communicating when working remotely.

by James LaCroix

We work in an industry that is always changing. While the web industry has matured quite a bit, new technologies and methods still arise, warrant consideration and often adaptation. As a studio, we are always improving on what we do with refined processes to create better systems for a improved client experience and more successful products.

Perhaps the biggest change that we embraced this past year is that I relocated to Chicago. As you might have read in a recent New York Times article, Nashville is a wonderful place to live. LaCroix Design Co. got its start there as well as many great friendships. It is also where I met my lovely wife. However, after ten years we were in need of a change. Chicago offered new inspiration, a growing tech scene and the opportunity to not own a vehicle. Therefore in June of 2012, we decided to make the move.

We often work remotely with a large number of our clients and have experimented with and revised different systems to improve communication throughout the process. While Michael and I enjoy the moments where we are working together on a project, we have found that our best work is often done while working in solitary sprints. These sprints are then followed up with a collaborative assessment.

Thus, the extra distance has not thrown a wrench in the way we operate and in some ways has improved our collaboration process. Of course, we would not be able to pull this off as well without the utilization of some apps and services. Here are some of the tools that we are using for successful internal collaboration and how we are using them. We’ve become quite attached to using some of these apps and services so I broke them down into a few posts to be spread out.

GmailGmail.com
Much like everyone else, Gmail powers our email server. We recommend it to all of our clients. For reading mail, we both use Gmail via Fluid on our laptops and the official Gmail app on our iOS Devices along with the native client on Android.

BasecampBasecamp.com
Basecamp is at the core of everything that we do. Chrome is open to our Basecamp dashboard whenever we are at the computer. Email is noisy and distracting. It has its purpose and we are guilty of relying on it, a bit too much, just as much as anyone else. However, for communicating with clients and with one another, we use Basecamp whenever possible.

I personally love to see my inbox at zero. Therefore, actionable items get put into todos, information needing kept into documents, important dates into the calendar and files needing save uploaded. By parsing the necessary information, I am able to delete emails while retaining their content in a much more efficient place. When working with each other and with clients through Basecamp, we are able to bypass this parsing step and get straight into the tasks at hand.

Internally, we collaborate on proposals, assign each other tasks and discuss new ways in which we might do something. In fact, by the time that you read this blog post, it has already gone back and forth a few times in Basecamp. Whenever we start to discuss a new venture, we create a new project so that we can begin to record any ideas that we may have. In fact, I rely on it so much that I use it for planning vacations with my wife. Basecamp is our most indispensable service that we pay for.

One downside to Basecamp is that it also uses email for notification purposes. In order to get around this and alleviate the step of deleting email alerts, we set Gmail to auto-archive Basecamp email alerts and use Headquarters to serve up OS X notifications.

Unfortunately, this creates a bit of trouble when we are out of the office and on our iOS devices. I’ve been using Hojoki to serve up push notifications. However, I’m not in love with this setup and there is plenty of room for it to be improved upon. We both use Lodge on our iPhones and find it be a fantastic app. Building push notifications into the app would be brilliant and would solve this whole dilemma. If we are casting coins into the well, then it would be great to have Lodge on our iPads as well.

One other area of friction that we have using Basecamp is the lack of private messaging. The previous iteration of Basecamp allowed for use to create private messages, todos, documents and files. This allowed for us to communicate internally from within the client project. Thus all of the information was contained in one place in case we would ever have to go back to it. The newest iteration of Basecamp offered enough incentives for us to make the switch despite the lack of private messaging. The much improved interface and speed of the new iteration has definitely been worth it. For large projects, we work around this by creating an internal and external project. Hopefully private messaging is eventually restored and we can return to a communication model that we enjoyed.

As I mentioned earlier, Basecamp is the crux of our collaboration. While there are plenty of other services on the market, this one is simple, intuitive and best of all works well for us.

SkypeSkype.com
I’m hesitant to put this application on the list but we do use it everyday for quick dialogue and instant feedback. Unfortunately, a number of contacts are on it so it can be a bit distracting when focus is needed. We are not in love with the interface and it is often buggy. The positives are that we can call one another, screen share and forward calls to it to easily answer while we are at our desk. However, we would most likely trade away some of those benefits for a service that fit us better.

I think that we may have tried every chat service under the sun. Unfortunately there has not been one that truly fit our needs. Often, they fell short in mobile device compatibility or notifications. Being quite fond of the philosophy of 37signals, we used Campfire in hope that it would be our solution. The ability to create separate rooms allowed for us to reduce distraction. However, much like a lot of the service’s competitors, it lacked proper iOS applications, notifications and the interface is due for a much needed update. A future iteration of this service addressing the previously mentioned shortfalls, along with Basecamp integration, could be the solution that we have been dreaming of.

Internally, we have been working on building our own application to fill this void. It is currently a project that is a bit off in the distance as we continue to address our needs so that the application can be correctly tailored to them. However, friction within the chat arena still exists for us. Until a new solution is found or developed, Skype continues to offer a satisfactory platform for collaboration.

Continue onto the second part of this series.