Case Study:
Basecamp 3 User Onboarding


While the sign up process for Basecamp 3 is straightforward and takes very little time, new users run into issues when exploring the product on their own. Users struggle with creating to-do lists, which was cited most often as the tool that they’d use right away. They also frequently the browser to “go back” instead of the navigation within the product, which made the product feel “clunky” as one user stated. Finally, when users skip the intro video by closing it out they miss out on additional tips that are intended to help them understand the product.


“User Onboarding is the process of increasing the likelihood that new users become successful when adopting your product” (

People sign up for Basecamp wanting to keep their team on the same page and organize their work in a simple way.

Whatever the reason, someone who signs up for an account decided that today was their day to try Basecamp. Something in their life compelled them to make a change for the better. Maybe they’re frustrated with their current project management software or maybe they just want to try something new. Most importantly, the person is motivated in this moment to take action.

The first time they try Basecamp is crucial to their success. Fixing even minor roadblocks in the first-run experience can have a major impact on helping them understand the product.

Research Methods

To research the onboarding experience, I ran a usability test and interviewed five users. I used a screener to recruit users who:

1. Work in an online team environment
2. Frequently use email to communicate
3. Have never used Basecamp.

This would allow the study to be as close as possible to the real thing.

The study consisted of having users read through the website, sign up for a free account, explore on their own, and then complete a series of simple tasks. They were then asked follow up questions to get more insight and comments about their experience.

Questions to Answer

How do new users feel while setting up an account with Basecamp 3?

What problems do new users run into when completing the following tasks?

1. Create a To-Do list
2. Send a message in Campfire
3. Create a message board post
4. Add an event
5. Create folders and organize files

What obstacles prevent the user from exploring Basecamp?

Data Analysis

To analyze the success/fail rate for specific tasks, a point system was used in which each was scored based on each participant’s performance and then given a total score. Observations were documented along with comments from participants in order to access each task.

Point System

Failure, could not complete task: -1
Qualified Success; some struggling/misunderstanding observed: 0
Success: +1

Highest possible score: 5
Lowest possible score: -5

Findings & Recommendations

1. Navigation [High Priority]


The most reoccurring observation made throughout the study was the use of browser back buttons or keyboard shortcuts to navigate between tools. It takes too long for new users to understand how to use the Dashboard link at the top of the screen. While exploring the sample Basecamp users don’t realize it links to the home screen. The link becomes more clear after a user creates and names their own Basecamp.


“At first it felt pretty clunky to me (referring to how it felt to use Basecamp) but once I figured out the hyperlink at the top I just clicked that to get back to the home screen.”

“Not totally sure how to get back to the page I was just on.”


Users were confused when transitioning from the navigation of the dashboard to a tool. The navigation at the top (which displays while you are using one of the tools) was hard to understand right away. I recommend adding a visual signifier* to the current tool in order to show the user where they are at all times. The current tool should be highlighted a different color or include a border around it to show the user that they can easily get to other tools from their current location.

[*This was added to the interface sometime after this study was conducted in April 2016.]

On several occasions users would complete a task but not know how to get back or where to go afterwards. Using more consistent breadcrumb links throughout the product would provide an easy way for someone to get back to the tool after completing a task.

2. To-Do Lists & Adding To-Do Items [High Priority]


Users consistently mentioned To-Do’s as the tool that they would find most useful and use right away to get set up with a Basecamp for work. This tool happened to provide the most confusion and frustration for users.

Overall, users understand the concept of adding things to-do and assigning them but struggled with understanding the difference in adding To-Do lists vs. To-Do items. Users fell into what I call the “add extra details trap” where they would click to add extra details about the To-Do list but once the text box opened they thought it was for adding the To-Do items.


I would suggest adding a way to cancel the “details” section so that a user can recover if they make this error.

I’d test different text for the ‘add details’ field. “Add a list description or attach a file” might be more clear to the user. It might also be worth moving this step to the end of the process after To-Do items have been added so that users do not fall into the trap.

Another possible change would be the button text, “Add this List” to “Add To-Dos” so that the user can anticipate what will happen next. I suggest prototyping different versions of the process and testing them against each other.

Users also had minor difficulties understanding how to check off To-Do’s and what the check-off box did without clicking on it. I would suggest adding a hover state to the checkbox showing what will happen when the user clicks the box.

It’s important that this tool is easy to understand and use “right out of the box”. If new users explore To-Do lists and have an unpleasant experience it may turn them away from coming back to use Basecamp a second time.

3. Intro Video & Help Guide [High Priority]


0/5 users viewed the 2-minute video presented by the tour guide at the beginning of exploring the sample Basecamp. Some users mentioned that they usually don’t watch tutorial videos and others said they didn’t simply because they were doing a test and not really signing up on their own.

Users thought the video was the entirety of the virtual tour. Only one user recognized that the text in the purple bubble changed as they viewed different tools. This was mainly because users clicked the “X” button to avoid the video at the beginning.


I would suggest adding text to explain that the “tour” isn’t just the video. If the user X’s out the video, have the Happy Camper mascot come back into the window when a user clicks on a tool for the first time. Also, in order to get the attention of the user, consider having Happy Camper animate speaking so that it’s obvious that it’s giving you new content every time a different tool is selected.

4. “Following” a Campfire or Bookmarking a Tool [Low Priority]


Users who clicked the “follow” button in the Campfire tool or “Bookmark” for other tools didn’t know what the buttons did. For first time users, clicking on a button and not seeing what has changed is confusing.


Adding feedback will help users see the immediate change and offer an explanation of the action in real time so that they know for future use. A pop-up at the top under the appropriate label (Basecamps or Campfires) will help users understand the concept better.

5. Choosing a Password [Low Priority]


Overall, it was easy for users to sign up for Basecamp using the form or their Google account. Some mentioned how easy and smooth this process was. One minor issue that was observed occurred when a user tried to enter a password that was less than 8 characters and immediately clicked the “Sign up” button only to be denied and given an explanation. The user signed up so quickly that he didn’t pay attention to the placeholder text.


Adding real-time in-line validation to the password field will help new users find a useable password without being denied the first time when they click the “Sign up” button.

6. Organizing Docs and Files [Low Priority]


Participant’s experienced difficulty moving files into folders. Often, the files would move and it would take a moment for the user to precisely drag the file into the folder.

Also, one user pointed out that the white folders and default white files looked very similar and it confused her when she tried to quickly distinguish between the two.

It’s also important to note that one participant tried to select all of the files by clicking and dragging across the interface.


If possible, fix the interaction so that it feels more natural to the user.

I’d also make the folders look more like physical folders with pockets in order to differentiate them from white-colored (default) files.

Finally, I would conduct more research to see if other users have tried to select multiple files by clicking and dragging. If so, you may want to consider adding this as an interaction.


Hulick, S. (n.d.). UserOnboard. Retrieved April 02, 2016, from