37 Signals’ Campfire: Missing Feature Is Becoming a Nasty Liability

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37logoA little introduction: Over at Think Brilliant, we use a suite of web-based applications to manage our company’s communication, directly reach our clients and partners, and generally stay organized. It’s  been developed by a great company based out of Chicago called 37 Signals, and for the most part we have no complaints.

But… The one feature missing from a crucial piece of the puzzle is becoming a nasty liability. One too risky for us to keep avoiding. We’ve tried to keep our mouth shut for months because we know there’s a wall around 37 Signals and they don’t like listening or taking requests for new features. But, we are long time partners who are deeply entangled with our BaseCamp centralization. By this feature being missing, we are considering doing the unthinkable, well until now… and leaving 37 signals.

37 Signals makes 4 pieces of software that can be grouped and used together, or one by one, depending on a particular person or company’s needs.  The products are called Basecamp, Highrise, Backpack and Campfire. In this post, I’m talking about Campfire.

Campfire is an application that lets a group of people collectively chat in a secure chatroom while uploading images in real time directly into the chat thread and much more. 37 Signals describes it as the following:

Campfire is a web-based group chat tool that lets you set up password-protected chat rooms in just seconds. Invite a client, colleague, or vendor to chat, collaborate, and make decisions. Link to a room on your intranet for internal communications.

Simple? Yes. Useful and completely essential? Absolutely. It takes seconds to setup a chatroom and invite everybody who is needed at the moment. Everything is cataloged, dated, stored, and easily reverted back to. Once you get to know it, you’ll wonder how you or your group ever communicated remotely without it. The below screenshot shows the Campfire interface. It’s from the “tour” section of 37 Signals’ website. Click the image for a bigger version.


So, getting to the root of the cause. When there is a group of people typing in Campfire, it does not let anybody know who is typing, or when they are typing.. For example, in countless scenarios I’ve been in multi-person chats in Campfire where it turns into chaos. Problems between the people chatting, that could have been solved, get rehashed because somebody is a slower typer than others. Other times the entire conversation halts because people don’t know what’s going on, who’s typing next or if what they’ll say will be drowned out by a competing or off-track statement.

All of this could be solved with a tiny little addition. Just like in Google Chat, Adium, iChat, Skype and nearly every other messaging service, when you’re in the middle of a conversation and the person on the other end is typing, a small little text line appears that simply says “Katie is typing” or “Mike is typing.” This way everyone knows who is typing and when they are typing. This little feature, so unbelievably small, so incredibly crucial, yet left out of such a key product.

37 Signals is a company that prides itself on making the best and most usable products around. A company who’s products rival beheamoths like Google and Microsoft. The subtle elegance found in their products is so rare, and very much appreciated. The incredible attention to detail, the stability, uptime, et cetera. Yes, credit is due, they have done an amazing job.  Yet such a small insignificant feature could make all the difference in the world. I see this feature as being subtle, unobtrusive, essential and best of all simple. Something Jason Fried (who is a major influence on me and the way I approach the web) and all of 37 Signals should be able to relate with easily. I know it sounds strange, but hopefully I see a “system upgrade” notice soon when I login soon. Maybe the missing feature will appear shortly after.

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