For over a decade I have been using various types of groupware and/or collaboration software. From Lotus Notes to Wikis, from Basecamp to ActiveCollab. Some of them did suck, some were great. Sometimes it was easy to use them, sometimes it was barely possible without having a PhD in Weirdthinking. However, one thing which all of the software I dropped, more or less quickly, had in common was the fact that the design was bad.
Design as a game changer
I recently came across an article by Petar Perovic on Medium in which he described the painful but successful process of bringing ActiveCollab up to par with what you would expect from a 2015 web-based software.
Years ago (2007?) I started using Basecamp and I loved it. Back then it was a great inspiration for us to redesign macbay and add functionality and take functions away (which is probably the best thing to do most often times). I loved it but could never really come to terms with their price models and the fact that I did not really control my data or the data of my clients.
ActiveCollab started out as an open source clone of basecamp but soon turned into a product by a company and well, it rushed towards the state of being a basecamp clone only featuring poor UI, UX and lacks of all kinds of things. And poorly enough: It stayed that way for years. Personally I had never felt so annoyed about the hundreds of dollars spent for my license, espacially since clients rejected using the software simply because they did not understand it. And who could blame them.
Now this article pops up in my reading list, scented with the sweet smell of change, improvements and slick design. Hey, great, I thought to myself, take my money you finally got it. What took you so long? My hopes were high, everything looked great, stuff got dumped from the feature list but I never used those things anyway. I even tried the first tiny client project on the platform, well at least I wanted to …
Roadblock ahead: The infamous installation from hell
So here I am: I have accounts for various hosting accounts with HostEurope, Domainfactory, 1&1 and DigitalOcean. No root servers, just managed servers, typical shared web space. Well I will save you the complete story but I gave up. A combination of preventions from my hosting, additional installs via ssh pretty much demanding a PhD in SysAdminology (at least it felt like that), and the frustration of hundreds of error emails while trying to set this puppy up did not really help. Here we were again: A software had moved from ugly and bloated to slick and lean, at least from a conceptual and interface point of view. Unfortunately this had not been thought through when it came to the guts of the software. From my point of view you either design something in a way which covers all aspects of the software, or you will face disappointment on your user's side of the fence. Why polish everything, turn the frog into the pretty princess and keep the process to get the princess shining as "ugly" as hell? Come on ActiveCollad, you started something here, try harder to get everything sorted out and make people happy. All I feel when I read your name now is the urge to embrace for impact.
ActiveCollab had a second chance (maybe it was even the third or fourth). I even spent money again on extending my update subscription. But things went wrong, maybe because I am not smart enough, maybe because I use the wrong Hosting. Actually I stil have some 10 months on my update subscription plan. We'll see what they can make of it.
However, I added Uberspace to my list of trusted hosting providers to avoid trouble in the future and changed my plans for collaboration software to Protonet. Protonet is not perfect but that is a different story.
Personally I hope the guys over at ActiveCollab continue on their path to improve their software. It is a great step forward to completely overhaul your interface and application structure and achieve great results like the ones you can see on the marketing site. But it's a long way to tipperary as my Mum always says. Good luck, I'll be watching you.