Picking a project management platform that works for us

I realised that we needed a way to track our progress on our various projects soon after I hired Nastassja as my candidate attorney at Jacobson Attorneys. Initially we worked on a workflow using –

  • Evernote for shared notes (syncing proved to be problematic due to an error Nastassja kept encountering on her iPad when trying to sync),
  • Dropbox as our file server (I upgraded to 50GB and will upgrade Nastassja’s account soon),
  • Harvest for time tracking and billing (I’ve been using Harvest for about 2 years and its terrific),
  • email (of course) and
  • whichever task management app worked for us (I use OmniFocus and Nastassja experimented with Remember the Milk and uses a paper diary for much of her task management).

This workflow had limitations, partly because we weren’t working off a common task list. We had weekly status meetings to update tasks and chatted during the week where necessary. It worked but it wasn’t easy for us to see what our progress was on the projects we were working on. I decided to look around at project management options which would help us collaborate more effectively on our various projects.

My starting point was Basecamp. I used it in the past to collaborate with clients when I was on my own and then cancelled my account in favour of sharing documents through Dropbox instead (that and email covered my collaboration needs at the time) and maintaining my tasks in RTM when I was using an Android phone and OmniFocus when I switched to an iPhone. 37signals had just upgraded Basecamp to the new version so when I created my 45 day trial account it was on the new platform.

I set up a couple projects on Basecamp and invited Nastassja to collaborate on them with me. I thought we had 45 days to decide if this works for us before signing up for one of the paid packages (there aren’t any free options on the new Basecamp). I also listed to 37signals’ Rework book (Audible version) again as a refresher of their design choices and approach to the product).

At the same time I was looking at alternatives. Given the number of projects we have in Basecamp (I created projects for all the work Nastassja and I both work on – if this is going to work, all of those projects have to be in the system or it won’t work as it is intended), it looks like the 40 project package at $50 per month is going to be the package we would need. Two platforms stood out for different reasons: Podio and Apollo.

Consider Apollo

I took a fairly brief look at Apollo after being prompted to do so by the Apollo team (they were very responsive on Twitter). Apollo looks a lot like a cross between Podio’s feature rich platform and Basecamp’s apparent simplicity. By the time I looked at Apollo I was deciding between Podio and Basecamp and didn’t have time to explore Apollo in much detail but Apollo is certainly worth considering. Its interface is relatively clean and simple and it has functionality which sits in a sweet spot for many. Its aggressively priced for solos up to large businesses and a little cheaper than Basecamp. Unlike Basecamp (referring specifically to the new version), Apollo has a mobile Web interface. A mobile interface is pretty important to me and this is one aspect of Basecamp that I have reservations about at the moment.

Podio – powerful but a little confusing

Podio is a very compelling option. It is more of a platform in the true sense. It is highly customisable and has very attractive pricing options (Podio has a free option for small teams of up to 5 people) and has a mobile app which seems to work pretty well.

One of Podio’s key features is its app market. This is the key to Podio’s flexibility. Through the app market you can create spaces specifically tailored to the sort of project you are working on.

Podio App Market | Podio

I created a very basic project in Podio for our office move next month. It mirrors one of the tasks in its Basecamp equivalent. My experiences in creating this Podio project pretty much helped me decide which way to go. I must preface my discussion about Podio by saying that I haven’t fully set a project up in it and run the project to its end. I may have missed something about it that would have improved m experience but my approach was to get a feel for how easily I could create a project because that is a critical factor. If the platform is not easy to use then it won’t be used effectively. What I have noticed is that the platform itself should fade into the background, leaving us to focus on just getting our work done (yup, GTD is a strong influence on me).

Anyway, back to my project on Podio. I selected a general project management pack (a bundle of standalone apps) for our office move project.

Free Project Management software | Podio

The apps are integrated into your Dashboard and you can install different apps for different workspaces (I understand these as project workspaces). You can also set up different companies and import contacts from external lists. Podio has pretty extensive integration with external services like Google Contacts. I tried to create a general deliverable with one of the tasks needed to deliver that deliverable.

Transfer office phone line | Office move

Transfer office phone line | Office move

I couldn’t work out how to subordinate the task to the deliverable. The interfaces for each action in Podio are pretty granular and give you quite a bit of control over those actions. You can be pretty specific about who does what and when or you can just add simple tasks and other actions. Its up to you. The project overview can be a little confusing although it it customisable to a degree.

Activity stream | Office move

When I use Podio, I feel confused about how to do what I want to do. That is generally add tasks, often in task groups, make notes on project-related topics for discussion with my collaborators and track the project’s progress. Podio allows you to do that with the option of creating custom workspaces and with quite a bit of granular control although that comes at a cost. I am not the smartest person around but I’ve used a number of productivity solutions in my time and Podio, while powerful, confuses me. That means it may be confusing to my collaborators (staff and clients, where I bring clients into the process) and that is a barrier to daily and frequent use. That said, I have heard from a number of people who love Podio and think it is awesome.

Basecamp

In contrast to Podio, Basecamp’s interface is deceptively simple. This is part of our actual office move project. The project overview is very straightforward and its easy to see what is going on. I could see a project’s overview in Podio but Basecamp has a much simpler interface with no confusion as to what is going on at all.

Tasks and discussions in Basecamp

At the same time, Basecamp is intentionally simple. There is no app market and no real customisation when it comes to the sorts of project specific workflows Podio enables. Being able to create an event project management workflow in Podio, for example, is useful because it is specifically geared for events but we don’t need that level of customisation. We need to be able to add and assign tasks, have ongoing discussions about issues that pop up and easily track our progress. Comments on tasks are surfaced as discussions alongside general discussions and its easy to see what I have to do across all my projects …

… and see what my team’s progress is too.

Basecamp is deceptively powerful and a lot of the functionality is not exposed by controls as you may expect but tend to be a little more intuitive. I couldn’t work out how to reorder my tasks until I clicked on a task and dragged it into place. You can also reorder task groups the same way. Its also pretty easy to add people selectively to projects, whether they are team members or external people.

The clincher for me, aside from the simpler interface, was Nastassja telling me how much she enjoys using Basecamp and how easy it is for her to use. Basecamp obviates the need for more frequent status meetings and ad hoc discussions about issues. That she likes the interface and feels it works for her is the real test for me.

My one big reservation about Basecamp is that none of the 3rd party apps seem to work with the new version and there is no mobile site (you can access the actual page but it doesn’t work on a mobile phone – its too small and not formatted for mobile). While I understand the development team’s focus on getting a solid 1.0 release out to customers, mobile is too important to neglect. No usable mobile interface means my ability to update on the fly when I am out of my office is very limited. Its not always convenient to whip out my laptop and update in the browser. That said, my primary task management app is OmniFocus which I manually sync with Basecamp either as I go or during my weekly reviews. Its workable and I am prepared to wait for some mobile interface for Basecamp. I am certain there will be something.

As powerful as Podio is and despite a free option which would meet my little team’s needs, I am sticking with Basecamp and will probably subscribe to the $50 for 40 projects version when our trial expires next month. If Basecamp helps us become more effective (and it already has done that), it will more than pay for itself.

On a related note, I found that we also needed a CRM solution. As Nastassja needs to contact clients about work she is doing, she needs access to contact details and client information. I looked to Highrise, another 37signals product, and discovered a free option (look in the small text under the paid plan options) for 2 team members and up to 250 contacts. That is perfect for us so I’ve added that to our mix.

Paul
Enthusiast, marketing strategist, writer, and photographer. Passionate about my wife, Gina and #proudDad. Allergic to stupid

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