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Back to Basecamp ; Asana No Longer Viable

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That didn’t take long.   After spending a few days with Asana my team decided that they could not work with that project management tool.   After spending several hours on training email, live screen casting, and phone calls I agree.

Deal Breaker : No HTML Formatting

One BIG issue was the complete lack of HTML formatting including inline image retention and CSS styling of content that is pasted into discussions and descriptions.  Asana has the annoying habit of stripping any-and-all HTML elements down to bare text.    Cleaner and more consistent interface?  Sure?  Boring as heck, hell yes.  LOSING CRITICAL ELEMENTS like charts and graphs that were part of the original content?  A deal breaker.

Asana’s response to that issue:

Chris
NOV 11, 2014  |  05:23PM PST
Hi Lance,

Thanks for the request for HTML formatting and hyperlinks in discussions of Asana. We don’t have these additions planned for the near term, but we will note your suggestion to help inform future product developments.

We appreciate knowing what you think about the product. Let me know if I can help you with anything else.

Thanks,

Chris

No Project-Level Documents or Discussions

I told my team that EVERYTHING needed to be attached to a task.  It is the only way to get documents into the system or to hold discussions.    After a few days it became clear that this is a really horrible design flaw.   A perfect example, creating the pitch deck.   That was the first task “Finalize Pitch Deck”.    It had all sorts of relevant comments and discussions.   Most importantly it had the in-progress and eventually FINAL Pitch Deck attached to it.
Guess what?  You CLOSE tasks when they are finished.
Guess what else?   My team started asking almost immediately “where the hell did that pitch deck link go”?   Now try explaining “go find completed tasks, it is hidden in there, no go find the task that is one of hundreds completed this month to find THE task with THAT document”.    A nightmare.
One of the things we need is place to store and find final versions of documents.  You know… the type of documents that perpetual beyond the life of a single task.    Things that are project-level or even corporate-level documents.      Asana completely fails in this regard.
Asana’s response to that issue:
Terrence
NOV 10, 2014  |  03:39PM PST
Hi Lance,

Thank you for writing in with your request for project-level attachments. We don’t have that functionality at this time. I will note your feedback for the product team to consider.

As a workaround, you can also find all attachments across multiple projects using Search Views (https://asana.com/guide/learn/basics/search#gl-search-views).

Please let me know if you have any other questions or suggestions.

Thanks,

Terrence

The Other Stuff

There were also the “smaller” issues.  Important but not deal-breakers.  Things like…

Calendar Times

Adding times to event due dates so that the “Meet with Cecil and execute contract” task will be USEFUL when syncing to Google Calendar.  Without a time you end up creating TWO calendar entries, a day-long entry from Asana (the only option) and a time-specific entry in Google.   Asana’s response:
Terrence
NOV 11, 2014  |  11:45AM PST
Hi Lance,

Thanks for the request for time options with due dates. We don’t currently have this on our near-term roadmap, but might consider adding this in the future.

In the meantime, I would suggest including this information in brackets at the beginning of task titles for visual clarity (see attached screenshot):

[2:00 – 4:00PM] Long walk on the beach.

Let me know if you need anything else.

Thanks,

Terrence

Markdown

The ability to add [My Website](https://www.storelocatorplus.com) to make simple text links would have been nice, especially for the 255 character URLS some sites create these days.   The response?
Chris
NOV 11, 2014  |  05:19PM PST
Hi Lance,

Thanks for the detailed request for markdown support in Asana.

While we don’t have related changes planned for the near term, we will consider it and note your suggestion.

When we receive a request for a feature that’s not on our current roadmap (usually because we’ve discussed it and decided to save it for later), we label the inquiry so that when we next set priorities or decide to work on that feature, we can easily find customer requests. We prioritize on a number of factors beyond the number of requests (including staffing, cost, overall product goals), but that is certainly valuable information and we appreciate hearing your case.

We appreciate knowing what you think about the product, and your experience as a new user.

As always, you can review existing functionality in the Asana Guide:
https://asana.com/guide/learn

Let me know if I can help you with anything else.

Thanks,

Chris

Summary

At the end of the day I did not find Asana a bad option.  I liked it better than Trello and Basecamp in many ways. However it is not about me, it is about making my team more productive and giving them the tools they need to communicate more efficiently.    The resounding vote was “use Basecamp it is far easier”.    That is saying something as they had used Basecamp for exactly two days and Asana for exactly two days and easily voted for Basecamp.
Given the fact that I spent a total of 6+ hours training my people on Asana and 15 minutes on Basecamp, the choice was clear.   If we are going to be productive Basecamp was the only choice at this juncture.
Sadly an easy-to-use yet full-featured project management and online collaboration tool has yet to surface.  I’ve tried dozens and none fit the bill of “easy enough for my executive team without lacking significant functionality”.
Do you have a project management/online collaboration tool you use and LOVE?   Tell me why!
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Asana Project Management, Close But Not Perfect

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After spending the past 2 weeks looking at Project Management tools as a replacement for the overly simplistic Trello, we settled on Basecamp.   Within a week of using Basecamp and not being able to find the content and documents we were looking for in the deluge of newly-added content to the project we decided it was making the team LESS productive.    Time to move on.   After reading another half-dozen articles on Project Management software and what other people found and liked/disliked we decided to give Asana a try.

It looks promising out of the gate, but it is not without its flaws.  Some of those flaws are significant but not significant enough to make it unusable.   Overall we decided that Asana was better at finding and referencing information.   We also liked the near real-time chat feature called “Team Discussion”.  Thus, we are moving to our THIRD project management app within 90 days.   Sadly we are doing so knowing we are making compromises.    For something this important it feels wrong making compromises, but we have yet to find the right app for us.

What We Like

Everything is driven primarily by tasks.    That keeps all content emanating from a single objective-based origin.   However projects are not always so well structured and team collaboration often needs to be more fluid.     Task-centric project management is both a blessing and a curse for Asana.   It is a blessing because you always know to look under a task for most discussions and to find a related document.   It is a curse because some things, like an over-arching project document should not be buried deep inside a task.

The near-real-time updates on the screen are helpful when multiple team members are working on a project.  You can see what other people are saying without refreshing the page.  That is nice.

It is easy to move to other projects or tasks without having to always go back to the main starting point.  Basecamp always seems like you have to “jump back to the beginning” to find what you are looking for.

The search engine and tags are great.   It is far better, and faster, than Basecamp at locating relevant items.  The personal tags on items makes it even easier to find stuff you mark as important to a specific keyword. Very nice.

Tasks can have subtasks.    That is a great feature as the main project can stay focused on primary objectives.  Subtasks and their related commentary get buried in the main task, which we feel is a good thing.

 

The Shortcomings

NEARLY ZERO HTML formatting in discussions    Grab an article and paste it into Asana; goodbye images, text links, and most of the text formatting.    That is a good way to make most research articles useless as graphs, charts, and related hyperlinks go away.

Asana v. Basecamp Copy and Paste Content
Asana v. Basecamp Copy and Paste Content; Basecamp is the clear winner here. We can live without out this feature, but it will be painful.

Inability to create text-based hyperlinks.  Paste in a full HTTP address and you get a nice link.   Have a long link like this: https://basecamp.com/2785054/projects/7505219/messages/33557010  and that creates a long sucky message in Asana.  Especially if you have several such links.    Something like this Basecamp Ed Sheeran Article would be far nicer.  Markdown anyone?  Not in Asana.

You can close a parent task even if the subtasks are not completed.  No warning.  Nada.  It just closes out the parent task.    I guess that can be good in some cases, but I would like to at least have a warning come up saying “you are closing this while sub tasks are not completed, is that OK”.

You cannot assign a task to multiple people.    I guess the Asana folks subscribe to the same flawed thinking that Basecamp subscribes to when it comes to project management.   One person is responsible for a task.   That may make sense, such as setting a project lead, but smaller companies often assemble teams where any member can work on, and close, a task when completed.     I want several people to have responsibility for a task.  ESPECIALLY when you have parent tasks with subtasks.

You cannot attach a document to a project.  You can only attach documents to tasks.    That means there are no over-arching project documents.  That is just not reflective of how the world works, even in a pure Project Management sense.

You can only email content to add a task not augment a discussion.   Yes, they are trying to eliminate email.  However when I am traveling the best and fastest method to communicate on my tiny phone screen is a simple email app.   I should be able to subscribe/unsubscribe to  a task or discussion and thus turn on/off the “email spigot”.    However it should be a two-way spigot where I can reply and have it append the ongoing discussion in Asana.

 

Summary

So far it seems better organized than Basecamp, but this is our first 24 hours with the app.    Having already discovered some major shortcomings makes us nervous.    Hopefully we don’t run into many more issues as we’ve already burned enough time on the team switching project management apps.    That is what happens when you are a lean & mean startup that is trying to move quickly.   No time to thoroughly review and test project management apps while we are already speeding down the runway for takeoff.

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Basecamp Falls Short, Still The Best Option

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As the lead on a major new project, Perpetual Media, I have been searching for a better project management app.    For the past year I’ve been using Trello.   Trello is great for simple task lists for myself and for the single-man-show that is Charleston Software Associates.    However Trello falls far short when it comes to large complex projects with a big team, many tasks, multiple documents, due dates, task dependencies and more.

Enter Basecamp

Having been at this software and management gig for two decades, I’ve come across Basecamp many times in the past.    I’ve used it both for my companies and as a consultant for other companies that ran the Basecamp projects.     After a brief search for alternatives I moved the Perpetual Media project from Trello to Basecamp as the project team grew and task management became more complex.  Within 48 hours I had logged a significant number of shortcomings.

Sadly, every time I communicated with Basecamp support they very quickly responded to my inquiries with “Sorry, you cannot do that in Basecamp at the moment.”    Yes, Basecamp support was lightning fast.  That was great.    But fast support is easy when you only need to press the canned “you cannot do that” response button.  Makes it easy to work through an incoming support queue.

What Is Wrong With Basecamp?

Here is my short list compiled in the first 24 hours of use while managing a team of 3 other people that are not as geeky as I.   The biggest problems by far are the TONS of duplicate links and content, disconnected discussion threads, and search that does not always find what I need within the project.

Cannot link existing discussion to new task.

Start a discussion, then derive a task from that discussion.  You cannot make this discussion the default thread for the task.

This is an issue as now any comments made under the task creates a second discussion.  Which leads to the next issue.

Cannot merge discussions.

See above.

Not too mention you cannot merge multiple related threads into a single discussion.

Every Task, Discussion Etc. Creates A New File

Start a discussion, attach a Google Doc file (GD file) i .e. a Pitch Deck .   It adds a file to the file list on the project.

Create a task based on that discussion.   There is no way to reference that pre-existing GD file.    Thus you need to attach the very same GD File, creating a second copy of the GD file.

Cannot Assign Task To Multiple People

Create  a task to assign to a team or a few individual people?   Cannot be done.   Hugely lame.    Should allow for at least assignment to a team.

Cannot Create Subtasks

Create a task that has subtasks?  Not possible.     Good-bye any concept of dependencies or “this needs to be done before that is done” or even “this big task requires these several small tasks be done”.

BC Docs (Notes/Text Docs)  has no indent feature.

Docs, like this on Basecamp, has no way to indent paragraphs.   Or bullets lists so you can have standard bullet indents.

Create a Link in a BC Doc – links  you off-BC

Add a link like this: http://www.google.com/ to a BC note and now every time you click it  you are off BC instead of having it open in a new tab.

Cannot Rearrange Order of Primary Sections on a Project

You cannot re-arrange the page layout of a project.   For example you cannot put the To Do list above the discussions.  As per the above topics the current layout leads to people creating stand-alone discussions first when they should be discussions attached to a To Do item.   Since there is no merge discussions this creates threads about the same topic that are never connected.  It become a laborious process to track down all relevant comments/discussion.

Seeking A Solution

Gahhh…. the more I use BaseCamp the more cumbersome it becomes!   I’ve reviewed at least 6 other PM tools.   Most are overly complex.  BaseCamp is the best SIMPLE interface I’ve found so far.

However, after searching for a phrase I know I had in a discussion and getting 12 WRONG results,  I’m on the PM search again this morning.

Someone, somewhere MUST have made a Project Management Tool that does not SUCK!

Before we make another jump, which consumes far too much energy, I am going to research and setup, and try to get things done in whatever tool I find before inviting anyone to the app.   For now use BaseCamp but I don’t think it will be long-lived.

Based on their canned “sorry BaseCamp cannot do that now” response and how many people I’m finding that have complained about the very same shortcomings for YEARS, I don’t think BaseCamp has any real interest on improving their user experience. Sad for such a good start.

A lesson for PM:  continually innovate & improve or die.

 

Alternatives To Basecamp

Here are some alternatives I tried.  I did not perform in-depth reviews.  My primary goal is to get a job done.     If something was difficult/confusing when getting started I dumped it.    Apps should be intuitive and get you “out of the gate” without performing 10 hours of setup or reading 12 pages of documentation (yes, I know I MUST improve that for my Store Locator Plus experience for my customers!).   If a project management tool required me to perform ANY setup other than start typing a project name, inviting some people, and typing a task name before using it the project was out.    Here is  what I found.

Trello

Pros: Simple account creation, simple setup, good user interface that makes it very easy to start creating “task groups” (lists) and tasks (cards).   Easy to assign multiple people and due dates to cards.

Cons: Hard to find and manage the calendar interface, event/time based entries seem secondary, no good overall document management/pool, no over-arching “view or discussion” for a project as a whole, my users found it difficult to find things.

Bottom line: for a large complex project you quickly end up with far too many cards and lists due to the “task list is king” focus of Trello.   Great for simpler projects and to-do list.  I use it for my personal “do this today/tomorrow/next week” reminders and task management.

JIRA

I’ve used JIRA in the past.  It is a big complex beast that takes some time to setup.    I didn’t evaluate that tool this time around due to multiple crashes and problems when trying to get it setup as the “next step” in my Bitbucket repository management.   I tried to setup a small team of programmers to help with Bitbucket tasks, but JIRA imported things incorrect, took an inordinate amount of time to configure and setup, and after spending hours on email and live chat with the tech support team to be left with a “we need to look into this” result, I decided JIRA was not for me.   A week later they got back to me to tell me they “reset the project” and “try again”.    Try wasting 12 hours getting it to work for a second time and hope it went OK?  No thank you.

Why I didn’t consider it for this project?   I am familiar with the UI and it  is far too complex for my team to work efficiently in the system.

Software should NOT be training users it should be serving the users silently and without fail.

Mavenlink

I signed up for Mavenlink and tried to get my first project and tasks started.   After 15 minutes answering questions to get the project configured, half of the time spent on “set the template and look-and-feel of the project”, I gave up.   Far too much time configuring and “turning dials” rather than “jumping right in” to creating projects and tasks and attaching related documents.   I should not have to decide on the best UI for my users.   They should provide a default and let me tune it later.  I don’t want a tool I need to configure.

There are also far too many buttons and menus all over the place.  This will confuse the members of my team as they hunt for “what to click” to get their job done.

I quickly dismissed Mavenlink due to the “overloaded UI”.

Podio

Podio, now owned by Citrix, was written off almost immediately.   It took me far too long to dig around their overly-enterprise 90’s style web menus to find screen shots and information about the Podio product.    Once I found what I was looking for I could tell that simple UX and modern design style was not their strong suit.   They are geared toward large bloated enterprises that are used to 80’s and 90’s style user interface architecture with 3,000 menus and a myriad of complex setup rules that they feel make an app better.    Bigger is not always better.    Sometimes simple works best.

TeamworkPM

I got a little further with TeamworkPM than some of the other apps I tried.   The sign up was simple and the interface is a decent compromise between overly-complext menu-driven systems like Mavenlink and Podio and the simplistic UI of Basecamp or Trello.    I created projects and tasks quickly but the next major element for my project management tool was adding Google Docs to the tasks.

The failure to quickly and easily attach pre-existing Google Docs to the tasks was a failure.     We use Google Docs extensively as I prefer their collaborative editing and discussion suite over solo desktop-based solutions.   The inability to easily add Google Docs to the project was an immediate set back and terminated my evaluation of TeamworkPM.    When I go to files/add files it should provide me with a Google Docs or Upload option.   Basecamp nailed it.   TeamworkPM would do well to emulate that part of the Basecamp experience.

Next.

 

Still Searching

I am on the quest to find the right PM for  us.     I need  a simple UI.   I need to be able to add my team members, create a project, assign tasks, and attach Google Docs with ease.     When I attach a document or start a discussion I should not end up creating 300 duplicates of the same content.   Finally I must be able to search and find the relevant content within a project or across all projects with ease.

On to some more project management app reviews.    I may even post about my findings if I find the right one or add to the list of failed attempts.

Have a suggestion and not a “pitch”?   Share!