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Project Management / Online Collaboration Tools Review

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If you’ve been following my threads for the past month you’ll know that I’ve been searching for a new project management and online collaboration tool for a new company that is launching in early 2015.   For the past year I’ve been using Trello for Charleston Software Associatesbase projects.

As a single-man operation with occasional support from outside contractors, Trello worked well.  For a larger project, however, it quickly became overwhelming.  10 lists, 300+ cards.  It was a nightmare to find what people were working on, what should be done next, or just finding an important document. The quest was on to find a new task and project management tool.

After reaching out to a half-dozen of my highly-respected CTO-level peers I’ve come to a realization.  There is no good online collaboration / project management tool.   The answers that came back often were accompanied with “it seems to be working OK, I guess” or “we never found one we really liked”.   This is from people that are running operations with anywhere from a dozen to hundreds of employees.   They’ve done their homework.    Nobody came back with a “you must use THIS, it rocks”.

What Are People Using?

It seems a combination of tools, many of which I’ve already explored.  Most corporate teams are using a project/issue management tool for the tech team, a basic task management tool for the rest of the team, a group chat application, and Google Docs.

JIRA for Tech Issue Management

JIRA was a common refrain, but only for the technical team and usually directly related to code development and issue tracking.   Apparently it is good for tech geeks but not simplistic enough for executive and management teams.   Having used JIRA in the past, I know where they are coming from.  It is great for complex technical projects where code commits, issue tracking, bug reports, and other software development lifecycle (SDLC) tasks arise.  Not good for general business task/project management.  If you need a PHD in computer science to use a web app it is not a good tool for the entire business team.

Basecamp, Trello

For task management there was no clear answer.  The answers were different from nearly everyone that responded.  Basecamp was repeated twice. Trello had two “votes”.  People are all-over-the-map on this one.  Apparently there is not a single outstanding task/project management tool for executive teams.  This is where everyone seems to be making a compromise between “too simplistic” or “overly complex”.   Personally I think Basecamp could run away with this category, but it is readily apparent that they have been established for so long that they are no longer in competitive development node; meaning no significant new features will be released any time soon.

Skype, Google Hangouts, HipChat, Slack

Group chat was another area where I received a different answer from everyone that responded.   Skype seems to be the go-to default for many people I’ve worked with in the past, but in my small sample-set there was literally not a single repeat recommendation.  Personally I prefer Google Hangouts.  Their recent updates work far better on a variety of devices and OS deployments.  Google Hangouts has also added a quick-download for doing live broadcast streaming, audio conference calls, video conference calls, and screen sharing from a fairly simple UI (they call it “On Air”).  For my deployments Google Hangouts works far more consistently than Skype.  Skype, however, seems to be the defacto standard as 90% of remote teams I work with all seem to have a Skype account.   I think Google Hangouts with their free International calling minutes and improve broadcast/screencast options will soon make a dent in Skype’s dominance.

Google On Air provides broadcast live video, live screencasts, conference calling, video conferences, and more.  Too bad they make it a "hidden" feature.   Go to Google Plus and start a video chat.  It's easy if you find the link!
Google On Air provides broadcast live video, live screencasts, conference calling, video conferences, and more. Too bad they make it a “hidden” feature. Go to Google Plus and start a video chat. It’s easy if you find the link!

Google Docs

This is the only option that was fairly ubiquitous.  NOBODY mentioned Microsoft Office as an online document sharing/collaborative editing tool.  Seems like Google has run away with this category much to the chagrin of Microsoft.   Microsoft Office was, and still is, the desktop document editing standard.   In the online world, however, they have ceded this position to Google Docs.   From my personal experience Google Docs has a long way to go to match MS Office when it comes to document formatting and related tools, but for online collaboration is is simple, free, and easy to setup.  Microsoft makes it too difficult and costly to get started with their online collaboration tools.  The other downside is it would take a month to port the hundreds of documents from my Google Drive to the online MS Office offering.  Bottom line, if you are doing online document sharing use Google Docs.   Another bonus –  Google Drive, where you Google Docs live, integrates with all of the up-to-date web apps including most of those noted above.

THE Online Collaboration Tool

I’ve not found THE perfect online collaboration tool.   It simply doesn’t exist or has been created but is so low profile it isn’t on any radar including Google search.   I’ve tried over a dozen products at this point and have run into a myriad of issues as noted in my past articles.

As an aside, I have migrated my personal and CSA tasks from Trello to Asana as I have outgrown the simple format of Trello.  However Asana is not a perfect fit but is my compromise solution as anyone on my CSA team will be technophiles and won’t need training on using Asana.

The trials and tribulations of searching for the right tool included:

Trello – too simplistic for large projects.  Basecamp – search and document attachments suck.  Asana – too confusing for most users and no project-level tasks/docs is a major setback.   Teamwork – too complex.  JIRA – too tech-centric and too complex.   Glimp – too young and buggy.  There are a dozen others.    Including recent tests from companies pitching their wares to me on Twitter such as Proofhub that starts off with a blank screen after signing up; not a confidence-inspiring start.

ProofHub Initial Sign-On Screen
ProofHub Initial Sign-On Screen

Seems like online collaboration and project/task management is a market ripe for a new entry to take over the market.

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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!