You’re looking for a new project management application. Maybe you need something different for a specific project, or maybe you’ve been tasked with upgrading from an outdated software. Either way, where do you start?
Actually, let’s start there. Why are you looking for something new? What about the current application isn’t working for you? You’ve probably already discussed what you don’t like about the current tool at length, but also talk with your team about what features they did appreciate in the current software. You don’t want to get rid of the one redeeming feature everyone used!
No matter the reason for switching, there is no “best tool for project management.” So if you don’t have time to test them all out, here are some things to consider.
You can narrow your search considerably by limiting your search to tools that are built for the project management methodology you will be using. Choosing a tool that is built for (or works well with) your chosen project management methodology will be incredibly important to the success of your team. Certain tools lend themselves to, or are created specifically for, various methodologies.
Know your methodology! What are other teams using? What do they consider a must-have for supporting the methodology? Chances are each community has very definite opinions about proven tools of the trade. If you’re using a hybrid methodology, you’ll have more options to weigh, and it’s not impossible that a tool designed for a different methodology won’t work for yours. But investigating within a specific community will give you a place to start!
Who will be using the application? Will it be just for your own sanity? Will you use it to delegate to an internal team? Will the client have visibility or even a responsibility to contribute?
Each role will have its own needs. Your project managers will need to easily determine who is working on what. Your development team will need to update when a feature is ready for testing. Your clients will need an easily-interpreted dashboard view of the project status. As you’re sifting through possible candidates, approach the software from the perspective of each person who will need to use it. However, don’t stop there!
Once you’ve tested various products and narrowed it down to a few finalists, invite your team to test with you. Watch them use the product. Get their feedback. Give them specific tasks and see if they can figure it out. Not only will you be better acquainted with the needs of your team, you’ll be better prepared to predict the time investment to onboard everyone. Just be aware of what frustration is coming from friction with the application, and what’s coming from pure resistance to change. You want the tool to be feature rich, but not so complicated that your team won’t use it, which brings us to…
Utility vs Usability
Utility is the feature set provided by the application. What capabilities do you need? Will you need to track dependent tasks or time tracked? Do you need to set due dates and reminders? What about the capability for tags, subtasks, comments, or file uploads? For the most part, you as the project manager will need to determine what features are necessary for your successful management of the project. However, you may need to consider specific needs of this project or requests from stakeholders if they will be involved in using the software. As you test new tools, you may even discover features to add to your “must have” list.
Usability is the ease with which you can navigate the application. This is equally important as utility for several reasons, but requires more consideration as you add internal team members and stakeholders to the application. Perhaps you’re willing to click a few extra times for a simple task if you can also generate custom reports, but chances are you’re not the only one using it. Will the client hold responsibility for marking tasks as complete? How easily will they be able to do so? Even if the client only wants visibility, how easily can they interpret the information available?
A tool that requires a significant time investment to learn means you risk your team not using it at all. At the end of the day, no matter how many features a software includes for the benefit of the PM, if it’s not accessible to the rest of the team, all of that utility is gone. The frustration of chasing people down or re-training them because it’s not intuitive to change a task status won’t be worth having the ability to sort by Jack’s tasks across all projects that have a status of overdue and are tagged with “UI.” Trust me.
We all know change is difficult. You want to choose something that has the potential to support your team beyond the current project. Factors for longevity include cost, scalability, and ongoing customer support.
Project Management software isn’t always free, although many tools do offer a free version with limited features, particularly for small organizations. If you decide to invest monetary resources, you’ll want to ensure not only that you’re getting all the capabilities you need, but that you’re getting the most for your money. What other services are you paying for? Can your new PM tool provide that capability? At the very least, what other services can you integrate to make everyone’s lives easier?
You’ll also want to consider the size of your company. What is reasonable to pay for a team of 6 might become absurd as your company grows. Conversely, a flat monthly fee may not be cost effective if most of your staff is contractors for just this project.
Ongoing customer support is a factor that often gets overlooked. We get lost in flashy websites and video demos, but those elements can get stale quickly. If you have a question while you’re testing, see if the customer service team is able to help you resolve it. Look for online communities engaged in discussions about the product. Are they active? What are they talking about? How do they talk about the product?
Judging the longevity of a product is a bit of a gamble. You can’t possibly know where your company or the product will be in two years. But taking the time to consider the factors above can prevent you from investing in something only to discover a few months down the road that the latest forum post is from 2014 and doesn’t have an answer.
You might have to try a few things out before you find a good fit. Embrace it! It will be worth it in the long run to invest the time upfront in picking the right tool.
It’s easy to be selfish when choosing a project management tool. After all, as the project manager you’ll probably be the one spending the most time using it. So if the tool you like best is accessible to the team and easy to maintain, great! Otherwise, you might need to sacrifice your own preferences for the success of the project, settle for something with a CSV export, and brush up on your Excel filters.
If part of your needs for a tool is Decision Tracking Software, Fusionbox created and launched a Python SAAS tool that allows users to record and track critical decisions. It's called Memorist, and you can check it out here.