Exploring Project Management Tasking Tools

Since starting at Viget in February 2007, I've received a few requests from friends and clients who want to know what project management tools we use for tasking our teams. Also during that time frame, I've auditioned three different platforms, including Fog Creek Software's FogBugzThoughtworks' Mingle, and now Unfuddle, whose features and flexibility seem most promising for our particular needs.

I should note that, before my time, we tried and abandoned XPlanner; same with Mantis.  Later, we even built our own tasking tool, Viget Labs Project Management (VLPM).  Ultimately, though, we learned that maintaining and building upon internal applications is unrealistic when paying clients have deadlines and expectations; so the search began for an external product that could support us (and, ideally, be customized as we grew and our needs changed).

Of course, each product we've tried has its pros and cons, which I describe here in my personal reviews (that's a disclaimer!).

First, note that for nearly every engagement since I began, we've used 37signals' Basecamp for our basic project management needs.  It gives clients visibility into the project by allowing them the ability to post assets like logos and photos, see the milestones (and how they shift when deliverables evolve), participate in discussions centrally, and comment on anything from meeting notes to copywriting (writeboards, FTW!) to profile/audience documents. It allows everyone involved to get the latest scoop on a project without having conversations locked in individual emails. It also allows us to generate lists and messages that are private to our company, which is a great feature.  Also, we can generate to-do lists that clients can see; those lists can be assigned to people and closed after resolution.  But, interacting with each to-do item is fairly restrictive -- particularly when it comes to tasking on major custom development projects -- which has for us made it an unrealistic solution to address all our needs.  That's the main reason we explored other tools for tasking our teams.

So, in heavy development-style engagements, we look to something more robust that allows flexibility in creating and modifying individual feature requirements.  Last year, FogBugz worked well to accomplish that goal. I used it with Qvisory, which had a technical lead who needed visibility into the feature and bug tracking we were tackling through intense iterative cycles. The system allowed us to rather simply add cards, assign them priorities, iterations, and people responsible, and close each card after resolving. It also has the capability for estimating time and tracking against actual time -- and, later, running reports to determine efficiency -- but we use a different system to handle this aspect so I never investigated this feature. The downside was that it isn't the cheapest solution on the market, so it doesn't fit every client; especially those clients who don't have technical teams in place.  So, we needed something more affordable to all clients.

We did feature tracking for Viget.com earlier this year in Mingle, which promised FogBugz-style features at a lesser cost. The appeal of this program also was its liberal level of customization and drag-and-drop functionality that's available, but I'd argue the consequence of this characteristic manifests itself in a lack of intuition. When a colleague asked me one day, "How do I close a task?", I realized I wasn't alone in trying to find even simple options like changing statuses or adding new cards to the mix. I'm confident that if a process was defined up-front, and all of the Mingle projects added followed the same templates with the same features, then Mingle would have far less of a learning curve and increase efficiency. Out-of-the-box, however, I think it's slow-to-start and cumbersome under its own expansive features.

Clinton used Unfuddle with Spoonflower, and he loved it.  So, we started using it with Saint Germain Catering's re-launch over the past few months, and it's (again, my opinion), the best tool I've used so far when it came to tasking and interacting with my team.  I would describe it as "the child of FogBugz and Basecamp," although Unfuddle isn't related whatsoever to either. But its interface is intuitive, feature list impressive, process easy-to-follow (even for an admittedly non-technical wonderwoman like me), and cost realistic.  Whenever I asked a question, the answer seemed to be right where I'd naturally look for it.  Plus, with its RESTful API, the opportunities are seemingly limitless for us.  It has per-ticket fields for estimate hours and actual hours, and although we use a separate time tracking tool, taking advantage of these features is almost priceless to give us insight for refining our estimates during the sales process.  The major downside so far is that, unlike Basecamp, there's no way to privatize anything, so at this point we're using Unfuddle for all our internal tasking (even on smaller, non-custom projects) and Basecamp for our interaction with the clients.  BUT, thanks to Unfuddle's API, we think there's great potential in being able to customize this one tool to give our teams and clients the visibility both need throughout a project.

We're always working to leverage tools that will be most efficient for our diverse clients' needs and internal processes, so stay tuned -- and if you have any other ideas or reviews, please share!

Stephanie Hay

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