With Project Management App Trello, It’s All in the Cards

Trello is a to-do list manager and project management webapp that’s based on the metaphor of index cards pinned to a board. The cards each flip over, giving you a workspace where you can discuss the task, create smaller checklists, assign responsibility, or add other notes. To change the status of a task, move it to a different list on your board!

This article captures my impressions working with Trello after three weeks, 9 months, and over a year, so scan down to see more recent remarks.

After 3 months

Trello’s strength is definitely how easy and enjoyable it is to work with your tasks. Picking up a task and moving it to the “Done” list is very satisfying and sensible. I also love the many tools you get on the back of each card– I’ve been using the checklists to break my tasks into manageable, single-sitting objectives that I can easily knock out. I also love being able to put status updates on the back of each task so I can associate URLs, conversation notes, and memos to myself to help me get things done.

Index cards on a board

It’s refreshing that Trello doesn’t tell you how to work– you can come up with whatever system makes sense with your brain and the project you’re trying to manage. My understanding is that the tool was developed to help Fog Creek Software manage bug tracking, product updates, and feature requests in a transparent, public way. They even have their own software development board publicly available so you can see it in action!

Each Trello board generates an activity stream (Facebook style) that tells you each time one of your collaborators interacts with a card. As a project manger, I would find this feature incredibly useful so I could see the project getting done, piece by piece. I may be a micro-manager type, but I find it comforting to see a lot of little activities getting done and leading to the overall project’s completion.

Trello as a Classroom Management Tool?

The intuitive nature of Trello’s interface might also make it an excellent tool to introduce students to project management in project-based learning activities. As PBL grows more influential, I am often surprised that we aren’t teaching students about software tools that can assist in managing projects. Trello would be a great entry into that field that is even manageable for school-age students.

You might assign each group their own board to manage, or you might prefer to have the whole class’ progress visible on one big board so you can see at a glance how the project is coming together. For teachers doing the same project in multiple sections, this might be the best way to work.

After 3 months– Gripes and Quibbles

Trello’s flexibility might also be a liability– at least in my workflow. One thing I demand from a to-do list manager is that it obnoxiously get my attention when something is close to due. While Trello has due dates, it doesn’t have a way of knowing whether the task is done or not. Since you just move completed tasks to a different list, Trello doesn’t know that your “Done” list actually means “done”.I think it would be much better in an organization where everyone is checking Trello constantly to make sure everything is on track. I would love it if it would somehow integrate with my Google Calendar so I get a big noisy update when I’m about to have something due! The other thing that’s keeping Trello from overthrowing my current to-do list manager DoIt.Im is its lack of an Android app (which I understand is coming!) However, I think once that Android app is in place, the sheer joy of using Trello to knock my tasks off will make it my #1 choice. It would definitely be my first choice if I wanted to get several people working on a detailed project together!

Update: Nine Months Later

There is now a very nice Android app for Trello and a great 3rd party integration that puts your Trello due dates on your Google Calendar. It has indeed become my number one beloved to do list manager & project management tool. I’ve since started using it with my wife and friends to plan for parties, trips and around-the-house tasks in addition to my main work to-do board. It’s still the only to-do list I’ve ever used that doesn’t fill me with dread every time I try to open it. If you haven’t checked it out, see if it works for you. You might be as surprised as I was.

“Year 1+” Update: After Over a Year with Trello, It’s Still The One

I have been using Trello as my main personal ToDo list manger for over a year now and have had the opportunity to really put it through it’s paces as a project management tool to keep teams focused around shared goals. The great core features have been updated and expanded in smart ways to make Trello even more useful and powerful than it was last March.

In the last few months Trello has added several new features including a built-in calendar/reminder system, tablet support for Android, support for markdown and emoji, and “Business Class” accounts for professional-level features and support. These features have expanded what’s possible with Trello and added a whole new level of expression and fun to our collaboration.

As a ToDo List

I started using Trello as my own personal ToDo list manager after finding little annoyances with otherwise great tools like RemembertheMilk, Wunderlist, DoIt.im, and many others. Inevitably I started to actively avoid my calendars as they grew more and more unwieldy. I find that Trello’s cardlike UI makes completing a task more satisfying than other apps. It’s also great for longer-term tasks that may require a lot of collaboration, discussion, iteration– you can capture the whole “paper trail” of a task’s completion on the back of each card, allowing you to document the various steps you’ve taken to accomplish a goal.

They recently added the ability to email tasks directly to your boards, which can really help integrate Trello into your “Inbox Zero” strategy.  I’m experimenting with creating automatic email filters to send my email messages marked “action item” to create “to do” items in Trello. Stay tuned for a description of that trick.

As a Classroom Management App

I am co-teaching a class on Collaborative App Design at UC Berkeley this semester and we’re using Trello as the main collaboration space for our course. This is great because app design is inherently project-based, so it makes sense to use a project management software to facilitate our work. We initially had one Trello board for all class communication which was OK at the research phase, but once the app went into full production, we split out the various production teams (UI, coding, content) into their own distinct Trello boards.

One strength and weakness of Trello is that it’s meant to be a central conduit for all the project activity as it happens. Everybody has to be looking at it and updating it regularly for it to truly provide an accurate view of the status of the project. I have been participating in the course mostly by watching the Trello board and have noticed big gaps in the communication record and missing steps in the progress of the app because nobody “closed the loop” on Trello. In fact, students got their questions answered in person, but I had no way of knowing that. This is likely the kind of communication problem that’s just endemic to teamwork and could be addressed with some shared classroom norms.

Trello uses Twitter-style @mentions that notify a user when they’ve been mentioned in a conversation. This has almost made it so we don’t need a dedicated communication tool. However, if you’re working with a team, you should also agree on a dedicated messaging tool (we’re using Google Hangouts) for those communication moments that don’t make it into the Trello.  Additionally, we are using GitHub and Google Drive as external storage places for project assets, and then providing links to them in the relevant Trello boards so people can find them.

Trello’s new native iOS and Android apps provide ample notifications for key events, and these notifications can come fast and furious in a busy class (or multiple!). You can turn down the frequency of the notifications to give you an hourly or daily digest of updates rather than pinging you every time something happens.

The student feedback on Trello has been mostly positive, and they were able to get up and running right away with it.


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Written by

Ted Curran is a Learning Experience Designer/Developer for Autodesk. He is committed to empowering educators and learners to create transformational change through effective pedagogy and technology integration. You can follow Ted on Mastodon, LinkedIn or learn more at my 'About" page. These thoughts are my own.

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2 Responses

  1. swethasri says:

    Trello seems to be good tool and before reading this review I also read about troll on other websites. Overall the feedback was good.
    But I am doing good with Replicon project management software ( http://www.replicon.com/project-and-program-management )

  1. August 25, 2014

    […]  With Project Management App Trello, It’s All in the Cards […]


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