Tickets, Milestones, and Estimates, Oh My: Choose the Right Tool For You

If you think a trip to the grocery store is a pain to plan for, welcome to project management! A web (or mobile) application can easily span 3-8 developers and designers, gestate over 3-6 months, and have just short of, oh… 501,478 minute details.

Intrepid PM’s know: you need a system.

Online solutions like Unfuddle and Basecamp let you wrangle those tickets and to-do’s into neat piles that your team can tackle with laser-focused, methodical precision. [You’re preaching to the choir here. Jump me to the good stuff.]

But why?

There are many reasons why perfectly successful managers think they don’t need a project management tool: too expensive, hard to set up, difficult to get a team on board, don’t need it.

Let’s get those out of the way now, shall we?:

  • Cost: All of the tools below have a free or “freemium” model. For example, Unfuddle is free for teams under 3 people.
  • Set Up: All content is accessible via straightforward web interfaces. Start with a few tasks, then expand.
  • Team Buy-in: Once your team knows where to find tasks and project information, they’ll be glad they don’t have to wait around for you to answer.
  • “But I’m awesome:” Let’s assume you’re a robot. Even if that were true, it would still take serious CPU cycles to repeatedly recall these details every time someone asks “what next?”. Rely on a tool to remember it for you.

I present to you a throwdown an infographic:

I’ve used all of the following on at least one project that survived its way to production: Google Spreadsheet/Google Doc, Basecamp, Pivotal Tracker, and Unfuddle. Rather than pit them against each other, I like to think of them as different overcoats that you fill into depending on the unique temperament of your project:

  • Team make-up: Are you working with engineers, designers, marketers? Clients? Are they comfortable online? If the idea of online-banking makes them cringe, go easy.
  • Complexity: Are you fronting a few content pages, or are you building the next global-domination social networking site with searchable video and artificial intelligence? I’m kidding. Of course you are.
  • Team size: Bigger teams need bigger spaces. With simpler tools, you’ll end up crashing into each other during day-to-day use.

Project Management Tools Infographic

Just tell me what I should use already!

We here at Intridea like to use Unfuddle for the majority of our projects, but by no means is it the ideal solution for all projects. Let’s look a bit more at the tools above, going from simplest to full-featured:

Google Spreadsheet: Do you need to collaborate closely with a client? Avoid bogging them down with overly technical details and code commits. Especially in the “crunch time” right before a project launch, a familiar spreadsheet might be more appropriate.

  • Pros: Familiar, easy to learn. Real-time collaboration.
  • Cons: Limited functionality and content types. Unwieldy.
  • Good for: “Crunch mode.” Sharing real-time status with clients.

Basecamp: Are you starting a small project with just a handful of core features? You’ll benefit from the simple to-do lists that tools like Basecamp offer. Threaded messages are helpful for teams still in heavy brainstorm mode (get these discussions out of the inbox!).

  • Pros: Intuitive interface. Good for discussions. Integration with Backpack, Campfire, HighRise.
  • Cons: Limited; not meant for bug tracking or user stories.
  • Good for: Small sites, non-profits, early discovery phases.

Pivotal Tracker: If your team is mostly engineers trying to Get Things Done, Pivotal Tracker might be the right fit. Its best feature is “velocity,” a magic calculation to surface tasks that will make the most efficient use of your team’s time based on past performance. It helps to be familiar with agile methodologies, since you’ll have to estimate each task using story points for this to work.

  • Pros: Quick drag ‘n drop interface. Intelligence (i.e. “velocity”).
  • Cons: Doesn’t allow for a lot of description. No real milestones.
  • Good for: Engineers, small or unvaried teams, few decision makers.

Unfuddle: Unfuddle has a lot of great features, but three in particular make it our tool of choice for medium-to-large projects with any team bigger than one: automatic ticket resolution from code commits, full-fledged ticketing system, and milestones to group tickets together.

  • Pros: Friendly for teams with varied roles. Integrated with code repository. Fine access permissions.
  • Cons: Overkill for small projects. Slow load times.
  • Good for: Team of 2+, especially if your project is well defined.

More on Unfuddle next week in this series, including: how to trick out your setup for maximum productivity and agile practices. Be sure to tell us what you use in the comments below!