Friday, November 15, 2013

Trello - an orientation review

[This post was first written in 2013 and then revised in April 2016.]

When Emily said she was interested in Trello, on a day when I was at home tending to a recovering child, I leapt at it. She's done a fantastic job with Google Calendar, but she'd never found a task/project app she liked. Indeed, she has a bit of an allergy to them. Trello, it turns out, has a certain arts and crafts following.

That's a bit surprising, as I know Trello as a corporate-focused project and work management tool from Joel Spolsky's geek-loved Fog Creek software. It never occurred to me that Emily might like it.

I've used a number of Task and Project tools myself; particularly a combination of Appigo's and the weirdly named ToodleDo web service [1], but Trello is a bit of an odd duck. So I put together these quick notes for myself - it's a geeky introduction to Trello.

Service properties and revenue model

Trello uses a freemium web model with Android and iOS apps. It is easy to cancel the service and it passed Gordon's Laws for Software and Service Acquisition. You can use Google authorization or a local account. Google access requests are Contacts only - which is plausible.

Revenue comes from corporate sales, corporate buyers pay $200/year for  admin tools, access restrictions, bulk JSON export, Google Apps org directory integration. Non-paying customers presumably encourage corporate adoption. They've added a $5/month option for "stickers" -- if they made this $20/year I'd pay just to support them. I worry about their revenue and longevity.

How Trello is put together

Cards are the equivalent of Tasks in Toodledo or and they are the essence of Trello. Not all of Trellow web features are available on the iOS app, but most are. Here's how Trello works:

  • Organization: A collection of Members and of Boards. Organizations are optional, you can ignore this.
  • Board: A named collection of Lists. Boards do not have dates but they are a good match for Projects especially if there's a collaborator. You need at least one Board.
    • type: individual or organization
    • membership (for org)
    • visibility: public/private for individual, for org is member only/org wide
  • List: A ranked collection of Cards. Lists do NOT have dates. You can move cards between lists. A typical use of a List is state tracking - To Do, Doing, Done. Can also use a List to hold notes, ideas, etc (but I'd use Simplenote for that).
  • Card: A task or, if you prefer, a lightweight project. Has a Name, a single Due Date/Time, Assigned person and... 
    • Description
    • Label - color icon (example, priority)
    • Checklists  - these items don’t have a due date or a responsible person.
    • Attachments - photo/video on iOS, on web can be Google Drive, Dropbox, Computer
    • Subscribe option
    • Comments (@ for autocomplete members)
    • Activity record (read only)
    • Links (can reference a card)
    • Card’s don’t have a done or completed attribute. That’s a problem (see below).

Lists, Cards and Boards can be copied, so you can set them up as a template. Lists enable bulk operations on cards such as archive all and move all. Cards and Lists can be moved within the hierarchy.

Trello has "Power-Ups" that do things like Display Cards in Calendar format. The Calendar works well and it allows drag and drop between dates. The Calendar is supposed to have a feed that can be subscribed to from Google Calendar, but it didn’t work when I tried it. [Update 2016.04: The Calendar feed works well now, I use it to integrate project work into Google Calendar.]

Comparison of Trello to a traditional Task app:
List/Project Board
Completed (Yes/No) List (state)
Task Card (but no done status [2])

Keyboard Shortcuts

  • D: card date picker
  • L#: Card Label (ex: urgent, etc)

Teams and Boards

If you’re using free Trello then you want to have a single Trello account for each Person — for iOS doesn’t support identity switching. A Person (Trello account/profile) can be a member of multiple Teams. Each team can have multiple Boards, but a Board has only one Team. A single Trello account (Person) can be associated with multiple Google IDs.

So the relationship between a Person and a Board is controlled by their Team membership. In Trello web or iOS one changes Teams to see Boards that are Team specific. (This is more clear in the app than in the web version.)

Example of Trello Lists to organize Cards

These Lists resemble states in ToodleDo. I'd personally use Labels to indicate importance rather than create a List and the use of lists to reflect a schedule seems odd...

It's interesting that these two are using Lists to organize by Time instead of moving Cards around the Calendar or assigning Dates. Their organization can be summarized as:
  • Inbox: Cards that are new, not yet sorted
  • Scheduled/Active: Today, This Week, Later
  • Blocked/Waiting
  • Done (which is archived)
I’ve done Trello with a list for an Agile backlog and a list for each iteration of a release. I’ve also implemented it with a backlog, an active list and a ‘done’ list.
The one big problem with Trello - no Done status
I like products that strongly represent a coherent philosophy of a willful developer. The downside of these products is said dev can dig their heels in and stick with a dumb decision. That’s how I account for absence of a “Done” status for Cards.
Instead of “Done” you are supposed to Archive the card. That would be ok if the Archive were a special list in which Due Dates didn’t make Cards turn radioactive, but the Archive UI is buried away. You can’t see the course of a project if you use Archive. (See workarounds.)
If you don’t use Archive you can use “Done” list to hold completed Cards. Or you can keep them in place and use a Label or other attribute to indicate Done; but if you don’t remove the Due Date the Card will become radioactive when it’s post-due.
A lesser problem with Trello - no local backup, no export
At least in the free version you can’t create a local XML backup of a Board, and you can’t create any local archive store representing project history.
Emily has used Trello as a basic task manager. In April 2016 I started using it for my work and personal projects and I rewrote this review. I’m not satisfied with any project management tool I’ve seen, but Trello is my choice at this time. 
Trello is far less complex/powerful that RallyDev’s Rally project management tool. That’s not all bad though — Rally got very complex and hard to use over the years. Trello is a better tool for personal and small team projects. It doesn’t support assigning Card Checklist Items to individual persons, but that’s not a big issue. The user name can always be added to the checklist item.
I’d like to see an improved version of Trello that would be less costly than the business version. That version should fix the weird lack of a “Done” behavior and it should allow one to backup Boards locally and export a PDF archival record of Board content.
- fn -
[1] Nobody would combine those two — that was a historic accident. I later moved entirely to Appigo ToDo ToDo Cloud has project management features that are almost good enough, but I ultimately decided to keep those for smaller mini-projects and use Trello instead. Appigo has a similar problem with archived/old tasks and longitudinal project records.


The Red Baron said...

The idea of Trello comes from scrum/agile development and the focus that provides on short cycles for delivery. It is probably the best tool out there for that, and is better suited for elaborative and agile project management, rather than strict task management. Don't worry about the future for Trello - it is rather strong.

Aidric Brown said...

I would like to suggest proofhub project management tool for organized management and systematic execution of projects and their tasks. It also has got calendar feature for tracking tasks, events and milestones.