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Project Management Showdown: Do More Beyond the To-Do List

These five project management services pledge to help you stay on top of tasks.

In most group-work scenarios, the ability of one team member to complete tasks successfully depends on other people's ability to provide feedback or to complete other tasks first. When I launched a website for my candy-making company recently, I quickly discovered that using my email inbox for to-do lists worked fine when I had only one person to manage. But it wasn't enough to keep track of team members' actions and responsibilities.

For example, our developer couldn’t finalize the layout for the home page without first receiving graphics assets from our designer. The weight of keeping track of the project's progress became a greater burden than the work itself. This is the kind of scenario where project management software steps in.

Which services can ease your workflow and enhance communication among team members? For this roundup, I tested five project management programs, including the popular Basecamp, and the recently released Asana. I focused on three criteria: the flexibility and ease of each user interface, the degree of email integration, and the capability to account for task dependencies.

Basecamp

For such a popular program, Basecamp does surprisingly little. Basecamp offers the basic project management touchstones--a to-do list, a calendar, milestones, and a tagging system--in an interface that's easy enough to use. It lets you post to online message boards and make comments on to-do items and milestones, and it notifies users of updates via email. Yet none of those features are particularly robust. Though my team and I diligently entered our tasks and milestones in Basecamp to start, we stopped using Basecamp halfway through the project because it failed to alert us to dependencies in our task tree. Basecamp could not help us separate the truly mission-critical tasks from the rest, which led us to wonder: What was the point of using this program?

Pros: Free version available; easy to set up and get started

Cons: Weak features; lack of contact-management or progress-tracking functions; lack of task-dependency tracking

Best use: For my project, I found no real reason to use Basecamp. If your projects don’t involve a high level of complexity, you should stick with traditional organization tools such as spreadsheets and email. If your projects are more involved, choose a program that's more capable of handling those complexities.

Pricing: Free edition for single users; Basic plan for $34 a month with 15 projects; Plus plan for $49 a month with 35 projects and unlimited users; additional plans available

5pm

5pm has a far more robust platform than Basecamp, with many more features. Although the interface is a little too cluttered for my taste, it comes with a few neat keyboard shortcuts and a thoroughly documented FAQ system, including easy-to-understand instructional videos.

5pm’s strength lies in its task- and progress-management capabilities. Once a task is entered, anybody can add a progress note or a comment on the task. For example, if my task is to secure a location for an upcoming event, I can indicate in the task's progress note that I first must contact ten vendors, and that I'm waiting to hear back from my top three choices. Even if the task hasn’t been completed yet, this feature gives my team members a picture of the work that has been done.

Additionally, you can connect tasks to one another, and indicate dependencies by creating subtasks that must be completed before the parent task can be completed. The Timeline feature in 5pm is a Gantt-like interactive chart that provides a visual representation of the subprojects and subtasks in a project, allowing team members to identify mission-critical tasks and task dependencies at a glance.

One of my biggest concerns about using a project management program is how often it requires me to log in to the Web application. Much of my daily traffic comes through email. Because of that, if the program doesn’t have stellar email integration--if it doesn't let me assign tasks and comment on progress updates without going to the application’s website, for instance--then chances are good that I’ll never use the program. Luckily, 5pm, like competitors Cohuman and Asana, excels in this department. You can create projects and tasks, and respond to existing tasks and progress updates, all within your email inbox. You can also use email to attach files to an existing task, or to update the progress on a task. You can even use the subject line of your email message to specify details about the task, such as its start date and deadlines.

Pros: Feature-rich, full-service project management program; task-dependency tracking system with interactive Gantt-inspired charts; excellent email integration; iPhone app

Cons: Cluttered interface; price

Best use: Turn to 5pm if you are looking for a full-featured program, and you have a dedicated project manager who can help identify and log in task dependencies. Also, use 5pm if you have a small group. Large groups will find that it makes more sense, cost- and features-wise, to try Cohuman.

Pricing: $18 a month for 5 users and 10 projects; $28 a month for 10 users and 20 projects; $48 a month for 20 users and 40 projects; $88 a month for 40 users and 80 projects; $175 a month for unlimited users and projects

Cohuman

Whereas 5pm allows users to indicate dependency relationships between two tasks, Cohuman also evaluates the information associated with each task, and automatically identifies those dependency relationships.

Cohuman assigns each new task a score that determines its priority in relation to the other tasks in a project. Each team member receives a Cohuman-generated smart list of all of his or her tasks, organized by importance. Simply put, no matter how many tasks are associated with a project, Cohuman makes it incredibly easy for each team member to separate the mission-critical tasks on their to-do list from the rest.

Using an earlier example, if my Web developer were to enter “Finalize home page layout” into Cohuman, she could indicate that this task is due tomorrow, and that she needs the task called “Upload graphics assets” to be completed by our graphic designer first. Cohuman would immediately move “Upload graphics assets” to the top of our graphic designer’s to-do list, and the designer would receive an email notifying her of the change. Our graphic designer would then know that she has to complete the “Upload graphics assets” task promptly, because that task is holding up another team member’s work.

In this way, Cohuman prevents one team member’s long to-do list from delaying the entire project. With, say, 30 tasks on her list, the graphic designer may not have gotten to “Upload graphics assets” for weeks. In the meantime, without Cohuman’s smart prioritization system, our Web developer would have been unable to move forward on her tasks. In addition, users can manually change a task’s priorities, and send “pings” (gentle reminders from Cohuman) when a task is overdue.

Lastly, Cohuman’s email-integration features are extensive. Cohuman makes it easy to keep up with project activities without ever logging in to the Cohuman Web application. For example, if I receive an email message from my website host, I can assign it as a task to my Web developer and leave a comment on the task simply by forwarding the email to Cohuman.

Pros: Smart dependency system; clean interface; excellent email integration; robust free edition; iPhone app and third-party apps for Windows Phone 7, Android, and Palm Pre

Cons: Lack of contact-management features

Best use: Look to Cohuman if your project includes many moving parts, or if your team has no project manager.

Pricing: Free edition; Professional edition $20 a month

Asana

Although Asana doesn’t have the bells and whistles that 5pm and Cohuman offer, it emerged as the most versatile project management program in this roundup. Asana is essentially a very customizable to-do list with a few tools that, when used intelligently, can bring order to a variety of projects.

For example, you can use Asana to track job applicants in a recruitment search by creating a new project for every open position with each applicant as a separate task. Using Asana’s tagging system, you can indicate which applicants have submitted a résumé, have scheduled a phone interview, or have completed a round of interviews. Later, you can track how many applicants are in each stage of the application process, using Asana’s metrics system.

Asana is the one program in this roundup that I kept going back to with more ideas of projects that I could manage using the built-in to-do lists--including Christmas presents I need to purchase, holiday events I have to plan, and home-improvement projects that I’d been meaning to undertake. While I would never sign up for a 5pm or Cohuman account unless I was working on a complex project that involved multiple team members, I would open an account with Asana and share it with my family and friends to coordinate our personal projects.

Pros: Excellent interface; customizable tags and to-do list headers; generally enjoyable to use; iPhone, iPad, and Android apps

Cons: Lack of dependency tracking; lack of contact- and progress-management capabilities

Best use: Asana is great if you are managing simple tasks and you want an interface that is cleaner than Google Spreadsheets, or if your team has an excellent project manager who will assign and follow up on task dependencies.

Pricing: Free

Worketc

Unlike the other applications in this roundup, Worketc is a full productivity and small-business management suite that includes customer relationship management features, billing, sales, and project management. The sheer number of work-related tasks that you can do in Worketc made setup a little painful. (The "Getting Started Guide" alone is 33 pages long.)

Worketc’s project management features are very similar to the features in 5pm, including Gantt-inspired charts to manage task dependencies and mission-critical tasks. One nice feature lets you post a comment on a task and make it visible to only one or several team members. This function is especially useful if you’re working with vendors, subcontractors, and outside clients. For example, if one of my clients posts a comment on a task regarding costs, I want the option to discuss the matter privately with my team members before posting a response.

Although the Worketc suite offers many useful project management tools, I wouldn’t use this program unless I was planning to use the other features too. Worketc’s main advantage is its integration of project management with customer relationship management, sales, and billing. From establishing a lead to invoicing a client at the completion of a project, Worketc is its own ecosystem of tools linked so closely together that it's difficult to pick and choose what to use.

Pros: Excellent integration with email; integrates contact management, sales, billing, and project management; functions as a central repository for documents, tasks, invoices, timesheets, email, and other items related to your work

Cons: Price; not suitable if you don’t already use Worketc to manage your contacts and billing, or if you don’t plan on using Worketc for those purposes

Best use: If you’re already using Worketc in your business, its project management features are a good option.

Pricing: $39 per user per month for up to ten users; discounts available for multiple users


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