Three awesome digital project management tools

From Post-its to trellits: Making real project work virtual

Post-it notes are great for so many things – but they are not easy to work with remotely.  In our bi-monthly EMBL-EBI Project Management Network meeting, we looked at some of the best free tools for sharing information digitally amongst team members and collaborators. Each tool may have a different purpose, but the theme is the same: making real, practical project-planning tasks virtual.


Sketchnote of Mary's project management network seminar
Sketchnote of Mary Todd’s project management network seminar, 8 Jun 2016.  It features a review of BoardThing, Trello and Slack (as well as a little word about News at EBI, which I am not addressing in this post)

1. BoardThing

Capturing, organising and sharing exploratory information

Qualitative findings are messy, which means they are harder to synthesise and present effectively to team members and stakeholders. I’ve had problems summarising findings from qualitative user research in the past, for example interview transcripts, “voice of the user” quotes and workshop outcomes. To improve my effectiveness, I needed a tool to make this kind of ‘analogue’ information sharable (i.e. digital).

After hearing about BoardThing, I think my problem could be solved, since it offers all the benefits of a physical foam board with Post-its, plus the benefits of speedy digital sharing. The big caveat is that the tool is currently only available in “private beta” mode, which means you have to register to get an account can only use it as capacity becomes available. Let’s hope it will be launched fully soon, because workshop season is about to start and I am very keen to try it out.

2. Trello

Heard of Kanban?

Trello can be used as a nifty, digital version of Kanban, with many cool features. Basically, it’s a drag-and-drop tool that allows you to move ‘cards’ (like virtual Post-its) progressively across project stages. (Mary calls these ‘trellits’). A Trello board might have columns for “to do”, “doing” and “done”, with a function for archiving. Or you might prefer the formal Agile categories of “product backlog”, “ready”, “doing”, “testing” and “completed”. Trello is excellent for distributed teams, which might share multiple boards for different projects.

Have a go – it even works nicely for personal to-do lists.

So much more than a post-it note

Each trellit looks like a Post-it note but can hold layers of information, like a description, labels, links, images, attachments and user activity data. This lets you track and monitor the item’s progress as different team members work on it, and helps you look at your work retrospectively.

3. Slack

Think Skype/ instant messenger – only better

Slack facilitates free communication amongst individuals, teams and communities. The main area of the app features a message panel, where registered team members can write comments, thoughts and replies openly. It wouldn’t work if everyone were to chat about everything in the same place, so topics are sorted into different message panels, or ‘channels’. You can create a channel according to topic, and invite specific team members to join any given channel. You can also message individuals privately, selecting their name from the side panel.

So Slack gives you a way to broadcast a message/ conversation, and to hold a private dialogue. Message posts can include files, pictures and video attachments, which appear as clickable thumbnails. And usefully, the whole Slack instance is searchable, for those times when you can remember someone posting something in the conversation but can’t remember who or when!

Slack means less email

I have found Slack to be useful in our team because it means fewer emails. It may seem easy to fire off a quick e-mail, but they are easily lost under the heap, and it’s hard to pick up a conversation thread if you are away when they arrive. Also, they can be kind of heavy.

With Slack, you can organise your conversations into labelled threads and keep track of them much more easily. For example, you could have a specific project as a thread, customer account or topic. This way, all the “chat” around the topic can be siphoned and stored in the correct thread. Even if your Slack-mates are not online, you can still leave them a message in a specific thread, or directly. In this way it offers the benefits of email, but doesn’t clog up the inbox and saddle you with unpicking a complicated trail.

Live chat during meetings and conferences

One innovative way to apply Slack is during meetings, as an alternative to showing slides on a projector. At a recent hands-on training course about Modular Design (led by Alla Kholmatova of Future Learn), we displayed a new Slack ‘team’ live on the wall during the session. The ‘team’ was created specifically for the event, so each attendee signed up and logged in on their laptop or phone. That made it easy to share comments, photographs of workshop artefacts, and links with the other attendees in real time.

Of course, this was handy whilst we were working together in the course, but it was equally helpful afterwards, as it provided a conversation thread as a record of our shared experience and learning, instead of boring meeting minutes and hand-outs.

Create a ready-to-go community with Slack

That training course illustrated nicely how Slack can facilitate creation of communities of interest without much effort. After the event we had easy access to all the shared course outcomes, the attendees names, and ways to contact them. In this way Slack allowed us to record the whole experience and keep it fresh.

Switch to different communities and teams

Using the Slack dashboard you can switch between multiple Slack teams. For example, I have the Modular Design community team from the training course, my day-to-day team channel, and a user experience club team. I can switch between them easily, and initiate conversations and follow up with all the people I need to.

Sometimes Slack is too easy

It is very easy to chat on Slack, which can be overwhelming at first. But since everyone is usually overwhelmed, it’s fairly self-correcting. One thing to be careful about is threads that include sensitive information. For example, when we were going through interviews for a new team member we discussed the candidates on Slack, so we had to remember to archive the channel before the new person started!

Easy, informal, professional

To sum up, Slack is a loose and natural way for people to communicate, and works well as a professional tool, too.  Hooray for Slack!

Useful links




Article about Modular Design by Alla Kholmatova


Thanks to Mary Todd-Bergman for editing this post.

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