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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.
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 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
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