Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A Tale of Two....Web Based Project Management Tools

I think I've found my new purpose in life. Forget doing good in the world, raising healthy and happy children, making a positive impact in my community....I've become obsessed with project management tools. Granted I don't exactly have days, weeks and months of extra time to spend sampling all of them, and there are a LOT of them. But, I like that I've been able to work with a few and research many more.

It all started with Microsoft Project, as it probably does for most people. When I began to learn the ropes of project management I learned how to use MS Project to build my gantt chart, dependencies, durations, assign tasks, etc. It was ok for what I was trying to do with it, but I never really loved it. As time went on and I needed more from a project management tool, MS Project was lacking what I needed. I got frustrated when items would randomly gray out and become uneditable, tasks were held to single point durations, updating one task would shift everything else out of control, and worse yet, nobody else on my team could easily view or work with my project file because they didn't have project installed and weren't comfortable working with it anyway. I needed something simpler, something that cut out all the extra unnecessary stuff that I didn't need when I was managing web projects, and something that was highly collaborative.

In walked LiquidPlanner. I won't go into the details of how I started working with LiquidPlanner since I did that in a previous post, but needless to say it quickly met all of my project management needs and with each new feature release, it only gets better! In the process of getting my workplace to adopt LiquidPlanner, I did research on other project management tools (Daptiv, Fogbugz, WebResource, @task, Wrike, 5pmweb) and consistently found that LiquidPlanner was the most practical and feature rich, giving the most bang for the company's buck.

To the point of the post - my research comparing Basecamp to LiquidPlanner. I've been using LiquidPlanner for over a year now and Basecamp for about 6 months. So when I was asked to work on a detailed comparison of the two systems for LiquidPlanner, I had months of personal experience from my own use to go on. The company I've been working at for the last 6 months is pretty married to Basecamp because of the value it adds as a communication and collaboration tool, but I quickly found that it was lacking as a real project management system. Basecamp has no Gantt chart, and from what I hear they have no interest in adding one...ever. Their goal is to keep the tool 'simple', so anyone can use it. I respect that, but then when I need something that will really help me manage projects, Basecamp isn't my solution.

Basecamp will allow you to create a milestone, give it a date and assign it to a resource. But, there is no way to give the milestone a work duration, dependency or specific start date. The Basecamp milestones also will always exist in one big pile in the project, there is no easy way to group milestones together by phase. This might work for very simple projects, but for anything more complicated with many tasks and milestones, Basecamp will get very messy. Also, because there is no work duration attached to Basecamp milestones, there is absolutely no way to see how your project team us over or under-loaded. It is possible to see all of the milestones assigned to each resource, but no way to really tell how many hours of work each resource has and what deadlines are at risk because of overloaded resources.

LiquidPlanner, on the other hand, took all of the smart and useful features from MS Project (and more) and includes them in its task and scheduling system. You create a task, give it a low and high work estimate, give it a 'promise by' date, a 'don't start until' date, attach dependencies, notes and files with a rich text editing system, put it in a project folder/sub folder and task list, and (of course) assign it to someone. Once you hit "Go", LP will then do all the math for you, figuring out if your resource will be able complete this task given all other work already assigned to him/her and flagging the task if it is at risk of not being completed. Tasks can be easily prioritized for your resources with a slick drag and drop interface (hey Basecamp, ever heard of drag & drop?). LP has an excellent Gantt system, using your tasks that have been estimated in ranges (and it's ok to make single point estimates too, buy why would you want to?!) and plotting out probable finish dates for all tasks, project phases, and of course the entire project.

If you had a chance to read my previous post about why I fell in love with LiquidPlanner in the first place, you'll understand why I feel so strongly about making task estimates in ranges. I wasted hours with MS project trying to find a way to do this, with no luck. And of course Basecamp doesn't have this feature. So far I have not found any other project management tool with this important feature, except for LiquidPlanner.

But what about collaboration? Basecamp has a decent collaboration system, all email communication for a project can be passed through and stored on Basecamp. This can be handy I admit, and this is not something that LiquidPlanner offers at the moment. But, the problem with this is that if the email threads are not managed carefully it's very easy for important details to get lost in the clutter of communication. Basecamp does have a search feature but it's pretty basic and lacks filtering and sorting. LiquidPlanner has many different types of collaboration available. Files and links can be posted, detailed notes created (with a beautiful rich text editor), and Twitter-like commenting. All this is available for each task, on any project sub folder, or on the entire project. This will allow the team to more easily attach the important information to the project, rather than loose things in a flood of Basecamp email.

And there's even more great stuff happening. LiquidPlanner just released it's client portal system, making it even more valuable as a collaborating and showcase tool. I might need to do a part 2 of this comparison, but I think it's pretty clear from this post what tool is my favorite.


thesambarnes said...

Hey Dina, great post. Oh the hours I have spent testing online project management tools always to be left feeling like they all had great things I needed, but not one had them all!

The biggest thing for me is multi-project management and resource allocation... by that I mean, I need to be able to create Gantt charts for each project, but also combine all of these charts into one in order to see when we can realistically fit work in.

MS Project is the ONLY tool Ive found that will allow this (by creating a master template and pulling all projects into it).

Ive not found an online tool that allows for this... does Liquid Planner fit the bill? Or do you know of any others that do?

How do you get a solid overview of all the projects you, and others in your organisation, have on the books so you can determine when you can fit the a new project around them all?

pdesw said...

Such a great post, you really saved me a lot of work. I was testing Barcamp and I agree with you: it's a good tool but it's limited.

I don't know if it's good or bad but lot of people think that if you don't have a Gantt, your project is incomplete or is bad managed, and Barcamp doesn't have Gantts.

So I will give LP a try and thanks for helping me saving time.



Dina said...

Thanks Sam, and glad to hear you're interested! This was the same challenge I had at my former agency when we all had our parallel MS project files but without project server (no budget for it) there was no way to see what everyone's needs were and how to manage resources. LiquidPlanner DOES do that, you can enter all of your projects into your workspace and if you've got all the tasks assigned to a resource with durations and and due dates, you will quickly see what projects are at risk of coming in late. The screenshot in this link is of one project but if you can imagine several projects piled on top of each other, that's what you will see in the main view for your workspace:

LP has been a HUGE asset as a resource management tool for me since I've been at my new agency. I can quickly see who is overloaded and what tasks are at risk and then reassign and re-prioritize and watch all of my red flags go away (they actually have little flame icons, cute). I've created filters for my design team, for example, so that I can see all of the design tasks in one view and make sure work is equally allocated.

I'd be happy to show you via screenshare if you'd like, or someone from the LP team can give you a demo.

Thanks Jesus, glad to hear this helped you also! Yes, I don't want to just run Basecamp into the ground, but my main point is that it's just lacking critical project management tools. It can be fine as a communication system for teams who need something simple, but not great when it comes to real project management.

Good luck checking out LP! Please let me know if I can set you up with a demo, the team there is super nice!

Charles said...

Dina, you're the PM's PM. Very thoughtful post.

I wanted to point out that LiquidPlanner does have email integration. Every Project and tasklist has it's own email address so you can send tasks directly to a task container (See the setting tab.) It even saves your attachments, rich text, and embedded graphics with the new task.

@thesambarnes - a LiquidPlanner workspace supports multiple projects so you can always see the total roll up and resource allocation across projects, or just filter down to a single project.


Priyanka said...

Nice post, I can understand the 'search' for the right project management tool.
Mine is DeskAway, so if you wanna know everything in the market, you might wanna check it out.

Liquidplanner I think charges per user which can sometimes be a problem, especially in a large organization. You didnt have that problem??

Dina said...

Thanks Charles! I've been meaning to try out the email a task feature more, sounds great!


Priyanka, thanks for the nice words. I will definitely check out DeskAway. Yes, LP does charge per user but 3 are free, which is a great help. The price per user might be an issue for a very large organization but LP also has virtual users, so you can have as many resources as you want and just decide which users will be interacting with the system as 'real' members and which will not. Also, with the new client portal that LP just released, new users with the 'client' status are also free. So, that all helps to keep the costs down.

jjriv said...

I would also suggest checking out Intervals for project management. It tries to fill that wide space between Basecamp and MS Project. For those who feel that BC doesn't offer enough, and MS Project is too overwhelming.

zannie said...

I would like to recommend to try 5pmweb as project management system to track project and tasks via 5pm's intuitive interface and etc.

don said...

I also was researching for a pm tool and LP was in my short list. I also checked Basecamp, 5pm and Wrike. The latter finally won me over.
There are several things that I really liked about LP. One of them was their time-tracking feature. Their Gantt chart looks cool and I absolutely love the estimation feature. Yet the need to refresh my workspace any time I made an update was killing me. Another thing that I really hated was that you cannot drag and drop tasks on the chart, instead you have to go to each individual task to make changes. This is so unproductive! Well, at least it's my point of view. That's why I chose Wrike. Wrike's Gantt supports drag-n-drop and Wrike's feature set is focused on productivity. Wrike also has a cool email integration feature. You don't have to know the exact task's email address (like in LP) to send an update to the system via email. Besides, LP is about 2 times more expensive. These were my reasons to say good bye to LP, though, as I said it does have some very useful features.

Rob Hallums said...

Gantt charts seem to be the preserve of true project managers, however, I often find that a lot of lighter weight project managers do seek out a Basecamp (sorry can't remember the link off the top of my head) or Glasscubes style system - basically because it keeps it simple for smaller organisations.

I think the key is matching it for your own needs. Wouldn't it be great if there was one thing that did it all, but allowed you to select the elements you wanted so they don't appear if you don't - and they are there if you do!!

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Dina said...

Rob, I agree with you completely, and this would be why Basecamp has captured such a large part of the market. Plenty of organizations (smaller, or those with lighter management needs) are happy with the simplicity of Basecamp, and I guess they don't miss the more robust features that LiquidPlanner and others have.

For me, I felt like I was going into project planning blind if I setup Basecamp milestones without first really understanding what the constraints were on my project team. Sure, Basecamp could show me other tasks and due dates, but no durations and no prioritization. So, what I do first thing is setup my project with LiquidPlanner and see how it lays out my schedule, based on the other tasks that the project team is working on. From there I will either re-prioritize or raise the flag that we'll need other resources in order to get the work complete on time. This is critical to my work, so this is definitely the main element that I would require. But yes, to have a mega project management tool that has EVERYTHING and just allows you to check off any of the features you want to keep or drop would be pretty fantastic (but would it adjust the price based on features? I doubt it!). Meantime, I'll stick with LiquidPlanner.

micHo said...

I'd love you to review Teambox as well, as compared to other web PM tools!

Project Management Software said...

Some of the tools in the project management software are applicable to several business models. They are the driving force that makes online project management software successful. It's important to know everything associated with your project whether it is a logistical problem like supplies and money, or whether it is a time tracking issue.

Project Management Software said...

This might work for very simple projects, but for anything more complicated with many tasks and milestones, Basecamp will get very messy. Also, because there is no work duration attached to Basecamp milestones, there is absolutely no way to see how your project team us over or under-loaded.

Dina said...

@Project managemement software, I agree completely. Basecamp gets very messy once the project gets complicated, and most of our projects get pretty complicated!

Project Management Software said...

So you need software to help with project management. Great! But wait... What do you mean by project management? Do you need to map out project plans and schedules? Collaborate on documents? Track tasks? Time? Documents? Issues?"