With what free time I have at work, I’ve lately been on a mission to find a project management suite that can reproduce the best features of Microsoft Project, add on others, and cost less than $30/month all-together. Some people of course might ask why I would take the time to do this – Project is a great tool, one that many PMs would swear is worth its weight in gold (and judging by the sticker price, they’re not far off).
For whatever reason, getting “just-as-good” alternatives is something of a hobby of mine. It’s why I proudly purchase store-brand instead of name-brand, and I like to think it helps me to be a better project manager. Our job ultimately is to think of our clients’ money as if it’s our own, and from that perspective, it’s certainly worth my time to see what’s out there for limited-cost. Naturally, I wouldn’t recommend using an inferior product just to save money, but with so many wonderful options available online, “cheap” doesn’t have to be a by-word for low-quality.
So… on to the quest! As with many of the business-software applications Microsoft produces, Project contains a whole bunch of nuanced features that are cool and add to the “neat” factor, but which the average training-project PM probably won’t need very often. Much as I can understand a PM working on, say, an aerospace project with dozens of resources and hundreds of variables appreciating the variance and earned-value functions, it’s not something I’ll use very often. Instead, I need a tool or set of tools that can handle the core functions I deal with in everyday training implementations, but which aren’t otherwise satisfactorily covered by Microsoft Office. These include:
• timeline and tasks
• issues tracking
Finally, saving money on a tool like Microsoft Project doesn’t make a whole lot of sense if I have to spend hours switching among fifteen different tools (especially if those hours are billable!). Therefore, the final requirement of my search was that all of my desired features had to be encompassed in no more than three tools. Why three, you ask? Because obviously using four tools would be ridiculous. What a silly question…
Anyway, after hours upon hours of searching the web in my free time so you don’t have to, here are the three free project management tools that I think jointly make up a pretty bitchin project management suite on the cheap:
1. Collaboration: Twiddla
For teams that are not able to meet in person frequently, a good online collaboration tool can be absolutely essential. Most people would cite Google Docs as the best free tool in this category, but the requirement that everyone must have a Google account can cause unnecessary headaches (it always amazes me how many people still don’t have one!). Similarly, Microsoft SkyDrive is a wonderful option in that it allows you to upload and share Office files, but again, requires a Microsoft-based online account (such as Windows Live). For all these reasons and because it’s free, I’m giving my collaboration shout-out to Twiddla, an online whiteboarding service that offers instant, no-signup/no-setup collaboration space for groups of all sizes.
Twiddla best uses are for things that don’t require a whole lot of typing, since to my knowledge there’s no way to save the output as a document (rather, the save button produces a screenshot). As a result, it works well for reviewing web-based training modules, learning portals, graphics, etc. You can upload documents and mark them up, but again, with the screenshot-save function, someone may end up doing a lot of re-typing.
2. Issues-tracking: Lighthouse
Anyone who has ever tried to manage testing and review of a web-based training system without a robust issues-tracking system knows that it is not an experience worth repeating (sadly, I’m talking from experience here). With that in mind, I’ve recently discovered Lighthouse, a very easy project-development tracking application that is particularly good at issues-ticketing. Along with a host of other useful features, Lighthouse gives testers and PMs the ability to create and reply to tickets directly from email, which is a major time-saver (letting Lighthouse collect and organize your issues emails behind the scenes is a heck of a lot easier than having them come directly to you!). Of further use, supporting documents and images can be attached directly to tickets so that anyone on your team can find them. Assigning responsibilities and setting milestones is easy and, as a bonus for the busy PM, Lighthouse gives you the option to consolidate multiple projects and tasks into one overview screen, which greatly increases your ability to stay up-to-date (and stay sane).
While Lighthouse is the only one of the three tools mentioned here that does not have a free option, it’s not exactly expensive ($25/month). Still, I’m always on the lookout for truly free options, so if I come across one in my searches, I’ll let you all know!
3. Timelines and Tasks: Zoho Projects
If you look online at lists of the best free web-based project management applications, the one that tops the lists most often is Basecamp. I have to admit that I have used (and continue to use) Basecamp, but I’ve become increasingly disenchanted with it as time has passed. The time tracking is well done, but the other features are merely so-so. What I find myself looking for most is a tool that can help me keep track of timelines and tasks in a clear fashion – inevitably when I try to assign tasks on DasheCentral the process fizzles out after people get frustrated with its tedious structure.
Enter Zoho Projects as the new contender for the role of timeline/task champion! While I have not yet had a chance to use the tool in a live project, I’ve played around with it enough to get a feel for what it can do. The interface is intuitive and emphasizes collaboration, offering a robust shared calendaring feature that can track meetings, appointments, deadlines, etc., with automatic reminders and alerts via email or RSS.
It is in the realm of tasks and milestones, however, that Zoho really seems to come into its own. From a single main tab, a project manager can track progress in any number of ways, including tasks, resource utilization, dependency, or Gantt view. The latter is a feature that Microsoft Projects does particularly well but which is absent from many free PM tools, including, conspicuously, Basecamp. Zoho also offers a number of ways to filter the data, and gives a quick view of who owns what, deadlines, and percentage complete. All in all, it seems like a real winner, and I’m eager to give it a go on my next project.