Picking the Perfect Right Project Management System (for Apt Design)

First of all a confession: I love project management. I guess it’s the organizer in me that just wants to create tasks, view deadlines on a calendar, and plan entire projects before they even start.

A second confession: While most of my blog posts are well-thought-out, organized and structured, this post kind of just follows my process for picking a new PM system in the same order that I did. It’s as close to stream-of-consciousness as I’m going to get.

Quick Context

I’m a small visual design shop, just me as an employee with 2-3 subcontractors. I love to work efficiently (my Myers-Briggs personality type values “efficiency over everything”). I want to be able to track all my projects, see what tasks I have that need to be done, have a central place for project communication, track my time and get some basic reports about my business. I don’t work from my phone or tablet. In reading these reviews please remember they just reflect what I am looking for and my opinions. All of these PM systems have their merits and may be great for certain organizations.

I’ve loved Basecamp since I started my business. It’s fast, easy to use, and does most of what I needed. But recently 37Signals (the company behind Basecamp) decided that instead of continuing to upgrade Basecamp they would create an entirely new Basecamp product. In doing so they stripped out some of the features of the old Basecamp and left the old version to collect dust. I’m still confused as to why they did this. In the new version of Basecamp there is no longer any time-tracking feature, something I 100% need for my business and something I’m confused why any business wouldn’t need.

Previously in Basecamp my workflow/needs looked like this:

Start Project

  • Add Clients
  • Add Milestones
  • Add templated ToDo lists

Work on Project

  • Track Time
  • Review Versions
  • Create/Track Feedback and Communication
  • Hit deadlines
  • See/organize my ToDos across all projects
  • See what subcontractors are doing
  • Have a place to store Settings for project/client

Finish Project

  • Review hours spent vs. what I billed (sometimes)

 

Estimating, proposals, and invoicing all took place outside of Basecamp. But in looking for a new PM system I thought it would be wonderful to pull my entire workflow into one system and do all of this from one place:

Send Estimate

  • Get contract signed online
  • Send initial Invoice

Start Project

  • Add People
  • Add Tasks
  • Add Deadlines

Work on Project

  • Track Time
  • Review Versions and get them approved online
  • Create/Track Feedback and messages
  • Hit deadlines
  • See/organize my ToDos across all projects
  • See what subcontractors are doing
  • See % of project done vs % of budget spent
  • Have a place to store Settings for project/client

Finish Project

  • Bill online or via email from previous Estimate
  • Review hours spent/money made

 

When I started Apt Design I promised myself I wouldn’t get in a rut and rely on software that didn’t fit my needs or wasn’t up to par simply because I had used it for a long time. So, now that Basecamp was no longer meeting my needs, it was time to strike out on a new adventure – finding a new Project Management System!

So, with my specific needs in mind I opened up and quickly glanced over a myriad of PMs, including but not limited to:

 

Finally I narrowed it down to 3. I signed up for the free trials of each system and got some initial findings on each:

ActiveCollab

ActiveCollab offers just about everything. It can do just about everything that I was even considering a PM system might be able to do. It looks decent, though still pretty “Web 2.0”-y. The ability to completely customize your homescreen is wonderful. In essence, ActiveCollab can do just about everything, but it doesn’t necessarily do well or do it quickly. And the speed of AC is something that just kept coming up over and over. Not only do you have to click multiple multiple multiple times to get to where you want, but I had to wait forever for each page to load. I even got a loading bar between each page that showed me just how slow we were going.

In the end if I used this all day every day I would lose a lot of time just trying to get where I wanted to go and waiting for the system to load.

MavenLink

MavenLink is the system I wanted to like the most. It has many of the features I wanted, including the ability to setup a new project lightning-fast. Adding tasks, milestones and deliverables is so quick. But after that actually working on a project seemed pretty unintuitive. The Project Tracker that I thought I wanted to see most is tucked away in a weird slide-out, and attaching files or comments to a task or milestone is done by linking to the Project Tracker. Overall it felt like there was just a lot of confusing information vying for my attention and I couldn’t tell what to do. I think with a UI overhaul MavenLink could be a great solution (maybe whoever redesigned their frontend site, which is much more beautiful than the inside). Or, if you have a bunch of people who need to work together and who don’t have a workflow in place you could start from scratch and learn this one.

MavenLink was the first system I reviewed that really got me excited about their Estimating/Budget-tracking/Invoicing setup. It was also nice to be able to see how far along a project was coming compared to my estimate.

Copper Project

Copper seems to be a complete package. Their Gantt-chart thingy looks cool in their videos, but once in I was flummoxed as to how to actually build one easily. And that’s the feeling I got overall – nothing is easy here. The text is tiny, important buttons are hidden, and overall this just feels huge, bulky, complicated, and old. From their marketing site Copper looked nice, but it only took 5 minutes inside to realize it wasn’t for me.

 

 

Then, in a continued search I somehow found 3 more PM systems that looked promising, and tried them out too.

Pancake

Pancake is nice. It’s small and new, so it’s still very much in development. Pancake feels like it was built very much as a Invoicing program first, with a few PM options added later. And honestly those options weren’t robust enough for me. The Task management is very simple, with not much else in the way of client communication or planning.

But if you’re looking for a cheap option that you can store on your own hosting, this is definitely worth looking at. I could actually see this working well for other industries besides my own, even for something like landscaping services.

Solo

Solo is the new darling of freelance designers and small design firms. With absolutely no offense to Solo, I’m not sure it warrants that status. Many people love it’s beautiful design, and while I agree that is is very pretty, I don’t think the design is very easy to quickly read and review which is what I ultimately want. All the text is super-tiny and buttons are pretty small too. I couldn’t find Project Templates which would mean I’d have to enter 20+ tasks every time I setup a new website project. And again the site was fairly slow.

I can certainly see Solo becoming great for very small businesses, and it does have some nice reporting features right on the dashboard. Right now it’s still missing some fairly big (though planned) features. At $12/month though if it does what you need it’s worth looking into.

Projecturf

Projecturf seems like it was made for web design teams. It’s well designed compared to the others (my favorite design so far), it keeps your recent projects accessible in tabs across the top, it includes spots to store code snippets and Project Briefs. But the coolest option was the feature that let’s your clients click an icon to approve a specific design. That’s cool. Not necessary (right now I just have clients say they approve a design in a message), but cool.

In addition, Projecturf is fast, easy-to-use, has Project Templates, has a really nice global view, and can generate some strong reports. The only thing it didn’t have was the ability to have discussions about a single Task, something I use frequently with my subcontractors. That wasn’t a deal-breaker though. In general I liked Projecturf quite a bit.

 

Bring out the Chart

To help me really look at these systems objectively I created a giant spreadsheet where I listed the features I wanted in order of priority (making more important features worth more than less important ones). You can view that huge spreadsheet in all it’s glory here. I not only rated each feature, but marked in red the few definite killers for me that made it so I couldn’t use a system. (Remember, these priorities and ratings are what I needed and my opinions.)

I realized that in order for the Estimating/Invoicing functionality of a PM system to really be of use to me the system would also need to track all my Expenses. You see, I already use Kashoo for my basic accounting needs, including sending Invoices by email. While sending Invoices that you can pay online would be nice, it wouldn’t be worth doubling my data entry. Also, the PayPal fees really add up and that’s why I usually don’t have clients pay online unless they request it.

 

Basecamp (the new one)

Just to be fair I decided to give the New Basecamp a shot and see how it handled things. I’d seen all their fancy “look-at-us” “everything-is-new-and-great” ads and tutorials, but never actually gotten inside. So I tried making a quick new project…

Oh my.

Oh.

Wow.

After spending hours on a variety of very different systems getting on the new Basecamp was the difference between night and day. Fast. Easy. Beautiful. Fast.

Everything was where it made sense to go. I could get to just about anything with the click of a button, or less. Drag-and-drop interface. A page-like structure that was brand-new and yet made perfect sense the first time I used it. Basically it was everything their fancy new ads promised and I wanted to cry because I couldn’t have it.

 

or could I?

 

Harvest/Toggle Integration

 

Basecamp had cut time-tracking out of their new version, but after backlash from all the clients who actually used that feature they added integration with some other time-tracking software. I was looking for one that would integrate seamlessly, generate good reports, and hopefully be free since I’m already paying for Basecamp. Alas, there wasn’t an option that met all of those requirements. Toggle came close and has some really nice features, but it wasn’t seamless.

The closest to fitting in perfectly was Harvest, which I believe is the only app Basecamp specifically worked with to integrate well. And upon a closer look Harvest is pretty darn sweet on it’s own.

While I tracked thousands of hours of time in the old Basecamp, I never really did a whole lot with that data. There just weren’t any options to. Harvest has great reports that run automatically and even show up right on your dashboard (like showing % of time tracked that is billable).

Like I said, I didn’t want to add another Invoicing system that would add another layer to Estimating/Project Management/Invoicing/Accounting. But Harvest has Expense tracking as well. I’m not sure it can do everything Kashoo can, but it might be able to do all I need. Oh, and one other thing? Invoices paid online with Harvest only cost ¢50!

 

A Surprise Ending

After all my frustration with 37Signals’ decisions to create a separate new Basecamp and remove time-tracking I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Basecamp + Harvest might be the perfect right solution for Apt Design. I realize that I may just like the new Basecamp because I am used to the process from the old Basecamp, and I’m going to try and be open to the downfalls of combining these two systems as I give it a try. But with Basecamp’s speed, beauty and ease + Harvest’s estimating/invoicing and reporting my workflow might be better than ever. We’ll see…