A wise man once said “fail to plan – and plan to fail”. This all too often applies to web design and software projects and it’s a must if you are running your own design business. Thankfully web based software being what it is now, we are able to do all of our planning right from the comfort of the browser. Many of you will be familiar with Basecamp, and I frequently see articles quoting it as being the must have pm tool in any self respecting designer or developers toolkit – just to be awkward I’ve decided to buck the trend and take a look at, and review some of the free alternatives to Basecamp right here.
Whilst Basecamp is a great piece of software- many of us are on a budget and could do without the extra expense. Many of these allow smaller teams to use their software 100% free. Enjoy.
Pricing: 100% free
Pivotal Tracker is a free project management tool for software teams. It caters to those that are developing with agile methodologies – namely SCRUM. For those of you unaware of what this means, new features are developed (and tested) in 2-4 week sprints, resulting in a shippable product at the end, one feature at a time. A product backlog and sprint backlog are maintained, with features making their way onto the sprint one at a time. Pivotal maintains panels of “stories” (units of work) – that can be dragged and dropped onto the sprint.
As developers are commonly better at estimating a problem’s complexity rather than how long it will take – pivotal calculates a team’s “velocity” (kinda like productivity) in the background as features are developed.
Velocity is a measure of how many points a given team completes in a given week. Points are added to stories within the team. As a “story” i.e. a unit of work is completed it adds to the velocity to help you predict how long a feature will take to complete.
It has been built by software developers for software developers, and from my experience this normally results in brilliant software, that however doesn’t box it in exclusively as the only way it can be used. If you are a fan of making to-do lists, and ticking them off as you perform them, then pivotal is a great digital solution to boost productivity. I’ve been using it for both my own projects, and with clients and find it very intuitive and useful for organisation.
Pricing: Free up to 10 users
RallyDev is another pm tool which caters towards Agile teams. It is a bit weak on the usability side and definitely not as simplistic as Pivotal Tracker in either its features or its user interface, but this doesn’t necessarily rule it out of the running. The product was honoured with four consecutive Jolt Awards – (the software equivalent of the Oscars) and they claim that Rally customers are about 25% more productive than industry averages. Clearly advocates are able to get things done.
RallyDev also sportsan impressive feature list, including much more extensive reporting to see if you are ahead or behind on schedule, and resource management which allows you to see if the team is allocated in the most efficient way, or if a section of the product you are creating needs more support. Tracking bugs or as RallyDev states “defects” is also included in the software.
Personally? I still found it to be clunky. They haven’t polished it as much as the could, with extra browser windows popping up as part of the interface, and postbacks to the server where I’d preferred to have seen Ajax updates. Maybe I’m just difficult to please, but I’m never fond of an application than insists on multiple browser instances, than invariable ends up eating CPU.
As with Pivotal – iteration velocities are worked out automagically once data has been entered after a while it works out the velocity.
Pricing: Free up to 10 users. Variety of pricing plans
GoPlan’s appearance is not a million miles aware from Basecamp. The interface is clear and concise and you instantly find yourself able to pick up the software and run with it. The main breakdown and categorisations within GoPlan are as follows Create Project > Create Milestone > Create task (optionally attached to a milestone). This type of organisation makes sense in a variety of project types. Milestones representing logical units of work which need attention; and the tasks needing to complete the milestone breaking down the problem into progressively smaller chunks. I found it a very intuitive way of organising workflow and indeed my thoughts.
For projects that require a more granular level of tracking and reporting, it’s probably not going to cut the mustard, but on the whole it was inviting, easy to use and quickly to setup. Everything that a good piece of web based software should be. With the pricing as it is, you can quickly get going to see if it is likely to meet your needs for free!
Assuming you have taken the time to allocate dates to each individual pressing milestone, calendar view allows you to see easily and at a glance what is pressing for each individual project that you’ve setup. RSS feeds are also available to allow you to subscribe to a project; although I always question the security of a public RSS feed with the ever looming Googlebot likely to expose some of that data somewhere. I guess the moto of the story is that if you aren’t comfortable with others reading whats going on, don’t subscribe.
Apart from that minor niggle, I found GoPlan to be easy to use and even easier to get started with. A crackin wee piece of software.
Pricing: Premium version $12 a month. Intro: Free for upto 50 action steps.
The first thing that grabs you when you login to Action Method is the gorgeous interface. It’s created by the creative guys at Behance (yep – the same Behance network I’ve mentioned previously for creatives). I literally sat and looked around the screen for a good couple of minutes just taking it all in. Its very polished, so well done guys. I’m impressed. There were lots of nice little modal windows guiding me through the initial steps of setting security questions, and then adding “Action Steps” to a newly defined project. Action steps are the individual tasks needed to complete a project, which can be allocated to a particular user within the system, prioritised, or allocated a particular length of time.
Additional elements which make up an entire project within action method are discussions, the backburner, references and events. Discussions are forums or discussion between members of a team working on a project. The Backburner is used to save good ideas which are not yet actionable -kinda like the backlog in the earlier agile projects. References are any documentation or additional files which are needed for the project. e.g. Sketches or notes. Events simply log and report on the meetings between people who are involved in the project and the outcome of those meetings. Meeting minutes can be logged here so they are available for easy reference at any time.
Another beautiful touch was the addition of an Adobe Air application for monitoring the status of a project right from the Desktop. This added extra helps to separate them firmly from the pack, as you don’t even have to open your browser to get the status updates you need to make decisions on a project. Genius.
When you’ve created all the actionsteps you think you’ll need for a project you can also allocate a colour to each of the steps. These colours can be your own internal method for priorisation, and they’ve kept it simple with only three colours similar to a traffic light system. Completing a task is as easy as checking a checkbox in the top right corner of an actionstep to specify that it is complete. One click and its done.
I would have like to have seen another level of categorisation to tasks, as they all get lumped in together under each project which can make them difficult to manage – particularly on larger projects, but overall ActionMethod would be suitable as adequate project management for a variety of projects. It also has a very finished feel to the interface which lets the user get stuck in without much hassle.
Platform: PHP / MySQL
Pricing: Open Source / 100% free
Project Pier is one of the systems reviewed here that is self hosted. I was running it locally with EasyPHP and managed to get it up and running within about 3 minutes. The installation procedure is seemless, running from the web server once you have it in the correct directory etc. Supply the installation php files with your MySql details and away you go. The administrator account is setup on installation, allowing you to get going straight away.
On first impressions, project pier is relatively simplistic. Both in terms of the layout and in features. However the code itself is very clean, and would easily facilitate extension upon the standard features. However browse a bit deeper and hidden away under the settings of the project are a variety of themes available for use, frequent checking for updates, and a mass mailer feature allowing you to contact all members of a project.
Upon logging into project pier you are presented with a number of options, the most obvious one being to firstly create a new project. When that is complete – as with GoPlan – project pier uses Tasks and Milestones within a project to denote what needs done next. Tasks are created as “task lists” which allows you to quickly setup multiple tasks. Whilst it isn’t just as polished an application as perhaps some of the others listed here, this minor detail alone is something the other apps (with commercial intent) should take a look at. The additional clicks involved in setting five individual tasks that Project Pier eradicates should be applauded from a usability viewpoint.
Pricing: Free for 1 project. Additional info on pricing here.
Zoho is an entire office application availablein the browser. It is a worthy competitor to Google apps, with a variety of applications available, you can check them all out here. This particular review deals exclusively with the Zoho Project management app on its own.
Once logged in, zoho project leads with an update feed, which both lists recent activity within the system, and lets you update Twitter esq what you are working on at any one time. This is something that some of the systems do via their dashboard; albeit without the ability to “self update” the status. I’ve often thought that microblogging / microupdates would be useful within commercial applications of this type as it’s very quick to consume the info and gets an instant “what everyone is doing”.
Milestones need to be created firstly before tasks are allocated to them, and the methodology again closely follows the standard. Milestones have dates attached, and tasks correspond to a milestone. These dates are used in a variety of places to give the user milestone status’ e.g. 3 days to go etc. Interestingly Zoho have also implemented Gantt charts to give project overview – even on the free accounts. This was a request that Basecamp refused to implement even when their userbase requested it. Ironically its probably one of the reasons some of you have landed here looking for an alternative.
Some of the other features of the software including timesheets were unavailable for me to trial as I was using the free account for one user. A youtube video showcasing those features was available for me to watch – but it would have been really nice to get a play around with them myself for review purposes. They could easily open these up for a few hours to newly signed up users.
The interface for Zoho is middle of the road – I get the feeling that they have so much going on that their growth is maybe concentrating more on releasing new and fresh apps rather than concentrating on developing and improving existing applications they have created, especially when they are trying to go up against Google apps for enterprise users. That said, for many Zoho would provide ample task management especially with a few of the additional extra’s provided.
Pricing: 100% free.
I’ve used ClockingIt before in the past for working with a remote client. The fact that it was completely free for multiple users being the main driving force behind my decision at the time. It also has really nice email integration that sends updates to the relevant parties in the team when someone changes something on the system. This level of communication greatly improved the communication with the client at the time, as it allowed them to see when things were expected from them, and when things were completed by me, helping to bring in what was a tight deadline in on time.
The missing features such as chat, forums and Wiki’s that I mentioned in Zoho – are all available for free in Clocking it, although the chat is open to all users who are logged in across the world. You can however create an individual chat room which is private if needs be, facilitating communication further with all members who are involved with your project.
They also got the Gantt charts in there as well, which many people will be happy to hear. The chart updates continuously, as you continue to make changes to milestones and task dates which is great. ClockingIt is also one of the few project management systems that takes care of Time Tracking and with many businesses charging by the hour, it’s surprising that alot of software misses this feature. Timesheet exports are available in a variety of formats including CSV, allowing you to import and analyse the team for billing purposes at the end of the month or if you bill weekly you can select whatever dates apply.
The interface is pretty middle of the road, but really for software that is completely free, for multiple users, and with this many features – I can’t complain. Even the more technically challenged amongst us would be able to get up and running in a short space of time.
Pricing: free for 1 project. other options available.
Project2Manage is another hosted system that has paid upgrades for additional features. As with alot of this type of commercial software -the free version is currently limited to one project at a time. They also support the free version via Google ads down the right hand side of the screen.
Initial thoughts on the interface was that it was very clean from a layout perspective. I was easily able to add a new project quickly without any hassle. The features are relatively simplistic, and they’ve gone for a bare bones approach – at least with the single demo user version. However for many; simple is good, as it allows members of the team to get up to speed without hassles.
They have also chosen to go with the project management standards of “Milestones” and “tasks”, which adds to the user experience. As I have been trialing these types of systems for a while, it fell naturally into my patterns of working as it didn’t deviate from the norm. They have however added messages (kinda like small status updates) , and integrated Spot2Jot which is a online browser based Wordprocessor cum Google Wave implementation similar to BaseCamp’s writeBoard. All members of the team can add to this conversation and export to PDF. Additional file management is available in the paid for version – but as a free user I didn’t get access to this functionality.
Overall if you are looking for simple and quick, project2manage fits the bill. For about $4 a month you can get access to the additional features which is pretty competitive from a cost standpoint compared to some of the other commercial offerings listed here.
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About the Author (Author Profile)Paul is a web bloke / programmer with a penchant for online marketing. This blog is a personal outlet, with an eclectic mix of articles.
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