Using Trello - a fresh project management tool

Project management tools, services, tasklists and everything in between pop up a dozen a week. Or least it feels like that at the moment. Wunderlist, Evernote, Catch,  Producteev, Redmine, Basecamp, Unfuddle... you name it. Digging through the sheer volume of new stuff has become quite a task. It makes you feel like in a really big supermarket where they got 325 sorts of sausage: one feels overwhelmed and gives up.

Standing out in a crowded marketplace

So to make an impression on users beyond those that stumble upon your product and just stick with it, a project management tool / task list has to differentiate. From some d.o. post, I was referenced to Trello. I tried it, did not use it much, and came back to it. Recently, I use it more and more and consider it an alternative even to Redmine for smaller projects and projects that just involve myself, though my shopping list I still run on Evernote.

What is Trello?

Well, it is a project management tool, which is little surpising after the introduction. The main differentiator to me is that it makes consistent use of a grid structure. Instead of just using vertical lists, it presents rows (lists) and items (cards). You create cards, which behave pretty much like issues or single entries in other systems. The cards themselves currently have quite some restrictions in formatting them, but offer everything that is important: You can add comments, upload attachments, assign cards to users (yes, it is a multi-user-system), schedule due dates, there are email notifications. You can add checklists to cards, rate them and more. You put all this into boards, of which you can create as many as you want. A board is the biggest unit and lends itself well for a project or sub-project.

You can add colored labels to each card which makes scanning them much easier (say you use red for urgent bugs, green for fixed). You can give names to the colors and assign multiple colors. This is similar to issue states and can be used like that. If you wanna get rid of a card generally you archive it (equivalent to closing issues) so you can re-activate it later instead of deleting a card. Deleting of course is also possible.

What is really cool and quite unique is that you can move cards between lists by drag-and-drop. This way you can quickly reorder stuff and do a clean-up in solved issues. You also drag-and drop entire lists. When you have too many lists, a horizontal scroll-bar appears. To keep the advantage of better scanning, I usually do not add too many lists and cards. Still with color coding and the recent addition of being able to show attached images in the card, there are quite some ways you can improve scannability. A lot of other stuff like assigning users, uploading attachments are drag and drop which makes for a quite intuitive usability.

There are some Videos on Youtube that show Trello in action. One can look at the official marketing video, which shows a nice usecase of the tool (but also a lof of marketing babble) or other people showing how they use it.

Exporting your Boards

There are not many export options, but they are there. This was important to me, because if I use a hosted service a lot, I never really trust them not to go offline tomorrow or simply lose your data in a server crash. Beyont printing, which I do not find very useful, there is JSON Export. This is great for most web applications, and time will come desktop applications will support opening JSON as a formatted file.

Technical stack

Trello is running on node.js, which sparked my interest. We all heard about node.js but have not seen a lot of live projects using it. In the demos of Trello and in reality you see almost real-time collaboration due to the great performance of node.js. If I drag a card from one list to another, someone also logged in sees this action happen almost instantly. Great stuff. There is an API that allows reading out your boards in JSON Format and do quite some other hooking in.

Needless to say it is fully responsive and can be used just fine with a smartphone. An iPhone app is already out and an Android one is being worked on. All in all, one gets the impression that the development team is really serious about their service and one expects more goodness to come.


There is of course quite some stuff that is not there yet or you might miss from your preferred project management tool. My biggest gripe is that comments are not editable, so you have to delete a comment and create a new one, which disrupts the timeline if it was an older comment. Also I find the formatting of comments not very readable if one wants to follow a discussion.

Formatting in general is very limited. Probably this is on purpose to keep editing straightforward. At the moment only the card description supports rich text, and only as Markdown. So you cannot paste your stuff in with formatting, since Html is not recognized. There are other places that could benefit from formatting: Card headings themselves could at least be bold by choice to add more means to highlight certain stuff. Comments also would benefit from rich text.

There are more, but looking at the very active development board gives the impression the Trello team is willing to implement stuff that has a lot of users asking for it. You cannot directly create an issue report, at the moment they are accepting bugs via email. Of course they need to prioritize and are limited by their development resources.

Free forever?

Using such a refined tool one major question that came to me is how they are going to finance future development. And again, entering a lot of stuff into a hosted service you do not want to find the provider suddenly charge a lot of money, so you wanna know about their mid-term plans. The Trello folks state at the bottom of their privacy section that what is free now, will be free forever. This is certain to become freemium with extra features for paying customers. Almost all other platforms do this, and after some experience with similar projects in the Drupalsphere I am strongly in favor of this, because a service without a business model is not sustainable. They seem to be still considering themselves in a testing phase where they find out what services customers may be willing to pay for. This appears all good, so go, Trello!



I have heard so many good reviews about Trello that i am thinking about changing my current task managment system Comindware which is also a great tool and which is free.