How to choose project management software

Managing a startup isn’t easy, especially if your partners and workers are all remote. When you don’t have a physical office, project management software becomes your de facto workspace. It’s where your staff will spend much of their time, and it’s how you’ll manage their efforts—so it had better be good!

Over the past two years of running a completely virtual accounting services firm, I’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to project management (PM) applications. After spending hours on hours evaluating PM software, I’ve come up with a set of criteria that I hope will help you decide on your own solution. But first, what do we mean by the term "project management software"?

What is project management software?

Project management software is a large category that encompasses many different types of solutions with widely varying feature sets. So there’s often confusion as to what PM software even is. It seems complicated at first, but it all boils down to three key features:

  1. Collaboration tools, linked with...
  2. Structured data, assembled into...
  3. Reports and dashboards

Collaboration tools include real-time chat, messaging, and commenting. Instead of communicating by email, good PM software makes it easy for team members to communicate inside the app.

Structured data is just a fancy way of saying that information (projects, tasks, etc.) is organized in a coherent way (into fixed fields). An Excel spreadsheet is an example of structured data.

Reports and dashboards allow users to see the status of projects—what yet needs to be done as well as what has been accomplished.

That’s it. There are many solutions that cover one or two of these requirements, but they aren’t really PM apps unless they do all three.

With these three key features in mind, I’ve created a list of primary and secondary criteria for evaluating PM apps for cloud based small teams. A good PM app will satisfy all of the primary criteria. Depending on the needs of your particular business, you may want to disqualify apps that don’t meet one or more of the secondary criteria.

Primary criteria

  1. Projects. Display a list of all projects your team is working on and show the status of each. For managers, it’s important to be able to see what’s next as well as what’s been accomplished for each of the projects they are managing. The app should make it easy to see this at a glance.
  2. Tasks. Assign tasks to team members. Tasks can be linked to projects and can be tagged for additional context. View tasks in a separate list outside of the project view with the ability to filter by due date, label, etc.

  3. Collaboration. Communicate with team members about projects and tasks via in-app messaging or chat. The conversations should be displayed alongside the relevant items that are the subject of discussion. Users should also be able to attach files from cloud storage (Google Drive, Office365, etc) to tasks and projects. This minimizes confusion and ensures that information is linked where it is most useful—in context.

  4. Ease of use. PM software is only worthwhile if your team actually uses it to store and manage information about projects. As a baseline standard, communication in the app should be superior to email. Otherwise your team will revert to email and the app will be useless, since the most important information will be stored outside of it.

  5. Accessibility. Remote workers use a variety of platforms to do work. The PM app should be accessible on both PC and Mac. A mobile version should be available on both Android and iOS. The mobile version doesn’t have to be completely full featured, but it should include the core task management and communication tools that enable that your team can get things done on the go.

Secondary criteria

  1. Database management. Lists of tasks are often only one part of a project. If your projects typically include lots of data, you may want to consider a solution that includes database management. For example, Podio allows you to build “apps” that are essentially highly customizable tables of information. You can then create web forms to populate your apps with data. You can use these web forms in all sorts of interesting ways, such as tracking applications for a job, managing equipment inventory, or having users submit bug reports.

  2. Integrated accounting. Some project management apps can also handle accounting tasks, such as estimates, time tracking, invoicing, and job costing. If your team spends a lot of time on these tasks, it may be more efficient to select PM software that includes these features or integrates with an accounting app to provide this functionality. For example, Asana integrates with Harvest, allowing your team members to track time on tasks and projects directly in Asana. The data then flows into Harvest for client billing. If accurate time tracking is important to your business processes, consider making this a required feature for your evaluation.

  3. Client collaboration. Do you collaborate closely with clients on projects? Some PM apps allow you to invite outside users to work on projects in a limited capacity. Others include email integration, allowing your team to log client emails in the relevant project for better context. AffinityLive is one of the top contenders in this area, offering full email integration. If tracking communication between your team and clients is important, look closely at this feature set.

  4. Automation workflows. If you tend to manage the same types of projects over and over again, look for PM software that includes automation, such as repeating projects or automatic task creation.

  5. Price. The feature set might be amazing, but you can’t use a solution unless it fits the budget. The list of PM apps below runs the gamut from completely free to rather pricey, so make sure to determine your budget first in order to shorten your search.

To get you started on your search, here's a list of some of the top cloud based project management applications for small teams (in alphabetical order):

I hope this helps you in your search! Anything I’ve missed? Questions? Please let me know in the comments.