Trello is an eye-catching, fun, and intuitive app that helps people collaborate around work. The biggest challenge to using it is deciding whether it is the right kind of collaboration app to manage your work. Trello is best described as a kanban board app, a software category that’s best for organizing, coordinating, and tracking work as it moves through a workflow among a group of people. It isn’t a great app for traditional project management. Still, Trello’s selling points are its ease of use and ability to share Trello boards with outside collaborators.
Comparing Trello to other kanban apps, it comes up short on some features, such as swimlanes and work-in-progress limits. What it does have is a selection of additional features you can add à la carte, making the app only as complex and feature-rich as you want it to be. Figuring out if it’s right for your team and the work you want to manage may take some trial and error, however.
Is Trello a Project Management App?
A common question I hear about Trello is this: “Isn’t Trello a project management app?”
It is and it isn’t. It depends how strict you are with your definition of the word “project.”
A project is a group of tasks that have a start date, end date, and final product. Not all work is a project. Building a house is a project. Answering calls at a call center is not a project.
At PCMag, we look at collaboration apps as one very large category. Within it we have a few subcategories to make it easier for people to learn about and compare the software that best fits their needs. One of those subcategories is traditional project management software. Another is kanban board apps. Trello fits more neatly into the kaban subcategory, because it has all the typical features of a kanban board app.
Could you use Trello to manage some kinds of projects? Yes. You could. Would it be a bad choice of app for managing very large and complex projects, such as a rocket launch? Yes. It would.
What Is Kanban?
Kanban is a method for organizing, tracking, and managing work. Imagine that you want to manage a family to-do list using a poster board and sticky notes. You might start by making three columns (Trello calls them lists) labeled To Do, Doing, and Done. You can then write on the sticky notes chores that must be done and put them into that first column. Let’s say that the family has decided each member of the household is responsible for no more than three tasks at any given time.
Now, everyone can choose three tasks from the To Do column and add their name to the sticky note. Or someone else can assign tasks to them. When the person responsible starts the tasks, they move the sticky note into the Doing column. When they are done, they put the in the Done column and can then choose a new task.
From the example, you can glean two benefits of kanban. One is that it’s a great system for limiting how much work any one person can have on their plate at a time. The second is that everyone has visibility into the state of the work that the team (in this case, the family) needs to do. This allows for both accountability and the possibility of helping other team members who are falling behind.
Kanban board apps are ideal for managing work and the movement of work through different stages, or workflow. Not all “work” is well-suited for this setup, though. If you’re launching a rocket or building a hospital, you need more robust software that can track how different pieces of the project affect one another. For example, the timeline for building a hospital depends on when the foundation is poured. If you miss that deadline due to bad weather, then all the other pieces of the project must adjust to accommodate the change. Kanban boards are not equipped to deal with those kinds of contingencies.
Price and Plans
Trello has trimmed down the number of plan types it offers to three, getting rid of its former Gold option. You can now sign up for a Free, Business Class, or Enterprise account.
Trello Free is as the name suggests: free. With this type of account, you can make as many personal boards, cards, and lists as you want, although you are limited to making no more than 10 team (i.e., collaborative) boards. File attachments can be no more than 10MB in size, and you can’t integrate your account with other apps. Most importantly, you get only one power-up per board.
The power-up concept is important to understanding what makes the Free account so much different from the paid accounts. Power-ups are à la carte features that you add to your Trello boards. With most business software, you choose a tier of service based on the feature set offered at each level. For example, you might get features A and B with the first tier of service, but A through D with the second tier, and so on. Trello is different. With Trello, you customize which features (or power-ups) you want for each board. And the number of features you can add varies based on the account type you choose. A few examples of power-ups are a calendar view, time-tracking, and custom fields. If you want to have all three of those features on one board, you couldn’t do it with Trello Free because you only get one power-up per board.
The Business Class ($12.50 per person per month or $119.88 per person per year) and Enterprise (prices vary) accounts come with unlimited power-ups. They also both have a 250MB size limit for uploads and let you create an unlimited number of team boards. The difference between these two types of accounts has less to do with end-user features and more with backend management options. Trello Enterprise includes tools for administering single sign-on and managing permissions and restrictions.
How Do Trello’s Prices Compare?
Trello’s prices are on par with other collaboration software packages. In the first few years after its initial launch, Trello charged much less, which, alongside its friendly user interface, helped it earn a reputation for being a great tool for small businesses and startups. The rates are still fair, but they are not a steal.
Asana charges a little more than Trello, starting at $13.49 per person per month. Airtable, which is a relational database that also works well for workflow management, charges about the same (starting at $120 per person per year). Leankit, another straightforward kanban board app, charges a lot more ($228 per person per year minimum). Zenkit charges close to the same as Trello with its $9 per person per month option, as does Wrike at $9.80 per person per month.
You could compare these prices with more traditional project management apps, some of which now offer kanban board functionality within them, but it might get messy. Some project management apps charge per person per month, and others charge a fee for up to a certain number of users, making it more difficult to compare prices.
For example, Zoho Projects now charges a rate for a group, e.g., $240 per year for up to 10 people. Zoho Sprints, another product from the same company that’s more focused on agile project management in a kanban board setting, uses a similar group rate calculation; it’s $12 per month for a group of 10. Teamwork Projects, however, charges a more straightforward $9 per person per month, although there’s a 5 person minimum. Like I said, it gets a little messy.
Getting Started With Trello
As with any kanban board app, Trello lets you create custom boards. Earlier I mentioned the example board of To Do, Doing, Done. That’s just one example. You can make boards with as many columns as you like, and you can name those columns whatever you want.
Next, you make cards to put into the columns. Trello’s cards can have a lot of detail on them. You can put the name of a task, assignee, subtasks, due date, description, hyperlinks, attachments, labels (similar to tags), and more.
Another step to getting started is to invite people to join your board, if you want to make team boards. You can also use Trello for personal kanban if you want to privately organize your own tasks and workflows.
Somewhat new to Trello are templates. You can now choose a board that’s already designed to help guide you toward better workflow management, depending on what type of work you have. A few examples of templates are Publishing Process, Design Sprint, Support Ticket Management, and Office Party Planning. With a paid Trello account, you can make your own templates for your team to use, too.
Apps and Interactivity
You can use Trello as a web app or as a downloaded desktop app (mac OS, Windows) or mobile app (Android, iPhone and iPad). The web app works smoothly, with great drag-and-drop capabilities, including when you want to upload attachments. You do get some advantages from installing a desktop app. For starters, you get desktop notifications as well as quick-add options. You also get Touch Bar features with a compatible Mac and additional keyboard shortcuts.
Trello lets you upload content from not only your desktop, but also Google Drive, Box, Dropbox, and URLs. When you upload a picture to a card, Trello can turn it into a cover image, helping you identify what the card contains at a glance. There’s now an option to add a cover image even if you don’t have anything to upload. Trello lets you run a quick search on Unsplash to find something relevant.
While you can assign someone to a card and set a due date, you won’t find more advanced project management features, such as estimating best- and worst-case scenarios for how long a task might take to complete. It’s also strange to me that cards can’t be checked off as done, although you can “archive” them. This is the case even when a card has a due date. Maybe the problem is that I’m trying to pigeonhole cards into being tasks when in fact they don’t have to be. Trello is a highly flexible system in this sense. Cards can be whatever you want just as columns can be for whatever you want.
Features and Power-Ups
Color-coded labels are another tool for organizing cards, though I find them to be a bit of a letdown. Each label requires a color, which means you quickly run out of easily identifiable colors after maybe 10 or so. There is an option to enable patterns for color-blind users. I would like the option to use keyword tags as labels, if that would fit the needs of my board better. That would add more ways to search for, sort, and filter cards.
Trello doesn’t come with time-tracking by default, but you can add it as a power-up. You can add more features through third-party Google Chrome extensions, too. There’s even a Trello app for Slack. I mentioned earlier that Trello doesn’t come with work-in-progress limits. You can get this feature with an add-on, but all you get is a warning when you exceed the limit rather than being blocked from action or being required to input a reason for exceeding the limit. Leankit has WIP limits built-in, and you can do more with them.
I’ve tinkered around with some of these extras for time tracking, reports, and scrum features (scrum is a style of working that focuses on iteration, and it’s popular among software developers). They aren’t bad, but they also aren’t nearly as powerful as the native reporting and time estimation features found in LiquidPlanner, which is a high-end project management app. LiquidPlanner can do things like reconfigure an entire timeline of tasks that are dependent on one another if even one person misses a deadline.
If you have a paid account that allows for integration, you can connect Trello to other business apps beyond just what’s in the Chrome Extension store. Time-tracking tools Toggl and Harvest both offer integration with Trello, for example. As long as you don’t mind cobbling together a unique suite of tools for your team to use, you can customize it to your heart’s content with Trello. It just might take a while to connect everything you want and need.
One of Trello’s strengths is that there’s more than one way to use it. It’s flexible enough to bend to your will, and you can get rather creative. I’ve used Trello for keeping track of travel ideas and whether I’ve started booking them. How you use it is really up to you.
Trello’s flexibility may seem like an asset, but it can also be a burden in that you have to figure out how to best use the service. I have long felt the same way about Asana, a wonderful task-management tool that has so few rules for how to use it that it can be daunting to new users as they try to figure out how it might work for them. Both Trello and Asana can be indispensable for collaboration, but it takes a strong, tight-knit team to put up with some trial and error when first adopting the tool and deciding how to use it.
One of the newer features in Trello is the ability to create automations, also known as command runs or Butler.
Sometimes in Trello, the rules of your board will be to follow one action (called a trigger) with another action, and it’s the same action every time. When that’s the case, you can create an automation. For example, whenever you someone moves a card to the Done column, the action can be to automatically check off any remaining subtasks on that card. Or, if you move a card to a column called Delayed, you might automatically add 10 days to the due date.
Butler lets you automate those types of repetitive actions. The list of triggers and actions isn’t exhaustive, but it does cover many common scenarios.
Flexible, Visual, and Light
Trello is a flexible app for collaboratively managing work and workflows. Because it’s flexible, Trello may require some experimentation to figure out how to best use it for your team and the workload you manage. New templates help ease that burden, giving you suggestions on how to get started in different contexts.
Trello is a great collaboration tool when you don’t need a heavy-duty project management app. It’s also a little lighter than Editors’ Choice Asana, which gives you an interface that you can use for more than just kanban boards.
If what you really want is traditional project management software, you might find Trello light on features, as it lacks Gantt charts, built-in reporting tools, and other features that are specific to managing projects. For straightforward project management, I recommend Zoho Projects and Teamwork Projects, our Editors’ Choices at PCMag.
The Bottom Line
One of the most intuitive kanban apps you’ll find, Trello lets you fully customize the boards you create. It’s a solid tool for managing work and workflows; just don’t confuse it for traditional project management software.