This article is for small business owners or project managers looking to choose the right project management software for their business. After reading this article, you’ll know the range of features available, how to decide which features are most important for your business, and how you can choose the right software for your unique situation.
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Table of Contents
The Primary Functions of Project Management Software
Project management software is for businesses who need help planning, organizing or executing their projects. There’s four primary ways it can help:
- Planning. Before you begin a project, you can plot out all the steps and subtasks. This is a way to estimate how long it will take, who needs to be involved, how much it will cost and what resources you need to complete the project.
- Clear hand-off of responsibilities. Assigning tasks to employees makes it very clear who is responsible for what at each step of the project. This can be a huge time saver, as it prevents gaps in communication.
- Staying on the same page. By keeping all the details of your projects in one place, you can make sure employees are notified when anything changes, such as project requirements. Also, this ensures employees aren’t working off old materials or plans.
- Reporting. If there’s holdup in a project, quickly pinpoint who or what’s responsible. You can also use reporting tools to answer questions like how many projects did we get done this week vs. last week? Or how many tasks does employee X have left to finish?
As with any software, there is going to be a tradeoff between how easy your project management software is to use and how many features it offers. To choose the right system, you need to understand the range of features available, and then decide which are the most important for your business.
The Range of Project Management Features Available
To Do Lists/Task Management
Every project management software is going to have some form of to do list and task management. It’s at the core of what project management is all about. Basic systems will allow you to create lists of tasks, define who is responsible for which tasks, and set due dates.
More advanced systems will also allow you to set and track time and estimate costs for each task, make one task dependent on another, state the priority of task and more. Project template functionality, which allows you to create a predefined set of tasks that can be used over and over again, may also be available.
Basic project management software will give all users of the system the ability to leave comments on projects and individual tasks. Many will also allow users to subscribe or “follow” projects or tasks, so that they are alerted when an update is made to the projects or individual tasks they care about.
More advanced platforms will have a much wider range of options for communicating with your team, which may include some or all of the following:
- Instant Messaging
- Project Chat Rooms
- Project Wiki’s
- Video Chat
Member and Project Calendars
Basic project management systems generally do not come with calendar functionality. More advanced systems allow you to create calendars for individual projects. When things are added to a project calendar, they will automatically be added to the personal calendar’s of the individuals responsible for the project.
Document and File Management
Most project management systems will allow you to attach documents and files to projects, so you can have everything in one place. More advanced systems give you sophisticated version tracking, organization, and search tools.
Basic project management systems generally do not separate out bug tracking from a normal task. More sophisticated project management systems treat bugs like individual projects within the master project. They are given a number, and you can assign individuals or teams as well as tasks to them.
Project Reports and Gantt Charts
Basic project management software will offer little, if any, reporting capabilities. More advanced systems will offer custom progress tracking and reporting. Many also offer Gantt charts, which are a visual way of setting up and tracking progress on a project or multiple projects.
Integration with Other Software
Often times, if a project management system does not offer a feature or function that you want out of the box, it offers a third party addon that can accomplish what you are looking for. This can be great for users who need a basic system with one advanced feature. If there is an integration available in the basic system for the advanced feature, you can avoid the cost and added complexity that comes with purchasing an advanced system to get what you need.
Here is a summary table of 4 of the most popular software management options and what each offers:
For a full overview of each product see our full project management software buyer’s guide.
How to Know What Features Are Right For You
Let’s go back to the four main uses of project management software that we outlined in the introduction to this article.
- Clear Hand-Off Responsibilities
- Staying on the same page
Which of these would be essential for your business? Which would be helpful, but not necessary? Which are you not interested in at all?
The answers to these questions will likely depend on two things:
- The size and makeup of your team.
- The number of projects you manage at once.
What Small Teams Need (2 to 5 workers)
A team of 2 to 5 workers mostly need tools to help them stay organized. The ability to assign tasks and set due dates is a must, but more advanced tools are optional. Unless members work remotely, a small team won’t necessarily need discussion tools like project wiki’s or IM, since they can probably handle communication in person.
Furthermore, tools like file sharing and bug tracking probably aren’t necessary, unless your line of work calls for them. For example, a graphic design firm might enjoy file sharing tools so they can upload and compare image files. Likewise, a small web development team might find bug tracking helpful to fix projects in their final stages.
What Large Teams Need (6+ workers)
Once your team grows beyond 6 workers or so, things start to get complicated. There’s going to be a lot of information on the system and only fraction of it will be relevant to each team member. At this point, a personalized dashboard is a must. A personalized dashboard is like a homepage that shows your to-dos and recent updates for projects you’ve subscribed to.
A Personal Dashboard in Basecamp
Keeping on schedule is very important for a large team – not only so they deliver on time, but also so employees aren’t kept waiting on their co-workers. The ability to set deadlines, schedule appointments and monitor time are essential features in their project management software. A calendar that automatically tracks deadlines and appointments will be a huge help.
Also, with more than 6 or so team members, discussion tools can become handy, especially if you’re working with people from other departments that you don’t see regularly. Placing all your discussions, notes and files within your project keeps everyone on the same page. Also, you can easily get the message out if project requirements change.
With so many users, you may need to set permission levels. Permissioning allows you to control what users can view and edit. This is helpful if you have outside users, like a client, logging on to view projects. It can also help reduce clutter. If employees can only view projects they’re working on, you’ll free their dashboard of any irrelevant information.
Which Project Management Software Package…
Is good for individuals?
Is good for small teams (2 to 5 users)?
Is good for large teams (6+ users)?
How Many Projects You Work On At Once
This matters first and foremost, because some programs limit how many active projects you can have at a time. If you reach your limit, you’ll have to pay and upgrade to add more.
But whether or not you’re limited, some applications simply work better for a higher volume of projects than others. For example, the design of Trello is great for visualizing a handful of projects. More than 10, however, and you’ll have to do a lot of scrolling to find your place.
If you have more than 10 or 15 projects, choose software that lets you easily sort through project names. Insightly, for example, has one of the best menus for this. You can search, filter by responsible user, category or project status (open or closed) or use an alphabetical tool to quickly jump to projects.
The menu displays the project name and a progress bar that shows you which stage the project is in. With just a glance, this gives you a great overview of everything going on. Also, with the filtering option, you can check out the progress of individual employees.
Insightly Project Menu
Another reason Insightly is helpful for a high volume of projects is because you can create a template with set milestones and tasks. This is great if you have recurring projects with the same steps. Rather than fill them out each time, you can select the project type from a drop-down menu. This method is not good, however, if your project steps are different every time.
Which Project Management Package…
Is good for a small number of projects (1 to 5)?
Trello, Basecamp, Asana
Is good for a moderate number of projects (5 to 15)?
Is good for a large number of projects (15+)?
Do I Need Industry Specific Project Management Software?
Most project management software is flexible enough so you can apply them to any industry. However, depending on your line of work, there may be some features you definitely want to look for. For example, if your team works on graphics, make sure your software has a file drive that gives you a quick view of images. Basecamp, for example, let’s you view images side-by-side within the browser so you don’t have download the individual files.
Bug/Issue tracking is a handy feature if you need to test and fine-tune your product. Within your project menu, you can report bugs, rank their importance and assign them to developers.
There’s also entire platforms dedicated to specific industries. Construction project management software, for example, focuses on a small number of big projects and gives you tools for things like managing supplies. The downside of industry-specific software is that they’re usually more expensive and, because they’re developed by smaller firms, can be clanky or difficult to use.
How Much Project Management Software Costs
Many companies have a basic version of their software that is free or low-cost. These versions are usually limited in some way. You might be limited to only 5 or 10 active projects or you may have a limited number of users who can register accounts. Also, you may not may not have access to advanced features like budgeting or reporting tools. Expect to pay between $0 and $30 per month total for basic project management software.
Standard editions have fewer limitations. You can usually have a higher number of projects or users (if not unlimited) and access to some advanced features, like time tracking or Gantt charts. These typically cost between $30 to $80 per month total.
High level software introduces features like project portfolio management and workflow management. These are tools for project managers who oversee a high number of projects and/or employees. Small business owners probably won’t have a use for these. For high level software, expect to pay over $100 per month total.
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The first step to choosing project management software is to determine your pain points as a manager – is it planning, collaborating or reporting that you want to improve? Then, factor in the size of your team, the number of projects you work on at once and which, if any, industry-specific tools you need to include. With that, you’ll be able to pinpoint exactly what you need.
Next, check out our best project management software buyer’s guide for a more detailed look at the top project management software brands.