Project management software is often sold as a suite of applications that help project leads with the complexities of project scheduling and resource planning, among other functions. However, there are many niche project management tools that have been developed to help project managers with more specific challenges, such as motivating team members to track their time or helping contributors collaborate on a complex sequence of work.
These tailored platforms provide team members with effective (and sometimes creative) ways to structure their work activities. Here, we take a closer look at four niche project management tools with user interfaces (UIs) that are strategically designed for specific aspects of a project.
For project managers who need help with conceptual work and planning, “mind mapping” is a method of thinking through bigger-picture issues. The MindMeister interface by Meisterlabs provides a visual way to set project goals and benchmarks, allowing you to see complex project phases in the same frame.
A project manager can outline different aspects of a project—such as in the screenshot below, which outlines “Risks,” “Resources,” “Schedule,” “Project goals” etc. More granular information (for example, details about estimated resources) can be minimized and then expanded by clicking the plus-sign button (at the end of the “Resources” branch).
While a project diagram such as this may appear simple, it is in fact complex: In MindMeister, you can upload files, hyperlinks and videos to your map. Thus, you can move from the simple text and graphical outline shown here into more in-depth, engaging media and information. MindMeister also utilizes a “zooming user interface (ZUI),” which allows you to zoom in and out of different parts of the graph that you want to explore.
Finally, MindMeister now makes it possible to publish your “mind maps” as embeddable media: You can use the social buttons (pictured in the bottom-right corner of the screenshot above) to embed your map on a Facebook, Twitter or Google+ post. This takes the mind map from being a planning tool for one person or team to being a communication tool for teams that have distributed members or stakeholders and audiences outside of the organization.
DropTask is a tool that organizes work activity visually, representing projects (or groups of tasks) as “circles.” In this interactive platform, users can drag-and-drop actionable tasks into concentric circles: These circles are marked by size and color, to communicate which ones team members should approach first. From ThinkProductivity, DropTask was launched in early 2013.
While DropTask is securely within the task-management space, the technology the platform uses is part of an unusual niche. The tool is a hybrid between mind-mapping technology and the ZUI, allowing you to zoom in and out from clusters of tasks.
We particularly like DropTask’s visualization of project priorities and workload. When projecting estimated effort on a cluster of tasks (or project), DropTask lets users choose between different sizes of circles: large circles for “large effort,” medium for “medium effort” and small for “small effort.”
For example, in the screenshot above representing “filtered tasks,” you can compare the “Admin Duties” circle (seen in the lower middle) to the “Events” and “Meetings” circles (seen in the top-left and -right corners). The viewer can implicitly understand the scale of their workload, because the two circles on the top are larger.
DropTask also helps the viewer understand a given task’s urgency. You can flag tasks—for example, the red marker with the timer icon on the “Distribute transcript” task in the Admin Duties circle indicates it is “Very High” urgency—which ensures it won’t fall through the cracks.
While you can use the circles to group categories of tasks, you can also use them to segment work in other ways. In the three clusters of tasks above, you can see how the groups of tasks labelled “Pre-Holiday” and “After Holiday” break work into two different phases of time.
It’s true that buyers confront a bevy of stand-alone time-tracking apps when evaluating project management systems. However, only a few of these apps provide compelling visual tools for showing how time is being spent and billed.
Designed by the German Web services company Clickbits, the Clockodo interface provides one of these niche applications, which is marketed to freelancers and small companies. Users can review billable time by individual user, or by an aggregate of all users in the company. As you can see in the dashboard view (below), the software also allows you to see totals of revenue generated and hours worked.
With its mainly white background and brightly colored charts, Clockodo’s reports avoid visual clutter and help the user focus on just the necessary facts. Their sleek labels and thin gray outlines provide indicators of key information, all within a minimalist frame.
In addition to tracking billable time on a per-user basis, Clockodo helps teams visualize the time spent on different tasks within a single project. To make clear to the client why billable hours are being charged, the team can create reports of logged hours organized by “Services”—such as in the screenshot above, where the time spent on each particular service is itemized (“Design,” “Customer Pitch” and so on). These reports can be downloaded as PDFs to send to clients or stakeholders.
While deployed as desktop software, Clockodo is also available for smartphones, with both Android and iPhone applications.
Freckle, as its name suggests, uses “spots” (or circles) to aid in visualizing work: in this case, helping teams visualize tracked time, which is Freckle’s product niche. The Freckle interface incorporates pie charts that illustrate each day’s time, split between different projects.
In the dashboard above, you can see how Freckle presents daily pie charts, representing the workload distribution across weeks or months. The pie charts are sized to reflect the number of total hours logged. For example, because the user logged more hours on July 6, the pie chart for that day is relatively larger; a few days later (July 8), it’s smaller, reflecting fewer hours.
With its turquoise, greens and purples, Freckle is a remarkably vibrant interface—and the colors help engage and reward the user logging hours. For example, if a working on a budget for your project, you can assign a color to that budget (or allow the system to choose one for you). If you choose mauve, for example, the work you log for that budget will be represented as a mauve slice in your daily pie chart. Seeing the task represented as the same color day after day reinforces the task of entering time.
We were also impressed by Freckle’s timer for logging hours. Here, the left half of the screen shows the expanded window, where you can use the “play” button to start or pause tracked time on a project or task, logging notes for each instance of work. (The right half of the screenshot shows the “timer bookmarklet,” which runs in your operating system’s navigation bar and can be expanded for easy access.)
Freckle is available as a Web-based subscription and is useful for freelancers as well as project teams.
According to its website, Casual project management software was created for “ordinary people” who would be “overburdened by … heavy corporate software.” To the contrary, Casual’s cloud-based application is about helping define and execute on smaller-scale projects. The software is aligned with “waterfall” techniques (meaning highly structured, sequential project management processes).
What caught our attention is Casual’s visual schema for planning projects. Essentially derived from workflow modeling, Casual is an interactive tool that creates relationships between different phases of work and different contributors. It uses diagram boxes to represent tasks, which team members can link with other tasks through each step of the project.
In the above project “Product Launch,” for example, one of the initial tasks (“Launch landing page”) is assigned to a user named Jack Olsen. There are four total diagram boxes, or tasks, assigned to this contributor; you can also view this contributor and his tasks in the left-hand navigation column, under “People.” You can also choose to view the items on the workflow diagram in a “to-do list” format.
Casual is offered under a Web-based subscription; there is also a newly launched iPhone application, which is freely available on iTunes.
Though designed for more limited aspects of project management, the user interfaces highlighted here innovate within their specific niche, providing visual metaphors and interactive features that help teams better execute on key parts of projects. For project managers or teams with a specific problem area (such as task management or time tracking), these platforms can be a quick solution.