The hunt for the best project management software
PM’s love project management software – with good reason – without good project management software, whether we’re in agencies, marketing communications or consulting, we can find ourselves drowning in an endless sea of spreadsheets, post-its and paperwork. Our project management software and toolkit can be the only thing that separates us from throwing our toys out of the pram and having a total meltdown. To get stuff done and projects out the door, we need a process to get projects done, a workflow for driving projects through the agency and the right project management software to make it happen.
Best in breed – the one trick (project software) ponies
But what is the ‘right project management software?’ There are lots of tools out there that do a single project related job, really well. These are the specialist one-trick-pony tools for project management planning, scheduling, milestone tracking, communication, collaboration, task management, file sharing or project reporting; Tools like Slack, Microsoft Project, Harvest and Dropbox are examples of these specialist project tools. Specialist, dedicated, best in breed, project management software and tools can be great, especially when you’re working in a small team, when you’ve got niche requirements for your tools, or when you’re working with just a few clients or projects.
Project management software enables you to work smarter
However, if you’re not careful, you can end up with a collection of unrelated, independent, SaaS online project software, each with their own subscription, that don’t talk to each other properly. You can find yourself using one tool for communication, another for file sharing and yet another for task management, and you end up entering the same data into each project management software application .
Maybe there’s a better way? Instead of using dedicated tools and manually tying them together or integrating them with API’s, there is project management software on the market with powerful shared-data functionality built-in. This project management software facilitates project management tasks within a project to enable better briefing, management of tasks and deadlines, contextual communication and easier sharing to enable a more efficient and straightforward management of a project, project team, and client.
What makes a good project management software tool?
In defining what makes a good digital project management software we’ve mainly focussed on tools that enable and facilitate the ‘doing’ aspect of a project – getting people together to create something amazing for a digital world.
So what does it take to deliver a digital project? We’ve identified five key aspects of project management software functionality that we think makes delivering digital projects easier. These is the kind of project management software that you could use and get rid of your post-its, spreadsheets, documents and emails, to run your project more smartly and efficiently.
- Project task lists – projects are made up of sub-tasks, and sub-sub-tasks, checklists and to-do’s, so being able to brief your team and outline what needs to be done, by when, by who, is critical to delivering a project to meet requirements.
- Project schedules – whether it’s a timeline, calendar or Gantt chart, knowing where tasks and sub-tasks fit within the broader scheme of a project, as well as the important milestones is key to being able to deliver a project on time.
- Project file sharing – No one likes having to waste timing trying to dig around for random files, so the ability to organize and share key project documents, files, and assets among the team and with the client, is important to deliver a project efficiently.
- Project communication – Contextual project specific communication to hash things out quickly and the ability to be able to chat with your project team as well as your client is vital to keep tasks on track and on brief.
- Project reporting – As project managers, it’s our job to know whether or not our project is on track, so it’s essential to know how a project’s tasks are progressing to know whether or not the project is going to be delivered in full, and on time – or not.
But you’re missing stuff…
Yes, lots. With any project management software, you have to draw a line between what’s essential, and what’s not. In our criteria for project management software we’ve focussed on the ‘doing’, execution aspect of a project, and not so much on the planning or billing aspect – or apps, integrations or other functionality. For that reason, we’ve not focussed on the pre-project estimating or resourcing, or the post-project timesheets, expenses or billing aspects of some project management software. Check out our article on the best resource scheduling tools, if you’re looking for that. That said, there are many similarities between these project management software tools so we’ve tried to highlight functionality or features that we think make them unique.
A selection of the best project management software tools
In our review of the best project management software and project management tool solutions we’ve sought to find solutions that are not just IT PSA project management solutions but which have at least some consideration for agency challenges – the creative process and integration into development. So here is a review of some of the best project management software worth considering if you’re looking for project management software for your agency or studio:
Paymo – https://www.paymoapp.com
Paymo is a full featured project management software tool targeting small to medium businesses, with tools to manage a project from brief through to invoicing with a set of tools that cover project management, collaboration, time tracking, team management, timesheets, and accounting. Paymo is a cost-effective solution if you’re looking for an end-to-end agency powering platform.
Project execution is covered robustly with solid task management functionality which gives the ability to brief resources easily through tasks which can be templated and defined with task durations allocated, and hours budgeted to complete the task. You can add files to tasks, comment on tasks and create dependencies between tasks. Helpfully, they also support multi-user task assignment so more than one person can be held responsible!
The project schedule is an integral part of Paymo. You can create project milestones and they have an inbuilt critical path generator so you can see the tasks that are holding up a project, and the latest that each activity can start and finish to keep the project on track. Paymo generates Gantt charts to illustrate start and finish dates as well as the summary elements of projects.
Paymo supports file sharing and the ability to attach files to tasks, and organize files within a central file storage location for each project.
Project communication is well supported. Email notifications are provided for important updates which are automatically sent to resources, like being assigned a new task or being removed from a task. There is also a dashboard where you can see the recent activities, collaborate with other team members using a designated discussion area, and create shareable notes.
With built-in timesheets (and ability for automated time tracking), financial management and project reporting are very rich. You can set a project budget and measure an outcome against that budget and include tracking of expenses for a project or work item enabling you to view the financial health of a project in terms of estimate vs actual budget. Reports can be exported and downloaded with the ability to create reports to show the time allocated and/or spent on certain tasks or projects or users within projects.
Paymo has some useful add-ons and integrations. Paymo for mobile and desktop allow you to track time with a dedicated app that can analyse your desktop activity to auto-assign it to a project. With their Zapier integration you’ll be able to connect Paymo with more than 500 apps including Google Apps, QuickBooks Online, Slack or Xero. They also have their own API so you can do your own integrating if you’re feeling nerdy.
Paymo costs from $14.95/user/month.
Wrike – http://www.wrike.com
Wrike is an enterprise grade all-in-one project management software and real-time collaboration tool. Wrike’s toolkit functions across project planning, collaborating, reporting, workflow automation and 3rd party integrations. Wrike is a good project management software tool if you’re looking to create efficiency with workflow management.
Wrike connects tasks, discussions, and emails to your project plan to provide a big picture of project progress with real-time updates and cross-project reports and newsfeed. Wrike helps accelerate project delivery by helping your resources to prioritize their tasks and connects the tasks with discussions, files, and emails to your project plan.
Task management within Wrike is strong, as tasks are handed off, new contributors get the complete context, access to previous decision-making discussions (including proofing), and relevant files are already attached, so they have all the info they need.
Project schedules are pretty powerful within Wrike – they’re live and dynamic so that the whole team can see make changes and update their part of the workload at any time and see any changes in real-time. Helpfully, their Dynamic timelines can show cross-project charts, so you can see the whole picture and avoid any clashes between projects. Best of all, people are automatically notified whenever changes to the schedule are made.
Project communication with Wrike is powerful with real-time team collaboration with discussions, files attached to tasks, and a built-in live document editor which enables real-time collaborative text editing right in your workspace.
Wrike helps you see the tasks, projects and project portfolio – with multiple teams and multiple projects running concurrently, Wrike’s real-time dashboard keeps you on top of your team’s work without extra email and status meetings. There’s a handy resourcing overview to show you at a glance, who’s working on what, the dependencies and duration for the task, and when it should be completed. It helps you build repeatable processes, streamline operations, and get real-time visibility into the status of specific clients, projects, and key milestones.
Wrike has some pretty powerful project and business reporting built in to give insights with some pretty, and interactive infographics. The reports and helpfully automatically updated with the most recent data every 15 minutes, so you don’t have to worry about recreating reports or pulling new information. There are endless options – you can use their reporting tool to get valuable business insights and project snapshots to create highly customizable, detailed, real-time reports very easily.
Nutcache – http://www.nutcache.com/
Nutcache is a very affordable project management software tool with some great functionality across project management, project dashboards, collaboration, expense management, time tracking, and billing and invoicing. If you’re looking for a complete agency project management solution, that’s cheap (or free if your team is less than 20 people), it’s a good place to start.
Nutcache enables you to flexibly manage projects with boards, lists or cards to reflect your preferred project workflow – it’s here that you can add tasks, subtasks, checklists, set deadlines and upload relevant files as well as invite team members and clients to collaborate and comment on different tasks. You can get notified each time a card or list is modified or browse through a card’s activity, using notes and comments for updates. The project dashboard overview provides low-level reporting by providing a summary of project information – with task tracking and budget and deadline information you can easily review a project’s status.
Timesheet reporting and expense tracking is built in, with the ability to run multiple timers on projects as you work so your time logging can be done for you. Online invoicing, and payment is possible through online payments through Paypal, Stripe, Authorize.net or 2Checkout so you can invoice and track payment easily.
Nutcache has a free version of their project management software tool for up to 20 users; thereafter it costs from $5/user/month.
Citrix Podio – https://podio.com
Podio covers task lists, project schedules, file sharing, communicating and reporting reasonably robustly. The emphasis of Podio is really around tasks, workflow automation and project communication – it’s a great project management software tool to use if you’re often working on the same sort of projects that have a defined process.
The workflow automation that’s possible is very powerful; it can ensure no one takes sneaky shortcuts and with the ‘when x, then x’ IFTTT type automation, you can let Podio do lots of the heavy lifting of task assignment for you. The weaker aspects of the tool are in scheduling and reporting. For scheduling, although you can put in milestones and deadlines, and see dates on a calendar view, there’s no ability to make a Gantt chart or real project schedule without an extension like SmartGantt.
Rather than being constrained to a particular workflow or process, with Podio you can very easily create customized ‘apps’. Apps are workflows for your projects that you can build with a drag and drop tool within Podio to ensure your projects follow the correct process.
Out the box, Podio has some nice integrations with other services including Dropbox, Evernote, Zapier, GoToMeeting and Freshbooks to name just a few. An interesting feature of Podio is that their built-in feature set is extensible with extensions – built by third-party developers. These can add additional functionality for things like time tracking, performance dashboards, Gantt charts, resource scheduling, and CRM. And if you need a completely bespoke integration, you can use Podio’s open API (which they use themselves for the front end of Podio) in various language flavours, to connect Podio to other services.
Podio costs from $9/user/month.
Zoho Projects – https://www.zoho.com/projects/
Zoho Projects might not be the sexiest project management software tool on the market but it’s powerful and competitively priced for the feature set, easily covering task lists, project schedules, file sharing, communication and reporting and more. It’s a good choice if you’re already using Google Apps and need timesheets and bug tracking built-in too.
Functionality includes: robust task lists with the ability to add milestones, task lists and tasks, subtasks, recurring tasks and dependencies. Project schedules can be managed easily within the calendar or reports and Gantt charts – which link to your tasks in real time to provide a detailed visual on the progress of your tasks vs the baseline. Docs and file collaboration is strong with the ability to share files and work on them together while a version control system makes sure that everyone has access to the latest copy.
There are options to integration directly with Google Apps which then provides a very rich, integrated experience for including single sign-on, integration with Google Drive, Google Calendar and Gmail. There are also options for integration with Dropbox.
Communication within Zoho Projects is very strong with the ability to chat with all in a project or create subgroups or chat individually. These conversations can be made public with clients or kept private within your project team. Additionally, anything about a project where you need opinions from others can be discussed in the built-in forums where notifications about these posts can be sent to specific team members.
Zoho Projects has some pretty advanced analytics and business intelligence built-in, to provide in-depth insights into your team’s progress. You can easily create a slew of reports like project status, burn down charts, hours utilized, planned vs actual reports that helps your entire team connect the dots and put those project insights into action. Helpfully, you can also embed reports and dashboards across websites, blogs and applications for wider consumption.
Finally, there are a few extra nuggets worth mentioning – project gamification (yes, really, it’s a thing! Check out Gamescope, iOS/Android mobile apps, timesheets, bug tracking, and a Zoho Projects API to push or pull data into or from Zoho Projects for application mashups.
Zoho Projects costs from $25/20 projects/month. And yes, there’s a free version, but the free project management software version is so basic it’s barely worth mentioning!
Clarizen – http://www.clarizen.com/
Clarizen is an enterprise grade professional services automation software solution, designed to speed up the way you do business – integrating work, content and process tightly together to enable more efficient working. Clarizen’s real focus is making projects happen faster with timesaving workflows. Clarizen is a great project management software tool if you have lots of repeatable projects that require repeatable processes as the workflow automation is pretty flexible and powerful.
It covers off the PPM basics of task lists, schedules, docs and files, communications and reporting without breaking a sweat. Clarizen’s project planning tools are a powerful mix of functionality across the planning, executing and controlling of a project. Within planning are project workflows, a full featured resource, schedule and task planning tools, with project and portfolio optimization so that you can easily and quickly align projects to business objectives.
For project execution, Clarizen enables everyone on the team to be aligned with a dashboard that enables teams to work better together and see how their contribution fits into the bigger picture – from the project timeline and milestones, to budget, project discussions, and sharing documents.
Instead of being obligated to make educated guesses, project managers can make accurate data-based decisions that align project selection and investment with big picture priorities. Changing tasks and schedules takes a few clicks, and project managers can run hypothetical scenarios to proactively see the impact of resource changes before they go live, and alert end users via their personal dashboard of any changes to their workload. Because resource scheduling is built-in, Clarizen delivers real-time insights into all available resources, schedules and tasks.
Clarizen has some really powerful integration options out the box that are worth considering if you’re have other business-critical systems already in place. You can combine the power of Clarizen with other enterprise tools including Jira, SharePoint, Tableau, Salesforce and Intaact, among others with subscription to an App integration so you don’t have to play around with the API’s yourself. As well as the enterprise tool integrations possible, Clarizen has an App marketplace to add additional functionality into the system including helpful add-ons like active directory sync, Excel reporting integration and priority automation – many of which are free.
Mavenlink – https://www.mavenlink.com/
Mavenlink is a heavy hitter in the world of project management software; it’s an enterprise-grade solution with stacks of functionality. Its toolkit spans across project management, resource management, team collaboration, business intelligence and project accounting with invoicing as well as Salesforce integration so could be a great tool if you’re looking for an end to end agency project management software solution.
Mavenlink features a powerful project scheduling tools to enabling you create and assign tasks, schedule resources, view on a Gantt chart, and then see in real-time the status of every task and deliverable. Tasks can include deliverables and milestones and can be updated collaboratively to track a project’s progress. As projects progress you can then see the impact to your project timeline and project budget the moment a delivery date shifts or resources change.
Mavenlink also includes proofing tools that can be combined into projects so you can share files and receive and share feedback on any file type, including audio and video. With Mavenlink, you can turn your most successful project plans into reusable project plan templates that allow you to re-use create tasks, checklists, schedules, budgets, dependencies, and even role-based resource assignments for rapid project deployment
Mavenlink empowers more effective project communication and contextual team collaboration, enabling project teams to always be clear about what to do next. By linking conversations to tasks and people, everyone stays informed.
With built-in timesheets, reporting is strong within Mavenlink, so you can assess the status of tasks, resources, and client engagement in real-time. With built-in invoicing, you can easily create invoices linked to your project’s tasks, deliverables, and milestones. The real-time project analytics provide contextual information to help improve resource utilization, project margins and better forecasting of revenue and costs.
Mavenlink has some great integrations out the box, with Salesforce, Jira, Netsuite, Google Apps, Intacct, Expensify, Quickbooks, Xero and Concur enabling you to create a single source of truth for your agency.
Liquid Planner – http://www.liquidplanner.com/
Liquid Planner is a project management tool that eschews guesstimates and best case scenarios with fixed estimates and timelines without incorporating mechanisms for adjusting these estimates based on reality. It’s a system that requires diligent prioritization but allowances for the complexity and vagaries of project management.
Liquid planner call it Dynamic Project Management – a system that accounts for uncertainty and instead creates schedules are reliable, realistic and sustainable with priorities driving the schedule. Liquid Planner’s schedules are intelligent and captures the inherent uncertainty of projects. Rather than providing simple estimates, Liquid Planner allows you to provide ranges of time to complete tasks, and then calculates when you’re most likely to get done. It takes everyone’s availability and priorities into account, then creates a robust schedule that takes uncertainty into account.
Liquid Planner supports an agile approach and you can plan out sprints by building task, dependencies, estimating efforts and assigning your team members. Project communication and collaboration is built into Liquid Planner with tools to provide visibility into what the team is working on, and collaborate at the task level. You can follow the tasks that you care about most or drill down to the comments on your biggest project and see the history of all your task activities. As work takes place and priorities change, you can easily move items around and instantly see the impact these changes make on the schedule.
With built in time tracking, project reporting is powerful within Liquid Planner- you can use it to create dynamic reports and shareable dashboards to gain insights into project performance and resource optimization. As you build and manage a pipeline of pending, approved and active projects, you can analyze your portfolio to gain deep insight into resource requirements, costs and profits. LiquidPlanner provides your team with rich insights across many dimensions such as labor costs across product launches, identification of your most profitable client portfolios, and what exactly is delaying your biggest projects.
Liquid Planner has some good integrations so you can integrate with the tools you already use including Salesforce, Dropbox and Zapier. They also provide their own RESTful API allows you to connect other additional services to their application.
Workfront – https://www.workfront.com/
Workfront, formally known as AtTask, is a full-featured, enterprise grade project management tool which covers almost anything you could possibly want or need from project & portfolio management tool including time & resource management, capacity planning, workflow automation, collaboration tools, file sharing, customizable reports & dashboards, as well as a help desk & issue tracking among others. If Workfront doesn’t have it, it’s probably not worth having so Workfront is a great tool if you’ve got a large team working on complex, inter-connected projects.
Workfront’s project schedule and timeline tool is robust with the ability to create project tasks, subtasks, and predecessors, allocate resources based on availability, assign necessary time frames, and monitor progress and milestones in interactive, real-time Gantt where you can even drill right down into a task’s business value and resource requirements.
Workfront supports great project collaboration with a single view of all tasks, milestones, conversations, commitments, and supporting materials that drive projects and productivity. Members of a project team can work independently and use their initiative rather than waiting on a project manager – they’re able to give assignments to each other—or even to themselves and get handy updates until the task is completed.
Project reporting is well supported with more than 50 reports out-of-the-box, giving you simple ways to analyze the health or status of your projects and the ability to combine multiple reports and create a dashboard that you can set as your home page.
Workfront has surprisingly good agile support with a fully formed iteration planning process and familiar storyboard that helps prioritize your work. You can create stories, tasks, and view your team’s entire backlog, then assign and easily prioritize the backlog by dragging items. Helpfully, Workfront allows you to toggle between a traditional view of projects and tasks and the agile view status columns and a real-time burndown chart.
Workfront has some interesting enterprise features including a digital asset management (DAM) solution that makes it simple to manage and connect your brand, files, and teams from one central location which enable you to connect work-in-progress files with completed assets, so your entire workflow is connected from beginning to end so you can easily curate, store, and distribute final assets in Workfront DAM – a complete solution for all of your marketing work.
Celoxis – http://www.celoxis.com/
Celoxis is a heavyweight and comprehensive project management tool that helps streamline management of projects, timesheets, expenses and business processes, specific to your organization. Celoxis’ is a full featured tool offering project scheduling with Gantt charts, project tracking, resource management, time & expense tracking, financial management, project portfolio management, risk management, reporting, bug and issue tracking and integrations.
Celoxis provides robust project timeline Gantt capability, across multiple projects with an interactive Gantt chart that can handle inter-project dependencies, complete with lead and lag times. Celoxis has an intelligent scheduling tool that means you can schedule resources based around project dependencies, constraints and resource calendars, across multiple timezones. Helpfully, you’re able to assign multiple resources to tasks, even with different amounts of estimated work hours or percentages.
Project execution is enabled through collaboration tools that include file sharing and document management, project discussions, task conversations and an activity with notifications. Celoxis is also one of the few tools to have an integrated customizable bug & issue tracking process which includes an escalation matrix and built-in time tracking.
Project reporting is robust with the built-in timesheets which powers some pretty powerful project and financial reporting and analysis. ability to capture and track individual project risk, alignment to organizational goals, overall benefits and other portfolio metrics. With a vast array off data visualizations, drill-down reporting, multi-level grouping and dynamic filtering you can also create reports on all your custom fields including formula fields to help make better business decisions. Celoxis lets you calculate projections based on actual costs and associated progress as well as calculate realistic estimates of your project billing.
Celoxis has some out of the box integrations including Micosoft Project, Salesforce.com, QuickBooks, Google Drive and a flexible, web-based API to integrate with popular tools like Box, SharePoint & other legacy applications. Though offered as a hosted solution, Celoxis is one of the few full featured project management software tools that offers a self-hosted, on-premise option which could work well if you suffer from a terrible connection!
Workbook – http://workbook.net/
Workbook is an agency-powering project management software tool used by some of the world’s biggest digital agencies – it’s a project management software suite packed full of features for project and resource, CRM, collaboration and file sharing, forecasting & accounting. It’s a great tool if you’re looking beyond just project execution, to tightly monitor agency and employee profitability and tie financials closely with the details of projects.
Out of the box, the task management aspect of Workbook is very strong, and tightly linked with financials so you can make decisions not only on priority, but also knowing the financial impact of decisions. Workbook allows you to add tasks to your team, upload a briefing, add files, communicate details and give information on how many hours are budgeted and watch how each task progress. WorkBook automatically send notifications when a task is done, a new comment has been added or if a team member request additional time to complete a task.
Project schedules are a key part of the Workbook offering with the ability to create Gantt charts, link tasks and create dependencies as well as share the Gantt chart with clients through the Client portal. There are tools too for team resourcing give you the right tools to quickly view available capacity, who’s doing what and when. WorkBook synchronizes with user’s calendars so you are aware of everything that’s going on without logging into Workbook.
Project communication tools are robust, with workflows built in with the ability to ensure the right people are notified at the right time – for example, if a project is likely to over-run. Each employee has their own inbox in which the company feed of information and notifications about approvals, overdue tasks, incomplete time sheets, budget overruns among others.
Combined with built-in timesheet and expenses, it’s the optional integrated finance and accounting module is really what sets WorkBook apart from many other PPM tools. By integrating the finance system directly into projects, there is much better visibility on financial health of projects and clients and a great emphasis on project profitability. Arguably, being profitable is probably the single most important thing in any business and in WorkBook you can measure your project profitability analysis against clients, projects & jobs, job types across numerous KPI‘s.
Workbook costs from $19 / user / per month.
Other project management software tools to consider
Although not included in this review of project management software, below is a list of additional PM tool options if you’re looking for the best project management software for your agency or studio:
- Flow – https://www.getflow.com
- Easy Projects – https://www.easyprojects.net
- Genius Project – https://www.geniusproject.com
- Bitrix – https://www.bitrix24.com
- Deltek Traffic Live – http://trafficlive.com
- Workgroups DaVinci – http://workgroups.com
- Workamajig – http://www.workamajig.com
- Dapulse – https://dapulse.com
- Pro Workflow – https://www.proworkflow.com
- Workzone – https://www.workzone.com
- Admation – http://www.admation.com/
- Feedcamp – https://freedcamp.com/
- Redbooth – https://redbooth.com
Please note, this post contains promoted links.
What do you think?
What do you think we’re missing from this project management software and tools review? What else is there to project management tools that we haven’t considered? What do you think of our criteria for selecting a PM tool for your agency or studio? We’d love to hear if you’ve got any suggestions, tips or thoughts on using this kind of PM software – why not share them using the comments below?