Piloting Trello task management app: A review for academics

In many ways, Trello is like Google Keep or Evernote in terms of its ability to have shareable notes, checklists, and save pictures and reference files. What makes it different was its integration with different online applications like Box, Slack, or Google Drive as well as Agile organization integration. https://trello.com

Who might benefit the most from Trello?

Folks working in-between who don’t have task tracking apps already at their institutions but find themselves having to suddenly manage several people and projects: post-docs, museum professionals, small non-profits, early career profs, or advanced grad students done with course work, people working on multiple mid-sized projects (co-authored grants or articles), or are overseeing teams 1 or 2 other people, or working with undergraduates on research projects.

To be clear, the person who benefits the most will be the project leader, but there are additional advantages.

Undergraduates and trainees, in particular, benefit from a structured, check-list approach because it provides clarity in meetings, reference storage, and accountability. As a researcher and instructor, I am always looking for ways to be more inclusive in how I work. With Trello, collaborators are able to ask questions, link drafts, share photos, and re-visit information from the meeting, which may be beneficial to ESL and neurodiverse students. It can be hard for anyone to listen, ask good questions, take notes, and then step away and identify next steps all in a 30 min meeting. The Trello structure makes it easy to revisit tasks and reference materials. I also liked its integration with Google docs for draft sharing and how easy it was to add collaborators outside of my institution.

How did I use Trello?

In the past, I’ve generally juggled 5-8 museum volunteers and students, teaching, collection and lab maintenance, and research. My weapons of choice were Google Cal, a library of yellow legal pad notes, and sheer force of will.  It was not a big operation, but it has not always been a stream-lined. In December 2018, I was seeking to scale up and work with more museum undergraduate volunteers on meaningful research projects that could go on their CVs. These tasks are pretty typical for my field and require more active project management, but I have no formal management training. I was also working two jobs, and trying to move multiple writing and research projects forward. Trello was a free app and seemed like a way to keep all of these things organized.

As a pilot project, I tracked my own research projects, grant writing, and museum projects with 3 zooarchaeology lab undergraduate volunteers, 1 co-author, and 1 graduate student grader. All participants were under 30 and understood that I was piloting this approach. They offered feedback throughout the Spring 2019 semester, and I am incredibly grateful to them. They only used Trello in the projects where they worked with me, and here are the results of my experiences and their feedback. Views are my own, and are not sponsored by Trello.

  • Using Trello to keep track of my personal project tasks was not great, but the app was good for collaborative task-tracking.

I used Trello for six weeks as a work project tracker for my lab duties, but my usage fell after those first six weeks. I had already invested in physical whiteboards and Google Tasks and Keep because of their proximity to my work areas (office, Gmail). Checking an additional app was burdensome. If you are borderline functionally organized, a new shiny toy will not improve your system.

  • Trello’s most useful function was group task and information reference.

I did use Trello steadily, but as a quick agenda-generator. Trello was best at being a shared way of keeping track of things like assignment grading or article draft sections. (“Is this done? Yes? What’s next?). We got the important task stuff organized and out of the way, and could talk about challenges which required in-person discussion. Meetings lasted between 15-40 minutes, and if we wandered off topic, there was the Trello list to bring us back.

  • If your collaborators already have their own system, be prepared for mixed buy-in. Understand that this tool is for you, but others may benefit.

Overall, Trello helped me stay sane, but my collaborators varied on its usefulness. My xennial students loved Trello. My millennial collaborators had mixed reviews and already had their own personal systems. They used Trello reluctantly for task tracking, but they did find it valuable for organizing meetings. My working hypothesis about this difference is that it’s not an age or tech-adeptness thing. The zennials are still figuring out how to organize themselves, and appreciated a structure. The students under 25 liked the Trello format and how easy it was to snap a picture and upload for general reference or leave comments or questions. It became their go-to for reference readings and due dates about the research project. I could post reference links, draft templates, and to-do checklists for them, and we turned out two research posters on time for an undergraduate event with time for me to edit them before printing.

  • Privacy was a problem.

I recommend NEVER using Trello for communication about student issues or grades or sensitive research.  If your board is shared, everyone you shared it with has access to all the cards. I was using cards for specific people on the same board, but if you were invited to a card, it meant you could see the whole board. This auto-share was poorly explained in online tutorials, and is a potential FERPA issue if someone were to use this for task management for TAs and individual student info. If used for these projects, you and collaborators should keep wording vague and task-focused, and make your board/privacy structure with an awareness of these limitations. If you want to keep projects separate, you’ll have to create new boards. I disliked this because the advantage of having all your cards on a board is all your projects visually laid out before you.

  • Storage space and add-ins in the free version are limited.

The free version of Trello is restricted. In a group sharing large files full of reference information, you may hit that limit pretty quickly. Want to integrate with a calendar and Google Docs and Slack? You’re SOL because additional integrations beyond your first add-in cost money.

Take-away: I would use this again, and might even pay for it and wonder if costs could be added to grant requests. People in academics or academic-adjacent jobs don’t get formally trained in project management…but we still have to manage teams and get things done. If you are good-aligned, you probably don’t want to cause yourself or collaborators more misery than necessary. I could see Trello being useful for helping undergraduates and early grad students organize their first research projects and presentations, because it helps the advisor keep track and provide structure.

I can also see it being helpful for managing GRAs and TAs. Apps like Trello can help small groups break down tasks into manageable, trackable chunks, and help store some group references. This app could also scale up (at cost) as project complexity or number of collaborators increase. If you plan to use it, be prepared for Trello privacy issues and mixed collaborator buy-in and plan to consistently use it yourself at meetings.

I am currently piloting multi-project management with a Scrum structure using Trello, so stay tuned!