Online project management systems are complex solutions which can replace many business systems, workaround processes and routine management tasks. In a sense you can almost say these systems are like 40 solutions in one and far more than we could possibly include in one comparison list. So, while we weren't able to discuss every feature on our list in depth, they are still important for our readers to be aware of as they dive into the research process themselves. We evaluated PM tools throughout the entire process, from when the project is requested through to delivery. We evaluated each step of the process for ease-of-use and standout features.
Below are the features we evaluated along with brief definitions:
Project Initiation & Prioritization
Whether the service can manage multiple project portfolios. Few teams work on just one project simultaneously. Often project managers need to schedule projects and resources months in advance. The reviewed products can manage multiple projects as well as archived projects concurrently, an especially useful for feature for project management offices (PMOs).
Multi-Project Planning Tools
For most companies, employees work on multiple projects concurrently as well as different phases of a project. A check indicates the software can manage more than one project at once, including human resources who may work on more than one project concurrently. These tools are extremely helpful when scheduling project work.
The software includes tools for managing requests either by using a built-in tool or by creating custom forms to process requests. Many programs also include tools for rating and prioritizing requests. In most cases, the system can also automatically convert a request to a project.
Client Collaboration Tools
The software has free tools for interacting with clients. This may include the ability to submit project requests or issues without needing a user license. It may also include the ability to submit information by email. Many administrators create profiles for clients that control which aspects of the project they can have access to.
The software has tools for analyzing project risks based on unique, configured parameters. You can set parameters based on revenue, budget, resource allocation or other criterion to help you calculate risk. Risk indicators can be used to highlight problem areas in a project in addition to helping you gauge whether a new project should be considered at all.
It has tools to help you evaluate potential future project revenue. There is a lot of variation with the forecasting tools different project management software products provide. If this feature is important to your organization, discuss with your product representative exactly what forecasting tools are available and how their product accomplishes specific forecasting tasks.
These are integrated tools to help you prioritize projects based on your parameters, such as possible revenue, resource availability and more. Forecasting the extent of a project management system's capabilities varies greatly between products or even between different versions of the same product. You'll want to discuss these capabilities with the software representative to determine how their product can best meet your specific project prioritization needs and goals.
The software allows you to score or rate projects or specific aspects of a project to help you prioritize all of your current and future projects. In most cases, you will rate each aspect of the product you wish to score, or you set up the prioritization parameters and the system will score the projects for you. You can use this information to help you prioritize projects and/or rate their success after completion.
This feature allows you to monitor the hierarchy of project approvals. Most programs also include approval-prioritization tools and the ability to customize the approval process. This monitoring feature helps team members easily know the status of approvals.
Stakeholder Collaboration Tools
The system provides tools for communicating with stakeholders, such as executives or board members, who do not have a license for the software. This feature may be important in keeping key decision-makers and partners updated regarding key developments as well as the progress of a project. Often this type of communication does not require a license, but free stakeholder access may be limited. Some solutions support interactive reporting so executives or stakeholders can drill down for additional information.
Supports Agile Methodology & Sprints
The software supports Agile methodologies and manages sprints. Agile methodology involves dividing the overall project into smaller iterations or sprints, set periods of time in which work is completed. Agile methods are an alternative to traditional project management methods, such as Waterfall, and are used by software development teams.
It can support the Waterfall model, a traditional project management method often used by software development teams that involves a linear, sequential approach to executing projects. Many in the field debate the benefits, differences, and effectiveness of Agile and Waterfall methods; however, in the end, the best methodology depends on your business's processes and style of work, and the software can accommodate either method your company utilizes.
Project Templates & Cloning
You can use the software to create custom project templates. In addition, previously created project templates can easily be cloned. Most systems include a few templates for you to use, if you desire, with the goal of improving efficiency within your organization. Most services can help new customers set up their most commonly used templates and processes.
Using the project management software, you can create custom workflows. Workflow tools can help you automate routine processes, such as the approval system, distribution of information, document management and phase reviews. Most offer some type of tool that can help you automate your processes, and these tools may range from basic to advanced. If you are looking to automate specific practices, you'll want to look for a system that is compatible with your organization and workflow processes and can accomplish these tasks easily.
Critical Path Method
It supports the critical path method, a technique that involves planning a set of project tasks comprised of individual activities. This method is helpful for those who need to manage both critical and non-critical tasks. This method was originally created for construction projects but has since been adopted for hardware and software research and development.
Interactive Gantt Charts
You can use interactive Gantt charts to easily change project elements. Most project managers are familiar with working the Gantt charts, but interactive charts can be easily altered to reflect scheduling changes, with the changes reflected instantaneously. Most charts can also be drilled down to reveal related information quickly.
The project management application can monitor interdependencies, or when two or more projects overlap, to help you manage project tasks and resources that require a specific order of operation. This can be a useful feature so that managers can ensure needed resources are available when necessary.
Multiple Project Dependencies
It has the ability to manage and monitor dependencies connected to more than one project. This is a useful feature if you need to efficiently manage multiple resources (human, capital, etc.) on multiple projects.
It includes a capacity planner to help you schedule your resources in the most logical, productive manner. Capacity planners can easily account for such variable as company holidays, scheduled days off and schedule changes.
Generic Resource Management
It has the ability to schedule projects using generic resources so the project manager can estimate project costs and map out scheduling. This helps managers build out a project before having to actually assign resources.
The software allows you to add custom fields to forms and program components so you can track and report on the information you are interested in. Some systems even allow you to change the names of fields not created by you; for example, changing the field name "task" to "jobs." Some programs allow you to customize certain fields or even change the language.
Execution & Monitoring
The software can track issues from the time they are submitted through to resolution. Most programs allow you to customize how issues are tracked and how notifications are handled. This feature allows you to streamline the project management process so that team members can troubleshoot and resolve any bottlenecks or issues accordingly.
It can manage project requests and project change requests. In many cases, requests can be easily converted to tasks or projects. This feature allows you to easily view existing requests and streamline the project management process.
It includes tools for tracking the time an employee or contract contributor works on a particular project or task. Many also offer time-tracking tools for mobile phones and tablets as well so that employees' time away from the office that is spent on project-related tasks, e.g., job site visits, working from home, can still be tracked and accounted for.
The system includes technologies for managing, sharing and storing documents. Most services only come with a limited amount of data storage but allow you to purchase additional storage as needed. In most cases, documents are referenced by a link to your company's document database or digital asset management system. Most also work with third-party digital asset management systems.
You can run quick, mid-project reports to monitor the progress of a given project at any time during the process. This feature could involve using an established report format or creating a customized format to share vital information with managers and stakeholders.
Expense & Time Sheet Alerts
The software can track expenses and manage time sheets. Some can also integrate with accounting systems. At a minimum, the software can export reports in formats compatible with accounting or HR programs or systems. In most cases, expenses can be submitted using a mobile device as well.
It includes the ability to create discussions around project elements. This is often similar to a social media stream or forum discussion. Some systems call this feature "notes" or "comments," and it can be a useful feature for documenting key developments and keeping key members and stakeholders updated on significant developments.
Change Alert Management
You can configure the software to send out alerts when change requests are submitted. You can configure the alerts to be sent to an email address and/or mobile device. This feature can be helpful for improving communication and productivity so that key players are updated on significant project developments.
Mobile & Tablet Access
Project management tools are available via a mobile phone or tablet. Some programs offer mobile apps whereas others provide a mobile optimized version that can be accessed via any web browser. Some apps are built using HTML5 technologies so they are accessible from any device.
It provides project health indicators so you can quickly discern how projects are progressing. In most cases you can set the parameters for the health indicators, which are most often representative icons such as a red symbol to indicate that a project that is at risk. Health indicators allow manager to quickly sort and prioritize projects by risk.
Markup Tools & Online Proofing
These services are popular with design and creative teams for interactively commenting on and proofing digital images or designs. Sometimes this feature is a separate module, an app that costs extra or is provided by a third party. If this is a feature you plan to utilize, check with the software provider to determine additional costs and platform compatibility.
Delivery & Closure
Final Project Reports
The software includes pre-built final project reports, or it gives you the ability to build customized end-of-project reports. Common reports include budget and revenue reports. All PM solutions can export reports to Excel and accounting systems.
The software allows you to compile the lessons learned from a specific project or process that you can then implement in future projects to improve productivity and efficiency.
Open Item Report
You can use the system to search for open items, or yet-to-be-completed tasks, before the final product is delivered to your client. This feature can also help you clean up outstanding tasks before you archive a project.
Team Performance Reports
Using the software, you can create reports to help you measure your team's performance. You can set the parameters for this report, but reports could include things like resource hours, issues and budget elements. This information can help you more efficiently plan future projects.
Issue & Change Order Reports
This feature can create project reports that detail how issues and change orders affected your project, which can improve your business's productivity and profitability.
Final Financial Reports
You can use the software to generate reports showing final expenses, which can help managers evaluate a project's overall budget and profitability. In addition, reports can be exported and shared with stakeholders.
Tools for tagging and archiving closed projects. Archived projects can later be cloned if desired. Archived projects do not count toward your number of active projects; instead, they are considered separate. Archiving is a useful feature if you choose a system that limits the number of active projects allowed without having to upgrade to the next version.
Security & Compliance
Statement on Standards for Attestation Engagements (SSAE) No. 16 security protocol, a guideline that governs reporting on service organizations. You'll want to ensure that the project management company can adequately secure your company data as well as your client's data.
An ISO 9001-certified organization has implemented quality management requirements in the business areas of facilities, people, training, service and equipment. These protocols help ensure that data is kept secure and that access is limited.
A set of best practices or standards that help organizations manage the security of financial information and intellectual property. It also includes standards for securing employee or sensitive customer information entrusted to the company.
Using the software, you can block users from accessing certain information. For example, you may choose to block financial data from specific team members or external contributors.
Secure Tasks & Documents
You can secure specific tasks, documents or other elements from anyone who does not have specific permission to access the data.
Issues can be classified and protected as private. This is a good feature as it may not be necessary to have all project members, such as stakeholders or clients, view all project issues and communications not relevant to their role in the project.
Provides Audit Trails
The software can create audit reports to help you investigate any security or confidentiality problems that may arise.
On-Premise Deployment Available
The project management software can be installed and managed on-premise if your company prefers to manage its own security.
Integration & Professional Services
24-Hour Telephone Support
Phone support is available at any time, regardless of the day of the week or time zone.
Dedicated Account Manager
Your company is assigned a specific account manager who serves as the main point of contact to help manage implementation and training. The account manager can also coordinate and resolve issues should they arise.
Basic Implementation Services
The software manufacturer can assist you in rolling the software out to your team. Usually this assistance involves setting up the internal workflow processes and team hierarchy.
Long-Term Implementation Services
Services are available to help you build processes, project templates and user profiles. Usually this type of implementation assistance extends for a longer duration than the initial installation of the software, in most cases six weeks. In addition, this service costs extra, so you will want to inquire about availability and costs with your software provider.
A service the software provider offers in which the software company trains an appointed representative in your organization on the software, who, in turn, provides training to other team members. Most software gives you this training option via onsite training, the internet or another arrangement.
Training is available to help your team quickly adopt the new project management solution. The best services have a high resubscription rate.
The company provides services to create custom integrations, or it can help your team create required integrations. Integration services can be helpful, especially if your business does not have the resources to create custom integrations in-house.
Methodology & Process Assistance
One-on-one assistance is available to help you map out your processes and determine the best methods for managing existing practices using the software. The best programs help you improve your processes and tailor them to your desired results.
Project Management & Process Training
Educational assistance, such as online classes, webinars and articles, are available to help project managers learn more about PM practices and processes to boost productivity and efficiencies. Most services have trained and certified project managers available to help train clients. Some providers work with host services such as online "universities" to provide ongoing project management training.
If requested, trainers can visit onsite and help with implementation, training and/or adoption assistance. Note that additional training fees and travel expenses apply. You can inquire with the service provider about the availability and cost of onsite training.
The service provides APIs (application program interface) to development teams so they can create custom integrations.
Software elements are available in more than one language. Some project management systems allow you to change field names to match the language preferences of the users. However, not all systems support all language characters. If you need multi-language support, you'll want to ask your account representative what languages the program supports.
The top project management systems provide every feature and item listed above and more. When you speak with your account representative you'll want to not only discuss your objectives and processes but also the features or abilities that you consider mandatory to meet your needs. We suggest that you put together at least a rough draft of your needs, requirements and questions before speaking with each company on your list.
Ease of Use
Project Management Tools
We tested the program's administration tools for ease of use. We attended guided demos and assessed the software's administration tools, including evaluating how easy it is to create a new project or schedule resources. While all products require some training to fully benefit from all of the features of the program, some simple routine tasks, such as the above, should be relatively intuitive and easy to accomplish without extensive training. We also considered other items like how easy help was to find and how thoroughly topics were explained.
Team Member Features
In our tests, we had users with no previous experience with the software test the basic team member tools for ease of use. Testers performed routine tasks like changing the status of a task, adding documents to tasks and adding comments to items. We also timed how long it took them to perform tasks without assistance. We also asked testers to evaluate the software's help features to see how simple it was to get help for tasks they were attempting to perform. While all services offer extensive training, we felt that simple tasks should be relatively easy to perform without prior training. This score can be a useful guide for you as you evaluate the software's compatibility for your business and how well the product can be adopted and used to its maximum potential by your company's team members.
Mobile & Tablet App
The availability of the software application or certain features of the application through a mobile smartphone or tablet device. We compared the software's mobile interfaces, whether it was an app, HTML5 version, browser-based or mobile-optimized version. Mobile versions can be used to submit time worked, expenses or comments and can be a convenient feature for keeping projects updated and moving along when employees are working offsite or in another geographic location.