What Does Online Project Management Software Do?
The top performers in our review are Workfront, the Gold Award winner; Clarizen, the Silver Award winner; and Genius Project, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on choosing an application to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of these 10 online project management systems.
Online project management systems help teams increase efficiency by streamlining processes, managing risks and increasing collaboration. In addition, these solutions help project managers provide the insight and reporting stakeholders often require. Imagine always knowing the status of your projects, the immediate issues you need to address, plus the potential to increase each project's profit margin so that costs don't spiral out of control.
Online project management (PM) software performs these feats for you. Some project managers report an increase in efficiency by as much as 30 percent after utilizing a PM solution. PM systems are available via any browser, are always up to date and are completely configurable. Most programs also let you share reports and project statuses with clients and stakeholders, often for free.
In most cases, you do not have to be a formally trained project manager to understand the software's benefits and features. The best applications provide PM methodology and process training to help you maximize your use of the software. They also offer social media-type discussion boards, mobile tools and automated features, and they integrate with popular business solutions, such as Outlook, Salesforce, accounting software, Box and Google Docs. To learn more about project management systems in general, be sure to read our articles on project management.
Project Management Software: What We Evaluated, What We Found
Choosing a PM solution is a highly personalized endeavor. The best PM tools for your company depend on your internal processes and how you want the software to help you. We compared the PM features of the 10 applications in our lineup to the standard project-management process, from evaluating a new project's risks to the project closeout phase. We started by considering the tools available to you during the project initiation stage, such as profit forecasting and scoring, so you can develop informed calculations and schedules. We learned that budget forecasting and project risk analysis proved to be noticeable differentiators between the products we reviewed.
We then looked at the planning tools supporting traditional methodologies, such as the Waterfall and Agile methods. The best software can support traditional methodologies as well as your own custom PM processes. Next, we evaluated each program's project-monitoring and execution tools, such as issue-tracking features, document management, change alerts and expense tracking. We also examined project closeout tools. We determined whether the PM system can satisfactorily evaluate the efficiency of projects, including things like lesson-learned reports.
Besides processes, we assessed security. Most applications provide technologies for securing data transfers and provide access control. If your company is required to comply with specific federal regulations, such as HIPPA or another regulation, you'll want to discuss these needs with your account representative. Some programs can be hosted in-house if you want to control your own security.
We also evaluated the comprehensiveness of each program and how easy it is to use, specifically the tools available to you during the planning phase. While most programs share a certain function or feature, they are not created equal. Some tools may be harder or easier to find, some processes may require more steps than others to complete, or perhaps the interface is more difficult to navigate in one application than another. In our side-by-side product comparison, you'll see we assigned a quantitative score to each section so you know how each application compares with the others. We've also listed a standout feature – a particularly unique feature or service that caught our eye. This information, again, is to help you see distinctions between the products we reviewed.
Our testing involved attending hour-long, guided, one-on-one demos with product specialists. From there, we had test accounts created, and we had several novice users, who'd never used PM software before test the team member features for ease-of-use. We asked our testers to complete routine tasks such as creating tasks, adding documents, tracking time and adding discussions. Finally, our evaluation extended to mobile versions of the software. Some programs offer task-specific mobile apps, while others utilize HTML5 technology, which is designed to be cross-platform compatible and doesn't require users to download an app. The providers did not influence our test methodology, nor was the methodology provided to them in more detail than what you see in our matrix comparison and definitions. Results of our evaluation, such as the ranking or content of the reviews, were not provided to the companies in advance of publication.
While we relate additional information, such as estimated pricing, you'll notice that information is not scored or rated. Pricing estimates are included to help you anticipate what the ongoing month-to-month budget requirements might be. Often, larger contracts can be negotiated so your actual costs may vary.
How to Compare the Best Project Management Systems
Having gone through the process, we empathize with how challenging it is to select a new software system that best fits your processes and team dynamics. When comparing PM systems, you'll want to consider expected monetary and efficiency gains as well as your most important needs so you can find a program that has the exact features you are looking for. Keep in mind that you may also have to submit information for budget consideration well in advance if you need to go through an approval process. For more detailed information, see our article, "Finding the Right Project Management Solution for the Top Ten Reviews Editorial Team."
In brief, here are some important considerations when shopping for a new project management system:
Expected Monetary Gain
In our research we learned you can expect about a 30 percent gain in efficiency from using a new system. For a more conservative estimate, we recommend starting with a 10 percent expected increase in efficiency to judge whether the system is a wise financial investment for you. If it happens to provide more than your conservative estimate, everyone wins.
Map Out Specific Needs
You may not know exactly what comprehensive PM systems can do. In many ways they are like 40 or more products in one – way beyond Gantt charts. A good resource that we found to start with is Daptiv's buying guide located on its website. There you'll find a long printable list of features to consider. You'll also want to create your own list.
Create a List of Expectations
Define how you expect the project management system to help you. For example, your goal might be to increase financial insight or better manage documents and versions. When you speak with a product specialist, ask them how their system can satisfy your specific desired goals and outcomes. In many cases, they can create a customized demo to show you the features you are looking for.
Schedule a Product Demo
After you've done your preliminary research and narrowed your list to three or four solutions, you'll be ready for a demo. Most demos last an hour, and in many cases, the company will set up a demo that focusses on your type of business. Often the demos are routine, but you can ask them to show you specific features or processes. Take notes and screenshots to help you compare systems.
Request a Quote
To obtain accurate pricing information, you'll need to know how many and what type of licenses you need. For example, you may need one executive, one project manager and 15 team member licenses. If your budget is adequate, you may want to consider quotes with one, two or even three years paid in advance, which often offer worthwhile discounts. Also be sure to ask about the cost of additional online storage, if needed, and training costs.
Since you'll be working with the software providers for an extensive period of time, you want to choose a program you are satisfied with. Evaluate the demo experience, your quote and the communications with your account representative to decide which company provides the experience and service you're looking for.
Once you select the company you want to work with, you'll need to sign a contract, submit your payment and schedule implementation and training. You'll experience a much smoother implementation process if you take advantage of the upfront training and implementation services to maximize your system set up while decreasing onboarding time and stress.
It might take up to two months to get through the research, demo and quote-negotiating phase, not including the budget approval process. Training usually lasts two weeks and is scheduled in advance. Plan about six weeks to three months to get through the entire process from the initial research phase to implementation. Even though you can expedite the process, you'll have better success by building out the process and getting help from the software company with using the program for your first projects.
Project Management Software Pricing Explained
In most cases, PM software is sold as an online subscription. Some simply charge per user; others charge a different rate depending on the user's role. For example, it may cost $50 per month for the project manager version versus $35 for a team member subscription. In most cases, the price is based on paying in advance. Most contracts can be customized and negotiated. When planning your budget keep in mind that most of these services require, at the minimum, a one-year contract.
Other fees to be aware of include implementation and training. Some software manufacturers offer online training, while in some cases, manufacturers can arrange for a specialist to provide in-person training. In most cases, the training fee is not optional, but the good news is, you only have to pay for training the first year; after that, you pay a lower rate for ongoing support. Most software makers also offer train-the-trainer training so you can have one team member educated who can then train the rest of the team.
What about Basecamp, Microsoft Project, SharePoint or Microsoft Project Pro?
Some may wonder why these popular products are not in our project management software lineup. The first, Basecamp, was eliminated because it is not a full PM system, it is more of a task manager. (Basecamp will be included in our upcoming review of task management software.) Basecamp is priced low, and many teams use it to manage task lists and for keeping team communications tied to a specific project or task. Many managers find they do not need a traditional PM system, so Basecamp suits their needs. Too, Basecamp cannot manage expenses, nor can it perform PM-related tasks like track resource capacities, detail capital allocations from multiple funding sources or create Gantt charts.
We created this comparison originally to show our readers alternatives to Microsoft Project and SharePoint, which were more commonly used before online versions became the norm. However, we eliminated Microsoft Project, because it was significantly more expensive per license than online solutions. Further, SharePoint is not really intended to be an advanced project management system.
Microsoft now offers Project Pro as a subscription through Office 365. And while that may be a more affordable alternative to past offerings, it may not be for those who don't want to purchase additional Microsoft products. There are other products that work with SharePoint to create a more complete PM solution, such as Brightwork, Mavenlink and Project Management Central. If you already own SharePoint and like it, you may want to look into these products as way of extending SharePoint's project management features.
Our Verdict and Recommendations
Our first recommendation is that you do your research and be patient. Planning and research is important. Rushing into a new system without adequate preparation can be an expensive mistake. All top-shelf project management systems offer most of the basics, such as project planning and task management tools, but you'll want to ask manufacturers about specific tools to help you with your specific processes and team dynamics.
If you are looking for advanced collaboration tools, you may want to contact Workfront. For advanced integration with other systems, Daptiv is one to look at. For a system compliant with the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) that is simple to use, look to Project Insight. If you are in the construction industry, Project Insight also offers a PM solution specifically tailored for the construction industry. For a little bit of everything, ProjectManager, Clarizen or Genius Project might work for you. Overall, our product comparisons should help you narrow your list to three or four solutions of interest that you may then want to explore further.