A Product Guide Created By People Who Run Projects
 

Choosing the right project management software – here are 12 criteria to check

Have you been given the task of selecting a project management software?

No easy job! There are thousands of PM tools on the market and each one claims to be the best.

With this article we give you twelve selection criteria to help you choose the right tool for your needs.

12 important selection criteria for project management software

  1. Functional scope
  2. Available views
  3. Sharing capabilities
  4. Integration capabilities
  5. Usability
  6. Flexibility
  7. Scalability and performance
  8. License cost
  9. User permissions and data privacy
  10. Migration process
  11. Company and support
  12. Hosting model: cloud-based vs. server-based

Functional scope

Your first point of focus should be to  look at the functional features you require. This comes down to the question: ‘What do we want to do with our project management software?’ A good approach would be to go through your current processes, tools, templates and work habits to figure out what kind of functions are required.

For example:

  • Do you want team members to track their time on project level ? Then the new tool should include timesheets.
  • Are you practicing agile development? Then your new solution should offer Kanban boards, among other agile features.
  • Do you work with mind maps? Then look for a tool that incorporates idea management features.

The new software should enable you to continue your work in the same fashion as today — but with faster processes and system support. Talk to your team, the project leaders and everyone collaborating in the project to get a feel of the necessary features.

Available views

A good project management tool makes your projects transparent by giving you different views on the projects setup and health – including issues and costs. This is where views and reports come into play.

A view is simply a filter on your projects, giving you specific details on your project. Maybe you want to see the tasks broken down on weekly level with the task owner, due date, percent complete and other information on the side. Or maybe you want to pull out a cost report with a breakdown into internal and external labor hours.

Project management tools come with a range of views, and you need to check which ones you need.

Here are common views offered:

  • Gantt view
  • Calendar view
  • WBS view
  • Network diagram
  • Resource view
  • Cost view

In terms of viewing and reporting capabilities, consider the requirements of ALL your stakeholders. There may be groups who require projects reports in a specific format and containing particular information. An example would be accounting who needs Opex and Capex separated.

Also, for top management level reporting you also want to be able to pull a more condensed, high-level view from the system. Executive management doesn’t want to dive into a work breakdown structure or process a complex Gantt chart. They just want a high-level timeline with a bar that indicates the current point in time, a summary of plan vs. actual cost and so on.

Your new PM tool should allow you to draw these reports with just a few clicks. If you still have to create reports using Excel, your PM tool is not worth the cost — it should increase your organization’s efficiency!

Sharing features

In project management, it’s all about giving people the right information when they need it. Thus you want to have an easy way to share important documents like org charts, contact lists or schedule information with everybody on the team, including your customer.

Some tools provide better sharing options than others. The ways for sharing may be limited to email only or PDF exports. Other tools also provide advanced sharing options such as sharable links, export to cloud storage like Dropbox, Google Drive or OneDrive.

When you look at sharing capability, don’t just look at what sharing options are offered. In high-pace, time critical project environments, ease of use is absolutely essential. If the sharing button is not easily visible, this complicates steps and sharing becomes more time consuming. As one user wrote about Wrike, a popular project management software:

“It is hard to share documents across the whole project, because the respective document folder is hidden away in some view that it can easily be missed.”

Depending on your business model, you may also want to share project documents with external partners such as subcontractors, vendors or government authorities. For such collaboration, your needs may go beyond simple sharing but will require a system-based integration. That’s why you should also carefully consider the integration scenarios of your project management software (see integration options).

Integration with your other software applications

Project management software can deliver more value and speed up your processes if can be integrated with your existing applications.

Suppose you want your PM tool to send out email notifications when changes to tasks were made. Then your software should integrate with email services like Outlook. If you are using Microsoft Office 365 you might want to narrow down your selection to project software that works with Office 365.

Other examples where integration is desirable are connections with your accounting software (for billing), integration with Sharepoint and other document management solutions (for document storage).

Some companies also want projects to be created centrally via their ERP system. In this case the ERP system would assign a project number which must be transferred into the project management software. Sure enough, you can integrate any two systems through a custom interface. But that takes a lot of work to build. Why not choosing a PM tool that can already ‘talk’ to your applications and systems?

Lastly, if you are from a large organization that uses dozens of other applications: Look for project management software that offers single sign-on (SSO). SSO makes it unnecessary to remember an extra password, because the PM software uses your existing identity management service for login authentication.

Usability

Usability is a big topic! Whether your PMs and team members find the solution intuitive to use or not — it can make all the difference between a successful PM software rollout and a complete failure with thousands of Dollars wasted.

The problem I see with many PM tools is that they were designed by people who have no PM experience. As a result, the software vendors have made a poor judgements regarding the screen layout and the control elements of their project management software. This has an immediate impact on your workflow: You may have to scroll a lot and click a lot of buttons to get to the project details you’re looking for. This slows down work and it’s mentally taxing.

Another issue when it comes to usability is the organization model the tool uses. Some PM tools use a folder-based structure to organize project documents and tasks.  Other tools use a tagging structure — tagging means you assign keywords to your documents and find your documents based on these. For such apps what use tags, it means that tasks can appear multiple times in your selection. This can be highly confusing for people with no tag experience.

So, how do you evaluate usability?

  • Get a trial license of the software and play around with it for a couple of days or weeks.
  • Create different kinds of sample projects similar to your real projects in complexity and size.
  • Invite your coworkers and stakeholders to evaluate the tool themselves. This way you can even simulate typical workflows and collaboration scenarios within a team.

When evaluating a project software, don’t just look at what’s happening on the main screen. Look as well at the functionality in the background. An example would be notification features. Many PM tools send out email notifications whenever the status of tasks change or when a document is uploaded to the public area. One project manager shared with me his dissatisfaction about a popular project management tool. He complained that the tool created an email-updates-storm much worse than the average cc inferno because you couldn’t control notification settings in a granular way. Design issues like these can quickly lead to frustration on the user side and people will resort back to “project management by excel”.

Flexibility

Look for a tool that can be customized to your organizational setup, project structure and workflows. Ideally, the PM tool should support your processes with the least amount of friction and overhead — features or steps in the project management process you don’t need.

Don’t expert to get a custom-tailored solution though. All project management software on the market is basically “standard software” — meaning it is designed to work in a specific way. Therefore you will always have to change your internal processes in one way or the other.

Scalability and performance

Scalability and system performance become relevant if you are working with large projects that have deep work breakdown structures and numerous dependencies. Think of engineering or construction projects.

Performance should also be a concern if the software is going to be used by a large group of people. Then you should focus on enterprise-level project management tools for your industry.

Licensing cost

Project management software is typically licensed (or provided) on a per-user or “seat” basis. With a lot of employees needing access, the total software cost can quickly reach several thousands of dollars per year. Needless to say that cost should there be one of your evaluation criteria!

With regards to cost, keep an eye on these factors:

  • the nominal license or usage fee per user
  • the licensing cost of the application instance and any add-ons

Many project management tools provide additional functionality via add-ons that are sold separately. Be very careful and check if you need any of that extra capability. What could happen is that initially you believe you don’t need a specific extra. But then after using the new PM tool you realize you desperately need the add-on, and, once again, you have to put money on the table.

User permissions and data privacy

Permissions may not be at the top of your mind right now. But believe me: a few months working with a new PM tool you’ll be racking your brain about user permissions. Why? Because you didn’t think of setting up a role concept and protecting your critical project data from being messed up by users.

And you don’t want THIS to happen to you:

“We have had some trouble with permissions. Some employees deleted tasks and folders that they really shouldn’t have been able to.”

What I’m trying to convey is this: User-based security is an important aspect of a functioning PM solution. Make sure you pick a solution which gives you great flexibility in defining user permissions. The key here is to have a highly granular authorization technology where you can control on field level who is able to see and edit project data.

My impression is that most majority of project management tools were not designed with security in mind. They have either no or very limited capability to control what users can see or edit. This is not good! Then there are PM tools that do provide detailed security measures, but only in their enterprise plans.

With the introduction of GDPR (the European data privacy regulation) and other state-level data protection regulations, the topic of data privacy has become more relevant for businesses. The focus of these regulations is to give people transparency over their personal information which is stored in IT systems.

Here’s where the security concept of your project management application comes into play: A good project management tool should contain features that allow you to identify personally identifiable information (PII), export personal information based on a user’s request and finally, erase (or mask) any personal information if requested by a user.

Migration process

I presume you want to work with one project management tool only. Then you have to migrate your existing projects from the old system to the new application. This is always a tedious process and you want to make sure that your new PM tool makes the transfer of projects as easy as possible. The process should be well-documented and the tool should offer an easy-to-use user interface that guides you through every step.

Company profile and support

Software companies pop up like mushrooms on the lawn, and they disappear just as quickly. You can observe this in the PM software business in particular. So, be cautious and critical when you see developers promoting their latest project management software.

When choosing a PM tool, you want to look for a reputable and experienced vendor with a long track record. Ideally a company with experience in your industry. See also if you can talk to any reference customers. Solid reference customers of medium or large size are a strong indicator for the quality of the software product and the vendor behind it.

The other thing you want to check is their support. Does the vendor offer fast support with guaranteed response times? (e.g. you get a response within 24 hours). Do they have an onsite support team in the US (or wherever you are based)? It is worth evaluating support quality, because eventually you are going to need help with a software issue or question. And then you don’t want to find yourself talking to a support agent that doesn’t know how to help you.

Should you go for cloud-based or on premises?

You can choose between cloud-based project management software and software that you run on your own servers (on premises). I won’t make any judgement about which option is the better one — because there is no “best option”. It really depends on your IT strategy and preferences.

For this article, I just want to give you a quick rundown of the key differences between cloud-based versus server-based applications.

Pro’s of cloud-based PM software:

  • Zero maintenance effort (almost)
  • No huge investment necessary
  • No need to operate your own data center
  • Faster rollout

Con’s of cloud-based PM software:

  • Cloud-based solutions offer less flexibility (you are using a standard product that can’t be customized much because the application instance is shared with hundreds or thousands of other clients)
  • Dependency on software provider (they operate the servers)
  • Data security concerns (your data is stored on the application provider’s servers)
  • Performance limitations

The pros and cons of running your PM software on your own servers are just the reverse of the above points:

Pro’s of on-premise solutions:

  • Greater flexibility for customizing PM software to your specific needs
  • Full control over your data
  • Full control over your servers and server performance

Con’s of on-premise solutions:

  • Large investment required
  • You need to operate your own data center
  • Rollout of PM software takes more time

There are more nuances to going for a cloud vs. server-based application. This was just supposed to give you a general overview of the main differences. For a more information check out the EvolveIT blog article Cloud vs Local Servers: Weighing up the Pros and Cons.

Conclusion

Your business is depending on the success of projects. And you can’t run projects successfully without a good infrastructure — a project management tool that gives you transparency, facilitates collaboration within the team and holds people accountable to the common goal.

Given the important of having a good PM tool, make sure you don’t rush the decision and instead evaluate the available options on the basis of facts. The list of checkpoints we have given you in this article is a good starting point. Pay attention especially to factors like ease of use, performance and data security / permissions.

Finally, involve your end-users in the selection process. The team members who work most with the software should have the biggest word. This reduces the risk of people not using the project management software.

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