Trello is an eye-catching, fun, and intuitive app that helps you organize, coordinate, and track work. The selling points of this kanban board app are its ease of use and ability to facilitate collaboration with internal and external teams alike. Trello doesn’t have tools for managing and rebalancing resources across many projects, however, so it’s not great for traditional project management. Trello’s free tier might also not be workable; some capabilities are only available via add-ons and the free version limits you to a single one per board. Other features are missing entirely, such as swimlanes and robust work-in-progress limits. Trello may be flexible enough to meet complex needs, but figuring out whether it does will take some trial and error.
Is Trello a Project Management App?
Here’s a common question I hear about Trello: “Isn’t Trello a project management app?” It is and it isn’t. The answer depends on how strict you are about the word project.
A project is a group of tasks that have a start date, end date, and final product. Not all work is a project. Building a house is a project. Answering calls at a call center is not a project.
We look at collaboration apps as one very large category. Within it, we have a few subcategories to make it easier for people to learn about and compare the software that best fits their needs. One of those subcategories is traditional project management software. Another is kanban board apps. Trello fits more neatly into the kanban subcategory, because it has all the typical features of a kanban board app. It’s worth noting, however, that Trello now does have a Timeline view, which is similar to a Gantt chart. That still doesn’t make Trello adept at managing huge projects, but inches it closer to the project management realm.
Could you use Trello to manage some kinds of projects? Sure. Would it be a bad choice for managing very large and complex projects, such as building multiple skyscrapers? Most definitely. The already-mentioned lack of swimlanes, which show each person’s responsibilities isolated into a single scannable column or row is just one example of how the service isn’t set up for running this kind of complicated project.
(Photo: Jill Duffy)
What Is Kanban?
Kanban is a method for organizing, tracking, and managing work. Imagine that you want to create a family to-do list using a poster board and sticky notes. You might start by making three columns (Trello calls them lists) called To Do, Doing, and Done. You can then write each chore that must be done on a sticky note and put them all into the To Do column. Let’s say each member of the household is responsible for no more than three tasks at any given time.
Now, everyone in the family can choose three tasks from the To Do column and write their name on the corresponding sticky notes. Or someone else can assign tasks to them. When the person responsible for the task starts it, they move the sticky note into the Doing column. When they finish, they put the note into the Done column. Everyone can see the task is done, and the person can now claim one more new task.
From the example, you can glean two benefits of kanban: 1) It’s a great system for limiting how much work any one person can have on their plate at a time; and 2) Everyone has visibility into the state of the work that the team (in this case, the family) needs to do. This allows for both accountability and the possibility of helping other team members who are falling behind.
Kanban board apps are ideal for managing work and the movement of work through different stages, or workflow. Not all work is well-suited for this setup, though. If you’re launching a rocket or building a hospital, you need more robust software that can track how different pieces of the project affect one another. For example, the timeline for building a hospital depends on when the foundation is poured. If you miss that deadline due to bad weather, then the expected start and end dates of other related tasks must account for that change. Kanban boards are not equipped to deal with those kinds of contingencies.
Trello Pricing and Plans
Trello offers three types of plans: Free, Business Class, and Enterprise. Trello’s Free is, as the name suggests, free. With a free account, you are limited to 10 boards. File attachments can be no more than 10MB in size, and you can’t integrate your account with other apps. You’re also limited to 50 automated command runs (instances of an automation you set up running) per month. Most importantly, you get one Power-Up per board only.
The Power-Up is important to understanding what makes the Free account so much different from the paid accounts. Power-ups are à la carte features that you add to each of your Trello boards. A few examples of Power-Ups are a calendar view, time-tracking, and custom fields. Honestly, these basic enough features that it’s hard to give the app credit for them as Power-ups. The number of features you can add depends on the account type you choose. You can’t, for example, add all three of those features to one board with Trello Free, because that tier limits you to a single Power-Up per board.
The Business Class ($12.50 per person per month or $119.88 per person per year) and Enterprise (prices vary) accounts let you use an unlimited number of Power-Ups per board. They also both have a 250MB size limit for uploads and let you create an unlimited number of team boards. The difference between these two types of accounts has less to do with end-user features and more with backend management options. Trello Enterprise includes tools for administering single sign-on and managing permissions and restrictions.
How Do Trello’s Prices Compare?
Trello’s prices are on par with other collaboration software packages. In the first few years after its launch, Trello charged much less, which, alongside its friendly user interface, helped it earn a reputation for being a great tool for small businesses and startups. The rates are still fair, but they are not a steal.
You could compare these prices with more traditional project management apps, some of which now offer kanban board functionality within them, but it might get messy. Some project management apps charge per person per month and others charge a fee for up to a certain number of users. The lowest cost project management apps charge less than $10 per person per month.
(Photo: Jill Duffy)
Getting Started With Trello
As with any kanban board app, Trello lets you create custom boards. Earlier, I mentioned an example board with To Do, Doing, Done sections. That’s just one example. You can make boards with as many columns as you like and name them whatever you want.
Next, you make cards to put into the columns. Trello’s cards can have a lot of detail. You can put the name of a task, assignee, subtasks, due date, description, hyperlinks, attachments, labels (similar to tags), and more.
Another step to getting started is to invite people to join your board, if you want to make team boards. You can also use Trello for personal kanban if you want to privately organize your own tasks and workflows.
Trello also has templates. You can choose a board that’s already designed to help guide you toward better workflow management, depending on what type of work you have. A few examples of templates are Publishing Process, Design Sprint, Support Ticket Management, and Office Party Planning. With a paid Trello account, you can make your own templates for your team to use, too.
Somewhat new to Trello are additional ways to view the cards you add to your board. As mentioned, there’s a Gantt chart-like Timeline view, as well as a Map view and a Dashboard view, among others.
(Photo: Jill Duffy)
Apps and Interactivity
You can use Trello on the web, or download dedicated desktop (macOS, Windows) or mobile apps (Android, iPhone, and iPad). The web app works smoothly, with great drag-and-drop capabilities, including for when you want to upload attachments. There are some advantages to installing the desktop app. For starters, you get desktop notifications as well as quick-add options (for quickly adding a new card). You also get Touch Bar features with a compatible Mac and support for additional keyboard shortcuts.
Trello lets you upload content from not only your desktop, but also Google Drive, Box, Dropbox, and URLs. When you upload a picture to a card, Trello can turn it into a cover image, helping you identify what the card contains at a glance. There’s now an option to add a cover image even if you don’t have anything to upload; Trello lets you search on Unsplash for something relevant.
While you can assign someone to a card and set a due date, you won’t find more advanced project management features, such as estimating best- and worst-case scenarios for how long a task might take to complete. It’s also strange to me that cards can’t be checked off as done, although you can archive them. This is still true even for cards with a due date. Maybe the problem is that I’m trying to pigeonhole cards into being tasks when in fact they don’t have to be. Trello is a highly flexible system in this sense. Cards can be whatever you want just as columns can be for whatever you want.
(Photo: Jill Duffy)
Features and Power-Ups
Color-coded labels are another tool for organizing cards, though I find them to be a bit of a letdown. Each label requires a color, which means you quickly run out of easily identifiable colors after maybe 10 or so. There is an option to enable patterns for color-blind users. I would like the option to use keyword tags as labels, if that better fits the needs of my board. That would add more ways to search for, sort, and filter cards.
Trello doesn’t come with time-tracking capabilities by default, but you can add it as a Power-Up. More features are available through third-party Google Chrome extensions, too. There’s even a Trello app for Slack. I mentioned earlier that Trello doesn’t come with work-in-progress limits. You can get this feature with an add-on, but all you get is a warning when you exceed the limit; it doesn’t block you from exceeding the limit or require you to input a reason for doing so. Leankit has more capable built-in WIP limits.
I’ve tinkered around with some of these extras for time tracking, reports, and scrum features (scrum is a style of working that focuses on iteration that is popular among software developers). They aren’t bad, but they also aren’t nearly as powerful as the native reporting and time estimation features found in LiquidPlanner, which is a high-end project management app. LiquidPlanner can, for instance, reconfigure an entire timeline of interdependent tasks if even one person misses a deadline.
If you have a paid account that allows for integration, you can connect Trello to other business apps beyond just what’s in the Chrome Extension store. Time-tracking tools, such as Toggl Track and Harvest, offer integration with Trello, for example. As long as you don’t mind cobbling together a unique suite of tools for your team to use, you can customize Trello to your heart’s content. It just might take a while to connect everything you want and need.
One of Trello’s strengths is that there’s more than one way to use it. It’s flexible enough to bend to your will, and you can get rather creative. I’ve used Trello for keeping track of travel ideas and whether I’ve started booking them, for example.
Trello’s flexibility may seem like an asset, but it can also be a burden in that you have to figure out how to best use the service. I have long felt the same way about Asana, a wonderful work-management tool that has few rules and that can be daunting for anyone trying to figure out the best way to use it. Both Trello and Asana can be indispensable for collaboration, but it takes a strong, tight-knit team to put up with some trial and error when first adopting either.
With Trello, you can create automations, also known as command runs, using the Butler tool.
Sometimes in Trello, the rules of your board will be to follow one action (called a trigger) with another action, every time. When that’s the case, you can create an automation. For example, whenever someone moves a card to the Done column, the action can be to automatically check off any remaining subtasks on that card. Or, if you move a card to a column called Delayed, you might automatically add ten days to the due date.
With command runs, you automate those types of repetitive actions. The list of triggers and actions isn’t exhaustive, but it does cover many common scenarios.
Flexible, Visual, and Light
Trello is a flexible app for collaboratively managing work and workflows. Because it’s flexible, Trello may require some experimentation to figure out how to best use it for your team and the workload you manage. New templates help ease that burden, giving you suggestions on how to get started in different contexts.
Trello is a great collaboration tool when you don’t need a heavy-duty project management app. It’s also a little lighter than Editors’ Choice Asana, which gives you an interface that you can use for more than just kanban boards.
If what you really want is traditional project management software, you might find Trello light on features, as it lacks Gantt charts, built-in reporting tools, and other features that are specific to managing projects. For straightforward project management, we recommend Zoho Projects and Teamwork, our Editors’ Choice winners.
The Bottom Line
One of the most intuitive kanban apps you’ll find, Trello lets you fully customize the boards you create. It’s a capable tool for managing work and workflows within teams and with outside partners.
Like What You’re Reading?
Sign up for Lab Report to get the latest reviews and top product advice delivered right to your inbox.