It doesn’t exist. I’ve been searching for it for years. I’ve signed up for the trials, I’ve read other project manager’s blogs, I’ve listened in at the conferences and asked the right questions but it continues to elude me: the ‘Perfect Project Management Tool’ is my Loch Ness Monster—I have a sneaking suspicion it’s out there, but despite the occasional bubble at the surface, I’m no closer to finding it.
If, at this point, you mention Basecamp, I’m going to have to step out of the room and take a few deep breaths. My frustrations with Basecamp are probably best kept for a different article. They had the ball and they dropped it. That said, it is hard to talk about project management tools without comparisons to the old guard from 37signals.
So, why is finding the “perfect” tool so difficult?
1. We’re all different.
How do you create one tool that delivers for everyone when we all have different ways of managing our projects?
2. Projects rarely fit a standard mould.
I often start a project using my go-to tool and then quickly discover that it’s not quite working for my project requirements.
In an ideal world, we would have enough flexibility to adapt our tools for different requirements and preferred workflows. This is where Podio steps out onto the court, offering the kind of flexibility and customization that I’ve been yearning for—a template-driven, modular workspace.
Tasty and tiered—like a wedding cake without the drama
I stumbled across Podio over a year ago in my ongoing hunt for the “one tool to rule them all.” Launched officially in 2011, Citrix quickly snapped it up a year later. Don’t be put off by the “big business” big brother here, though. Podio still feels like a startup product, but with a supportive enterprise backbone.
In essence, Podio is a team collaboration tool with two main parts. First, there is a workspace and activity wall—think Facebook group page. This captures all activity and communication. It’s not the most enticing activity wall I’ve come across, but it does the job and offers up basic tools like file and link sharing, plus a neat little poll tool for asking questions. Images you upload show as thumbnails, and I’d prefer they were larger to give the feed a little colour and definition, but I suspect the design focus is about keeping as much information in your viewport as possible.
Second, there are the apps. This is where the task management happens. Think: Trello or even Excel. When I demoed the app with my project team, we never really used the activity wall; we communicated and commented within the apps themselves.
Together, Podio’s workspace/activity wall and its apps create an effective tool you can use with your internal and external teams.
What does Podio look and feel like while you’re using it? It’s inoffensively nice and sensible. I don’t think it’s going to win any awards, but it’s likable. There is a good use of fonts, plenty of white space, and the whole thing feels well put together. It’s definitely lacking in sparkle though. Personally, I’d like to see more colour, more contrast between areas, and some larger imagery. I have high standards when it comes to the design of the tools I use, but I enjoy using Podio, so my gripes are minor.
To get a better understanding of Podio, it’s important for us to dive in deeper and explore the tiers within the app: Organization > Workspace > App > Item.
Your first task in Podio is to create an organization. More often than not, this will be your company, but it could also be your local PTA, sports team, or running club. By creating an organization, you have a general workspace for all organization members. This is called the “Employee Network” and is a place to communicate with the entire organization. Use this space to share status updates, files, questions, links, hilarious GIFs and cat videos with all your co-workers. As an account holder, you can be a member of multiple organizations so if your client also happens to use Podio and invites you to one of their workspaces you’ll see that pop-up under a different organization within the interface.
Paid accounts have some reporting within the organization management so that you can see:
- A detailed breakdown of Podio usage in your organization
- Your statistics updates in real time
- How you’re using your paid seats
I’m a fan of this kind of oversight. It should help you monitor the account tier you require and whether or not Podio is really working for you in your company.
While the basic organization space is useful, workspaces are where your productivity really happens. There are no hard and fast rules about what a workspace should be or how you should use it. You might create a workspace for a client, and then have multiple projects exist within it, or you might make the workspace itself the project space. Equally, you might create a workspace for tracking business leads, proposals, or your company’s blogging schedule. I love how easy it is to create workspaces—just a name and privacy setting is enough to get going.
Once you create your workspace, you can invite members to it. Private workspaces are invite only; open workspaces are available to all members of an organization. You can also invite external workspace members such as clients or suppliers to join them. With the paid plans there is no limit on external users, and they have no impact on your user allowance. If you’re using the free version, you can have up to five external members.
Podio’s strength is that you can make it work for everyone in an organization, not just its project managers. By tailoring workspaces, we can use Podio to manage our projects, account managers can use it to manage proposals and leads, HR can use it to manage staff, developers can use it to manage work tasks, and marketing can use it to manage social content distribution. Not many apps are quite so inclusive. To be perfectly honest, I’m surprised that with the mighty Citrix backing them up, Podio hasn’t made more headway in the market.
Once you create your workspace, you have access to a setup that is similar to the Employee Network, with an activity stream for sharing updates and content with other members. This dashboard with calendar and task widgets is already set up and you can enhance them anytime with reporting that’ll give you in-depth information about the workspace activity. For that to work you’re going to need apps…
I’m not writing about software for your smartphone here. The term “apps” is perhaps a little misleading. The premise with Podio is that it works right out of the box with the basic tools in the workspace—certainly a match for Basecamp’s functionality right now—but, you can add extra components to build functionality. If you can’t find the components you need, you have the power to build your own. Think of it like a Lego® toy; you can put it together just like the picture on the front, but if you want something different, there are one or two other designs laid out in the instructions that you can assemble. Failing that, you can use the raw material available and build whatever you want. I should stress that this is far simpler than it sounds and I really enjoy building, editing, and customizing these apps to the point where they’re perfect for my requirements. Your OCD will thank you.
Within each app, you have fields that can include:
For a full breakdown of what each of these can do, check out Podio’s guide.
Apps help to organize items and give your work visibility. Items can be anything, and depend on the app template you use. So, for example, I want an app for managing development tasks and the fields in the app that form the template for the item might be:
- Text (title of the development task)
- Image (this could be a design, sketch, screenshot or asset)
- Category (front-end/back-end development)
- Date (due date)
- Contact (team member the task is assigned to)
- Link (URL of the webpage that requires development)
- Progress (% of task complete)
- Duration (time estimated)
- Duration (actual time used)
- Calculation (time remaining)
- Relationship (link the task to another item in another app such as a feature)
You can view the items within each app in different formats and choose which works best for the type of content you’re referencing.
I quickly found that some views worked best with certain types of content, so play around to find what works for you.
Podio’s app market saves time
It’s really easy to create new apps, but if you want to save time, try out one of the hundreds of pre-made apps in Podio’s app market, all organized by functional category (eg. project management, marketing, sales & CRM). I found the pre-made apps good to start with. What I will say, though, is I noticed a lot of duplication. And sometimes it’s difficult to find official or higher quality apps. I edited the ones I added to my workspace so they fit my own objectives.
Here’s a neat thing: You can add ‘packs’ of apps to your workspace; these are a collection of apps designed to seamlessly work together. Here’s an example: the ‘Web App Development’ pack includes seven apps:
- Project Backlog
- Sprint planning
Say I don’t want procedures, but I do want an app for meetings. I remove the procedures app and switch it out with a meetings app instead. Now I have everything I need for my web development project, except for enough caffeine, time, and budget.
Your dashboard with tiles
We’ve invited our team members, conversations are happening on the wall, we’ve established our workflow, and our apps are now configured just the way we want them, with a dash of absurd humour. Things are peachy, but we’re not done. Podio has one more trick up its sleeve: tiles.
Tiles are widgets you can add to the landing page of your workspace, your employee network, or your Podio dashboard. Podio offers a few standard tiles that let you pull in information and present it in different spaces like Tasks, Calendar, and Files. You can create more tiles using information pulled from your apps. For example, you can add a tile to a workspace that shows how many development features or critical bugs are outstanding. I’ve got a few projects on the go at the same time, so to get an easy status overview without diving into each workspace, I can create tiles from each and display them in one place on my Podio dashboard.
If you find you need more detailed reporting than what’s available within Podio, you can export items from any app as a CSV, which is handy.
Snazzy chat and video
Writing this article has reminded me just how much depth there is to Podio (and I’m starting to regret choosing such a behemoth to review!). Not only does it match the likes of Basecamp and Trello, but it’s also attempting to give Slack, Skype, and Google Hangouts a run for their money.
Podio lets you communicate with other account holders using instant messaging. There are one-to-one conversations or group chats. The developers are clearly investing their time into Podio’s chat functionality as they recently launched standalone Podio Chat clients for iOS and Android. If you’re after more face-time with your remote team, as a member of the Citrix family, you can access thoughtful GoToMeeting integration. You can set up meeting details and invite other parties through your meeting apps, then have GoToMeeting set up a corresponding virtual meeting room for you. Nifty!
Sensible app integrations
Podio nails integrations by focusing on quality over quantity. File-sharing and communication include:
- Microsoft Exchange
- Google Docs, Mail and Calendar
- Hightail (formerly YouSendIt)
- Office 365
To be honest, because Podio performs the majority of the tasks I would usually assign to other apps such as Trello and Skype, I found that integrations weren’t as important as I would have expected. They complement rather than dominate the experience.
The Podio verdict
I still haven’t found it—the ‘Perfect Project Management Tool.’ However, considering just how many boxes Podio ticks (and ticks well), I’m not sure I ever will. Let’s be honest. As project managers, we strive for perfection and finding the perfect product that will fit all of our tastes, workflows, and projects is unlikely. That said, Podio is the closest that I’ve come to finding one tool that covers the majority of my day-to-day needs. You’re getting a lot of bang for your buck here and the feature set should be enough for you to bin some of your other paid apps, streamlining your day.
Where Podio suffers is in trying to do so many things. There is the old adage that you should do one thing well. I assure you that there are better task managers, better calendars, better chat programs, better kanban boards, and better file sharers out there. Podio is very competent in all of these areas, but because the functionality is so multidisciplinary, none of the features feel sewn up. It is, by its very nature, a compromised app. However, I’ve found that when I sign-up for five or six apps that each do one thing very well, I end up with a cash flow that is not well.
To wrap it up, Podio is rather good and it’s difficult to find its major faults. Frequent updates keep it fresh, and the product appears to have momentum. Time will tell if their big business partner can reach out to the smaller groups and agencies, and turn the tide against the older, steadfast Basecamp, the agency world’s go-to PM tool.
We’d be interested to hear from you. Have you tried Podio? What do you think so far? Anything you’d like us to add?