13 September 2011

This “Trello” Business

So Fog Creek Software has launched a new thingamajig called Trello. Here are my initial thoughts.

Everything needs a purpose in order to survive. (Even if that purpose is to have no purpose. How Zen.) It should be easy to say, concisely, what your story is about, what your software does, and what your product is for. Why did you make it and why do I care?

So what's Trello about? Projects, basically. That's concise enough that it holds my attention, and doesn't immediately shout “useless gimmick” or “totally misguided”. You get a pretty interface (boards) to what is essentially groups (lists) of lists (cards). I usually have an immediate negative reaction to coinage of proprietary slang, and now is no different: I don't know why I'm organising lists of “cards” on a “board”. The physical analogy just isn't doing it for me.

Anyway, by default, you get three top-level groups, presumably for tasks: future (to-do), present (doing), and past (done). It's an intuitive model that people will like, but, well, it's not unique.

And no goal is worth pursuing unless it's unique. Your product will be successful if people want it, and people usually want things that either haven't been done before, or haven't been done right. Project management solutions have been done. Scads of times, in myriad different ways. So the tacit assumption that Trello makes is that its model for project and team organisation is superior to those of its competitors. (Yes, free services have competitors.)

So how is it different? Trello makes it very easy to collect bundles of junk related to a task, and sort them chronologically. You can add comments, checklists, and files, as well as attach coloured “labels” to tasks. I would say this is where it really shines, but it just doesn't excite me.

(For one thing, the interface is still a tad buggy: when adding items to a checklist in Firefox 6.02, the most recent item replaces the previous item, so only one item displays until the card is closed and reopened. Also, I ran into some synchronisation issues when it came to creating, closing, and reopening boards, as well as archiving—because there's no such thing as “delete” in the Trello world—and unarchiving cards. This mainly consisted of duplicate items and things that were supposed to be gone having some trouble taking the hint. Most things seemed to work fine, however, and I expect the wrinkles will get ironed out soon.)

The real problem is that I don't need it. I can make my own to-do list in whatever format I please. (Emacs org-mode is excellent for this, but any document will do.) I can put that to-do list in a Dropbox folder with whatever other files I'm working on, and share it with whomever I please. I can set up any old task tracker and wiki on my server and get essentially all of the features that I'd use in Trello. And if I didn't have a server, I would use one of the many available freemium services.

To my mind, the only clear advantage to Trello is that it centralises, simplifies, and prettifies these things for, well, non-technical users. And yet I somehow doubt that many of them will need digital project-management software...

In short, I think it's a beautiful thing that will perish for lack of an audience. But I definitely hope to be proven wrong.


  1. As far as I can tell, Joel Spoksky came up with the original idea because he had trouble micro-managing his minions and needed a convenient way to do that.

    I, like you, have myriad ways to accomplish the same thing. Also, I don't feel comfortable posting the details of my clients' projects in a "cloud"-based tool with no guarantees of privacy or security. Fog Creek provides no service-level agreement for this "free" service.
    I'll pass.

  2. Hi Jon - over from your link on FogCreek's site. I'd guess that the FogCreek guys are familiar with the various Agile methodologies that use the board/card metaphor, so that was natural to them and to others used to this for project management. This doesn't make your comment wrong at all, mind you, just that perhaps it implies that you aren't in their target market (and thus the last point). Now whether there are enough people in that target market (project managers and their teams) to support them is another thing entirely. I agree with your comment (and other on FogCreek's thread) that if this is just for self-organization then it seems week compared to the simpler alternatives.

  3. Actually, a big part of Trello is the collaboration aspect. Like a previous commenter, I'm leary of putting my employers data on a cloud service, but I am also involved in a number of community volunteer projects, and Trello seems like it will be a good fit for those.

  4. "I can make my own to-do list in whatever format I please. [...] I can put that to-do list in a Dropbox folder"...

    The short answer is: you're right. Actually, you can break everything down to files and folders.

    Conceptually, Trello has nothing new in it; conceptually, pipe-and-filter over a network is everything you need to do any collaborative work with a computer. But the differences you point out, the details Trello may offer, are exactly the interesting (or not so) thing about Trello or the overwhelming majority of software products. These details are called "features" :-) Any decent word processor would be logically equal to any other one, but these organizational, visual, procedural, unimportant details make us productive and comfortable... or not.

    Apart from that, yes, there are software products that are absolutely the first in a completely new area of application. But anyway, these are not necessarily the ones who survive, and it's not unusual to see some second- or third-generation one to succeed. Because of the details, the metaphors, the approach they adopt over the well-known, basic task.

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