Teams that have to handle multiple projects can’t simply rely on human memory to keep them all organized. Furthermore, trying to keep everything together via email is a recipe for productivity disaster. To deliver projects on time and within budget, teams must write down information, plot deadlines, and share documents. Individual members need to be in constant communication with one another. When your team needs to get serious about managing projects, the solution is to use project management software.
Project management services are online systems for working and collaborating on projects. These real-time workspaces let team members and outside partners keep an eye on every detail that brings a project to fruition. They typically provide an overview of all the projects in the pipeline, as well as the nitty-gritty details about the daily work being done to move the projects forward. Some contain tools for managing resources as well, whether those resources are workers, materials, or money.
The very best project management apps help teams handle common problems, such as slipped deadlines, by automatically rescheduling tasks that are affected by them. They generate reports that give managers insight into which team members have too much—or too little—work on their plates. Many track time spent on projects and integrate with invoicing and billing systems.
The most important thing to know about project management apps, as opposed to other kinds of work-management apps, is that they are for projects. That might sound like a tautology, but it’s important.
Projects are a specific type of work. Every project has a start date, end date, and deliverable. Building a house is a project. Launching a new website is a project. Maintaining a website, however, is ongoing work with no clear beginning or end date. Publishing a monthly magazine is a project that you complete once a month. Writing daily content for a blog is ongoing work. You could, theoretically, manage each blog post as its own project, but if the turnaround time is quick and only a few people are involved, using full-scale project management software is overkill.
How Project Management Apps Work
Many projects are managed by a dedicated project manager, and that’s true even with software equivalent. While a project manager might still be the person overseeing the project and helping to redirect resources as needed, she or he is not the only person touching the project management app.
All kinds of people involved with the project use the app to update their progress on assigned tasks. They check into the project management app to, for example, see their designated tasks and to enter how much time they spent on an assignment. Employees, contractors, and sometimes even clients can use the project management app to share documents, sign off on plans, and so forth.
In a best-case scenario, every milestone, task, and subtask is assigned to a specific person and given a deadline. Typically, other team members can see who is responsible for what, whether that person is on track to complete it on time, and if there are any unanswered questions about the job. That level of insight is important because it alerts people who are further down the planned chain of events of possible delays before they occur.
Having visibility into every team member’s task list is also useful for understanding whether people are falling behind because they’re overworked. When you can see that a colleague has six task assignments all due within the next 48 hours, it’s easy to spot the problem and redistribute the work before deadlines slip. By looking at a Gantt chart (a pretty common feature in project management apps), for example, a manager can see clearly who is doing what, and how various tasks are related, too. It helps everyone use available resources more effectively.
Projects also usually have assets, which range from a detailed description of the project and its parts to a visual mockup. People on the project team all need access to these assets, and the project management app becomes the central place where they live.
Many project management solutions include storage space so that your team can upload files right into the workspace, where everyone on the team can see and discuss them. It’s also common for services to have an option to connect to third-party online storage services, such as Box, Dropbox, Google Drive, or OneDrive, so that team members can link or upload files to the project management system from the repositories they already use.
Free Project Management Tools
A few project management software systems have free versions, but they are generally quite limited. The primary limitation is the number of projects you can manage (think one or two), although sometimes a service might restrict the amount of storage space you get or prevent you from using certain features.
Almost all project management apps have, at a minimum, a two-week free trial. When a free trial has a time limit on it, we don’t count it as having a free tier of service. To us, free means you get to use it forever with no charge, even if there are some tight restrictions.
While it’s helpful to try out software for free while you decide whether to upgrade, most businesses, in the end, will need (or want) the features and space allotments that come with paid accounts. Still, it’s often helpful to try a product for longer than a couple weeks before deciding whether it’s right for you, your team, and the work you all do.
Which project management system has a free version? Teamwork Projects, Zoho Projects, TeamGantt, and ProofHub all do (although ProofHub’s free account isn’t advertised online and you have to contact the company to request it).
Free trials often come with other limitations, which we’ve listed in the Price section of the complete reviews; the reviews are linked in the table above and the in the short capsules below.
Although it may sound similar in concept, collaboration software is a little different from true project management software. While you do collaborate in a project management app, project management software is something much more specific.
Collaboration software comprises many different kinds of apps and services that handle everything from video conference calls to letting two people type on a document at the same time.
Modern project management services often include native communication and collaboration tools. They may also let you connect to the collaboration apps that your team already uses, such as Slack or Google Docs.
Whether you use the integrated communications tools or connect to an outside one, the idea is that your team can log into one workspace and have everything they need to get work done at hand, including a prioritized to-do list, all the necessary assets, notes from other colleagues, a calendar of deadlines and milestones, and a place to ask questions and find answers. Some project management apps even offer billing and expense tools, too.
Earlier we mentioned that project management apps are designed for managing projects, but not other kinds of work. What kind of work isn’t a project? Any kind of ongoing work fits the bill, such as fixing bugs as they get reported or answering support calls. Ongoing work often is marked by recurring tasks.
For ongoing work, people often talk about using workflow management tools rather than project management apps. Workflow management software and project management apps have considerable overlap in what they do from a theoretical standpoint. They both help groups of people write down what needs to be done and figure out when to do it. Project management apps, however, provide structure for ushering the work along its course, whereas workflow management apps are more flexible. With workflow management, you often have to decide how to use the tool. That’s not usually the case with project management apps, which have a more prescribed use.
Workflow management is tricky to classify because sometimes it’s handled as a standalone issue and sometimes it’s rolled into other apps. Editors’ Choice Asana, for example, handles workflow management pretty concretely, as do kanban board apps—more on these below. But all-in-one work hubs, such as Podio, can include workflow management tools if you add them to your account. They can also have full-scale project management applications inside them, too. But workflow management isn’t necessarily the core of the service, and neither is project management. Those are just apps you can add to your account.
Kanban board apps are another kind of workflow management software. Kanban can be described as a style of working. It comes from Japan, and it was traditionally used in manufacturing for just-in-time delivery. These days, kanban apps are popular among software development teams. Kanban is typically a visually oriented system that is particularly good at controlling how much new work a team takes on before the current batch of work in progress is complete. The idea is to keep work flowing smoothly by not overloading workers with too many competing mandates. Some businesses do use kanban to manage projects, but kanban apps aren’t really project management apps.
Task Management Software
Task management software is slightly different from project management software. Project management apps do include task management features in them, but you can get standalone task management apps if that’s the only piece you really need.
One of the clearest examples of a task management app is Asana, which, confusingly, is also a very clear example of a workflow management app, as mentioned above—one with kanban functionality, to boot. With Asana, you can assign tasks to specific individuals, and add descriptions, deadlines, and attached documents to each one, but they aren’t necessarily part of a larger project.
Task-management apps work pretty well for ongoing work. You can manage a project in Asana, but it takes a little more work on your part to do so. The best way to explain it is with an analogy.
Think of Asana (any kanban app) as a deck of cards. Now think of a project management app as a board game. Board games have with rules, and the game is usually the most fun when you play it as it was designed to be played. With a deck of cards, however, you can play a game someone else invented or you can make up your own game. Before you play cards, you have to make sure everyone at the table knows the rules and plays by the same rules, because they aren’t written down on a handy sheet of paper for you all to follow.
The same thing happens when you start using a task management app. You have to spend a lot of time figuring out how you’re going to use it. On the one hand, it’s very flexible. On the other hand, it can take considerable trial and error to get it right.
That’s not to imply that project management systems are inflexible. With a board game, you could certainly make up your own rules or create variations on the rules. But you buy a board game with an understanding that it works best when you use it for its intended purposes. You use a project management app with the understanding that you are going to manage projects by assigning tasks and deadlines, monitoring work, tracking billable hours, and so forth.
Project Management for Small Business
Many small businesses turn to project management software because they’re overwhelmed by working in email. The right project management platform can help kill email, but know that it won’t happen overnight. It takes time for employees to learn the software, and for your organization to figure out how best to use it for the projects you have.
Small business and enterprises have very different needs, however, and it’s important to find the project management tool that best fits your business.
One tip-off as to whether a project management solution is better suited for small companies or large enterprises is how they charge. Project management platforms that can support enterprises typically have a per-user-per-month fee structure, while those that cater more to very small businesses often charge a flat monthly rate for a set number of licenses or for unlimited licenses. And it’s not that a very small business can’t or shouldn’t use the same software that the big players use, but sometimes it’s overkill, and who wants to get stuck paying for features they don’t need?
Another differentiating factor is whether the project management platform has many permissions levels. For instance, these services can have different permissions levels for executives, portfolio managers, project managers, and team members. Having such hierarchical roles can ensure that each person in the organization has the right level of access. In a very small business, where each employee wears a lot of different hats, permission levels might not be as advantageous.
There are other differences, too, aspects you’ll want to consider for your particular business, team structure, and style of working. The summaries below will guide you toward finding the right service for your organization. When you’re ready to get the full story on a particular service, click through to read an in-depth review.
What’s Not Here?
We review far more project management software than we can fit into a story like this. Plenty of well-known services, including the very popular Basecamp, Microsoft Project, and Workfront are not currently in our list. There’s only room for the 10 best here, and those services (and others) simply don’t make the cut. Rest assured, however, that we update this story frequently, and the rankings change as the services themselves do. If you’re looking for service that’s not in this story, please visit our project management product guide, which includes more services than can fit in this story.