There are people who use productivity tools, and people who don’t. Some of those who make use of these tools get lost trying every tool on the market ( partly a reason I don’t pay attention to sites like LifeHacker). Others believe that these tools “get in the way”, and they tend to stick to using checklists, or worse—they try to rely on memory alone. While this doesn’t necessarily make them unproductive, it adds an extra mental burden that takes its toll over time. A good system should appeal to both types of people: it should be able to support the power users, but work seamlessly so that it fits into a more basic workflow without extra effort.
I noticed the need for a better system when I encountered a project with so many moving parts involved that it strained the systems I had been using. Unknowingly, I had subjected my organizational skills to a stress-test. The tool that would work in such a situation is the tool that’s been superior all along.
So I tried Trello.
To paraphrase Bret Victor, a lot of software design can be thought of as the blending between graphic design and industrial design. Graphic design is the art of conveying information on a two dimensional surface. We’ve all seen it— maps (physical, political, etc), train schedules, and even infographics. Industrial design is the art of shaping a physical product so that it can be manipulated by a person. A lot of software has physical analogues in the form of buttons, levels, and in this case cards that can be dragged from list to list. Trello does both these things very well.
Information software design, then, is the design of context-sensitive information graphics. Unlike conventional graphics, which must be suitable for any reader in any situation, a context-sensitive graphic incorporates who the user is and what exactly the user wants to learn at the moment.
Because the system is laid out in a two-dimensional format, it’s much richer informationally. At any time it’s possible to weigh the amount of tasks on the To-Do vs. the tasks that’s been completed. Instantly, progress can be visualized.
Visually, Trello has a big advantage over all of those checklist styled tools that are primarily one-dimensional (Asana, Google To-Do, your paper notebook). As much as we’d wish, we don’t always finish tasks that we start. There is often context switching. In that case, Trello is designed so that a card can be grabbed from “Doing” back to “To-Do” because it’s been re-prioritized or because finishing the card depends on something outside of our control.
It allows putting something momentarily on hold that’s common in a lot of daily workflows with minimal effort. This allows me to be ruthless about what I’m “Doing” so I don’t trick myself and say I’m doing 20 different things at once. That’s a good way to battle “multitasking”. Also, with the To-Do list, a 100 items on there stands out visually. When that stands out, there’s a good chance there are unnecessary tasks. Sometimes the things we don’t try to do is more important than the things end up doing.
A lot of people are huge fans of simplicity. “Keep it simple” they say. After careful thinking, it’s not “simple” I’m necessarily after, but rather “optimal”. Optimal is how well a tool gets you to doing your end goal. That said, simple is a part of the equation and technically speaking, this means reducing interaction (less clicks, manipulations of buttons) to perform a task.
I’d argue that even Joel Spolsky has underrated his own designs when he advertised the launch of Trello. Trello’s since raised 10.3 million dollars in funding. Dogfooding is probably a large reason for their success.
I’ve always thought that a good management tool is worth its weight in salt And indeed it is.