Trello — Putting Kanban to work for you


Trello is a web application that is seeing a widespread adoption from both list makers and Agile Development teams. Simply put, Trello is a digital Kanban board. This becomes less simple if you don’t know what Kanban is, but in this post I will clarify that, along with explaining the ins and outs of the tool.

Introduction to Kanban

Kanban is a way of looking at the tasks that you need to do in a board format, and defining where that task is in your process. Tasks are separated into cards, and states are separated into columns, called swimlanes. Kanban originated from lean manufacturing (or Just-In-Time production) at Toyota. The idea was to minimize all of the ‘waste’ associated with production including: the storage of parts and the storage of excess inventory.

As the Agile development practices because popular in software construction, Kanban became a natural tool for them to use. In the context of software development, the idea is to monitor and track where an item is in the internal process, as well as limiting the number of “in progress” items that you have. In software development, context switching is a serious issue, so limiting the number of in progress items that an individual is working on can help limit waste.

One item that is unique for Agile Development in Kanban (and is a very effective tool for list makers and individuals wanting to use Trello as a to-do program) is the idea of a product backlog. This is a long collection of everything that you want to do, how long it will take you, all sorted by priority. I may write in more detail about a product backlog, but in the context of Trello, suffice to say it is just your list of tasks that you will eventually get to.

I’m not going to capture the wonders of Kanban nearly enough in one blog post, but Julia Wester has a fantastic blog called Everday Kanban where she discusses it in great detail.

Features of Trello

So now that you kind of know what Kanban is, what is Trello?

Trello allows you to create a digital Kanban board that represents all of your tasks and their various statuses. With Trello you can collaborate with other team members, leave comments, attach files, and categorize.

Boards, Lists, and Cards

The first thing that you do with Trello is create your first Kanban board. The board will be empty and you will need to populate it with your lists (columns) that you will use to sort cards. Trello uses the term list, but you’ll often hear them referred to as swimlanes as well. As a default you could use “Backlog”, “In Progress”, and “Done”

Once you have your lists defined, you can start adding tasks. Every task is represented by a card in Trello. At its minimum, all a card needs is a title. From there you can begin to add a description, a colour coded label, checklists (or subtasks), a set a due date, and attach files.

Conversations and Collaboration

Where Trello has its biggest use as a collaboration tool, is through the comments, checklists, and attachments features. Working with your project team, you can have a consolated area of communication on a specific task, to ensure that you don’t suffer from context loss.

Comments are exactly what they sound like. You can leave notes attached to a post that contain directions for future users, remainders for yourself, or just general information needed to complete the task. By using the @ sign, you are able to tag other users in a comment, and they receive a notification that they were contacted.

Checklists act as sub-tasks within a single card. When creating your checklist, you provide a name for the list (which helps distinguish if you are creating multiple lists in a single card.) You also have an option of copying the content of an existing list, which is create if you have stock checklists that you need to consider before something can be treated as completed.

Finally attachments are files that you attach to a card. Its very useful to use if you don’t have a central repository, or want to link a piece of content with a specific card. By default, attachments cannot exceed 10MB in size, however using Trello Gold or Trello for Business, attachments can be up to 250MB in size.

I`m not going to lie and say there aren’t better collaboration tools out there, Trello does get clumsy to deal with if you have a lot of data to post, and you are limited to not using any text formatting in your messaging. However, for its purposes the system works well as a collaboration tool.

Setting Due Dates

Once you’ve created the card that you need, you can assign a due date to it. A due date, obviously, symbolizes when the task needs to be completed by. If a due date is set, then uses who are subscribing or added as members to the card will receive a notification on the day of, that the card needs to be completed that day.

Members, Subscribing & Notifications

Once a ticket has been created, you have the option of choosing team members for the card. This indicates who should have involvement on the card. Adding a user as a member of the card, means that they are now subscribed to the card within Trello. You can also chose to subscribe to a card in Trello without being identified as a member of the team, by clicking the subscribe button.

Once a user has subscribed to a ticket, they receive any notifications related to:

-Card movement

-Comments on cards

-Upcoming Duedates

Notifications are received through to top right bell icon on the Trello page. The icon will turn red to indicate to you that you have unread notifications. Clicking on the icon at any time will display all previous notifications including any new items to review.

Pros of Trello

Kanban as a visual guide

Arguably the biggest benefit to Trello is how good of a job it does at depicting a Kanban board. Kanban boards really work best for a collocated team when being positioned on a cork board or wall using cards to post-it notes. However, in today’s digital world, it is very rare to find a team that doesn’t have at least one external resource. Trello does a phenomenal job with its UI of recreating the feeling of looking at a wall of post-its and moving them from column to column.

Browser Based Plugins/Extensions

This really isn’t so much a benefit of the Trello platform as much as it is a benefit of what is available for it. Because of it’s popularity, Trello has received a lot of support from third party sources. Some notable plugins are listed below:

Scrum for Trello

Trello Points

Harvest Time Tracking

Please note that I have not extensively used the above resources personally, and do not necessarily endorse them.

Cons of Trello

Limitations in labeling

I’m an organizer and a list maker by habit. One of the things I’m always trying to do is efficiently tag and categorize everything. The first limitation I always notice when I go back to Trello is that you are limited to only 6 labels. It’s not a major deterrent, and it is one that can be slightly mitigated by introducing Trello plugins that allow for tagging, however it seems that for large scale boards, it may be a little too limiting.

Minimalist functionality

This con is certainly by design, so its difficult to fault Trello too much, but it really is a minimalist tool. Trello does a Kanban board, but that’s all it does. In terms of task management in an organization, you may sometimes want to be able to view metrics on progress, burndown charts, or even calendar views of the tasks left to do. You won’t receive any of that with Trello, so it does provide challenges for a project manager to do more advanced reporting and metrics.

Mobile Platforms

Trello is a web browser based application, but they have ventured into mobile applications as well. I can’t speak for the quality of any of these, as I’ve only had a very limited interaction with the Android platform. If you have any thoughts on Trello’s mobile offerings, I would love to hear your feedback in the comments. If you’re interested in trying out any of the platforms, follow the links below:




Sign up for Trello

So after understanding a little bit more about Kanban and a lot more about Trello, setting up and account and using it couldn’t be more simple. In order to start using the software, you simply need to head over to the Trello website here and create a free account with your email address. It supports login with your Google account for simplicity. If you have comments on your experiences using the software, please share them in the comments below!

Links within this article may constitute affiliate marketing links or referral links which may indirectly provide me with compensation.

Originally published at on November 15, 2014.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Brad Rach’s story.