I have been trying out different project management tools over the last few weeks. So far, I’ve used Notion, Trello, and AirTable and also looked at half a dozen others. I also tried a notebook and paper, but I definitely prefer the digital.

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My first goal is to try to find something that can help me keep track of the various projects that I’m working on. I have a habit of saying yes to literally everything anyone proposes, and then losing track of my commitments. So I need something that will tell me what projects I’m already working on, when they’re due, and some sense of how much bandwidth I have to spare.

The second goal is seeing if any of these tools also make sense for adoption by the Office of Digital Learning. We are in the process of hiring new IDs, a new instructional technologist, and a new video person. We’ve been using a combination of Trello and excel to track things for a while, but in an OLC Live conversation with Clark Shah-Nelson, I realized that we could probably do better.

AirTable

This week I’ve been trying out AirTable at the recommendation of Angela Gunder. As the name suggests, AirTable is a lightweight tool for building tables. My guess is that many people are put off by tables due to repressed memories of having to look at MS Access in a poorly thought out computer class as a kid. I, however, love tables. Working with websites as much as I do, everything now looks like a table. Each webpage is a table. A website is just a table of webpages. And I manage big tables of all the OU Create websites. I’ve organized my research notes into online tables and I’ve built tables for history undergrads to do the same.

For a couple of weeks, I was using Notion.so, and I like how it lays everything out in linked webpages with embedded spreadsheets. Any record that you put into the system can become it’s own little wiki page with embeddable images, spreadsheets, and links to other pages.

However, I eventually decided to abandon Notion, because it was not enough like a table. It was difficult to create two-way links between records for quick movement around the note system. Updates on one page rarely carried over to related pages, so you had to enter the same information on every relevant spreadsheet, rather than just updating a single table.

I spent about two days back in Trello, before remembering that Trello doesn’t do anything other than Kanban charts. There’s no interrelation of information across different charts, and once you’ve completed an item, you just archive or delete it or live it sitting taking up space.

So what I wanted, was something that combined Trello’s Kanban to-do charts with a broader table layout with multiple ways to drill down into the data. AirTable has Kanban charts taking care of my need for visual to-do lists:A screen shot AirTable's Kanban chart viewWhen you update the status (or any other information) of a card in the chart, that update carries throughout the rest of the system. You can view all of your items in a set of spreadsheets that can be tied together with relational tables:

Screenshot of AirTable's table view

In my “To-Do List” database, I have created a table of tasks. Each task can be tied to a broader project, and I can see information about those projects in their own spreadsheet. I also made a spreadsheet for ‘Ongoing’ tasks that I do daily or weekly or monthly, the types of things that can’t just be checked off and removed.

My table also includes a spreadsheet for readings, and these can in-turn be linked back to tasks or projects.

Conclusions

For my own usage, AirTable is brilliant. I’m happy to put in the time and energy to build a table to keep track of all of my stuff. The sheets are interrelated, so my updates propagate through all of the various views and sheets easily. I can sort by deadline to see what’s urgent or by impact to see what the big, important projects are. When a task is done, I can change it’s setting and then hide completed tasks. This is similar to the archival feature in Trello, but it’s much easier to unhide all of my completed AirTable tasks and analyze the amount of work I did in a given week or on a given project.

For my group’s usage, I think AirTable has a lot of power but also several drawbacks. We could easily set up a spreadsheet of all of the programs around campus that we are working with and list out points of contact and notes. We could then create a related spreadsheet of the courses we are developing and have developed. A task list might then list out all of the pieces of content and meetings and design work we are doing for the various courses. We could even set up a separate media table of all of the video and image assets we have acquired and created for the courses. I think in terms of keeping track of all of the stuff that the Office of Digital Learning is working on, this would be a really great tool.

However, my usage so far has been free, but I think we would need to pay about $5 per user (about 15 of us) per month. That’s not a ton of money, but it’s a new cost as compared to our current free usage of Trello or Basecamp which we already have access to.

Also, I felt very comfortable playing with tables, but I anticipate most people will want to stay on their views of the main tables, especially as the database gets much bigger and less comprehensible. It’s easy for me to modify my tables to my exact needs, but it will necessarily be harder to design a set of tables that fit everyone’s needs. My guess is that we will end up with a few tables that are only used by one person, so that they can organize their information as they want. As long as those tables are related back to the main tables, that’s not too big of a problem, but the system will grow ever larger and more complicated.

But, those are all tasks to worry about next week. For now, I will change the status of “Write-up on AirTable” to done, and call it a day.