Over the years, I’ve experimented with various ways to plan and track work, but I was never particularly satisfied.
There were always new solutions launching and so I felt like I was constantly on the lookout for the new, perfect way to plan.
Now I’m older and wiser, I’m not sure that there actually is the perfect application out there that will solve all your problems. Just by virtue of the fact that there are so many tools out there to help you plan and organise means, I think, that what works for one person or organisation might not work for another.
So, what works for me? I’ve found one tool that, although not perfect, has been flexible enough to allow me to tweak and play around with it to suit my team’s needs. This tool is of course Trello.
I wanted to share a few thoughts about how Trello works for me and my team in organising our design work.
Using Trello to plan design work
Before I get into the details of how we use Trello, I think its important to mention that I’m convinced that Trello is only useful for the team because we are all agreed that:
- It actually is useful for us!
- We have a commitment to keep it up to date
- We are able to constantly review and re-evaluate if it is working for us or not and are open to potential change
Why is this important? Unless everyone on the team is keeping something like Trello up to date and using it properly, it is worse than useless. To get the most out of it, everyone should be on board and committed to using it. Conversely, we also need to be willing to review its efficacy for the team and make sure we are not using it just for the sake of using it.
The single source of truth
In my team, to ensure commitment, we refer to Trello as “the single source of truth” when it comes to the status of the design work.
Because there are so many channels we work on (emails, Slack, Confluence, to name a few), its easy to be confused about where updates on a piece of work have happened. So, having Trello as the one place where you can see all the updates on a piece of work is incredibly useful, and elevates its status from “yet another place to do admin”, to “the place to go“.
This is how our Trello works in a nutshell:
In this column, I load up cards for the team for things that are upcoming. It is sorted into a loose priority order, which is constantly shifting!
Here is typical card in the backlog:
It has a title that refers to the piece of work (blurred out here for privacy) as well as a unique code. These codes refer back to a master Gantt chart that I also keep updated that shows how long a piece of work is estimated to take, and how it fits in with other work.
There is also a short description so that when we come to pick this card up, we know what it is. It has also been linked to some initial work that was done on another card which will need to be looked at when this new work starts.
Team member columns
The next few columns have the titles blurred out as each is titled by a team member’s name. On joining the team, you get your own Trello column that will soon start to get filled up with cards.
Cards in these columns tend to have a ton of activity on them. This is because I ask team members to ensure that they continually document on their cards:
- The status of the piece of work
- Links to the working files and deliverables
- A running list of key decisions and conversations that have taken place on that piece of work
Documenting all the above on each card means that they really are the “single source of truth”. Anyone can go to any card at any time and understand:
- What this piece of work is
- Where to find the working files/deliverables
- What has happened in the life of the card – key decisions, conversations, questions
This is useful when designers are handing over work to others, when we are onboarding new team members, when designers are on leave, and when people like me or our product manager want to get a quick update.
We also use Trello’s labelling feature to help mark cards so we know its current status at a glance:
Labelling is a pretty flexible feature in Trello, where you can use a combination of colours and titles to make them whatever you want them to be. It serves us well as a quick visual system to understand what is happening on a piece of work when scanning the board.
Design paused and Ready for dev
After the columns for each team member, is the column called “Design Paused“. This column houses any cards for projects that have had the design work started but which are currently paused.
After that comes the ‘Ready for dev” column, which houses cards that have had the design work completed but that are currently paused for build.
Keeping these columns separate helps me in my regular catchups with product and project management, so we can quickly run through the status of these cards and check whether there might be movement upcoming.
Finally, my favourite and last column – “Done“, with all the cards that are completed. We keep them accessible in the main view rather than archiving them because although they might be done, lots of our projects are inter-related and its useful to be able to go back and visit them occasionally.
Other things we use
There are a couple other Trello features that we make use of in our team.
The first is Card Aging, where Cards visibly “age” as time passes without any activity:
The top card has no aging because there has been recent activity on the card. The bottom card has begun to age because its been a little while since anyone edited or commented on the card.
Despite looking a little ugly, I find this to be a really useful for me to visually scan the Trello board and see:
- Which projects don’t have much happening on them and might be stalling
- Whether people are keeping their Trello cards up to date! If I see cards where I know there is lots going on, but that are aging, I can prod its owner to update it
Another feature we use is the Calendar view of cards. Because you can set Due Dates for cards, you can then flip the view of your board from columns into a weekly or monthly view, so you can easily see where cards are meant to be completed.
We’ve been working with Trello in this way for a little while in the team now, and it has gone through a bunch of iterations along the way to get to this, thanks to feedback from the design team and the natural evolution of usage.
As with any tool, constant analysis and evaluation have helped dramatically increase our odds of Trello sticking.
What tools do you and your team use to plan and organise design work? What is your process? I’d love to hear from you!