Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Asana - what has been forgotten to implement for $40 million

Who stay behind?

It's always interesting to discuss about products, which have all the luck of popularity among users and trust from investors - this clearly says about the quality. Undoubtedly, Asana online collaboration service belongs to the cohort of such high-end applications. It was launched in 2011 as a startup by Dustin Moskovitz and Justin Rosenstein, who were involved in Facebook development process. Most likely, this very fact allowed attracting $38 million funding into their online collaboration brainchild.
The last of round of this investment has been closed less than year ago, and now the audience of yogis of project managers exceeds tens of thousands. Such popularity, for sure, is interfering with the way Asana is being promoted - free accounts are granted to small teams and individuals for the expectation that some of them will grow sometimes. And sure, these companies would unlikely change the tool they got accustomed to, filled with data, necessary for the work. These expectations, nevertheless, are too bright, and below we’ll see, what’s wrong with them.
As for popularity of this service, it is driven not only by serious spending on acquisition of users. Asana also has a solid engineering basis. The product was built on javascript, and this technology makes online collaboration fully interactive. Updates in tasks and lists are visible without reloading a browser page, so you haven't to constantly push F5 button, in order to see what's new. Former Facebook developers, for sure, know much about technology and its role in surpassing competitors.

Asana's basics.

If you're enough experienced and clearly imagine, how to work with Asana, please, pass through this part of article - you unlikely find it interesting. But if you haven't yet worked with this tool of online collaboration, I recommend you to read it, in order to get the point. 
Online collaboration inside Asana is building up around projects, with tasks stored inside them. Tasks, in their turn, can be broken down into subtasks, when decomposition of complex issue is needed.
For example, if you want to develop a web-site about astronomy, you should create a new project in Asana, called "All about Solar System" along with list of following tasks - "Think up domain name", "Find a server", "Install Wordpress" and "Prepare content".
Then you have to assign your teammates in order to start the work - carry on conversations, attach files and so on.
Sometimes issues are too complicated to resolve them in one go. For example, if you want to carefully choose a server for astronomy site (because you expect heavy traffic load) you should create into "Find a server" issue few additional subtasks: "Hosting with the best uptime" and "Select panel for administrator". In Asana you can create subtasks in a subtask, so tree-like structure of data for this service is available.
But let's return to the question, how tasks are processed in Asana. When you create an issue for you collaborator, he (or she) has to clearly state, when the work will be done - today, later, or even postpone this task. In order to make your colleague haste, setting a deadline is possible.
This way of working is clear, understandable and creates a nice impression, especially on non-engineers. Sure, somebody can say, that use cases aren't as clear as in RememberTheMilk, but I don't suppose it is a problem. Every tool has to be mastered.

Structure has to be visible!

Sure, along with numerous good points Asana has some disadvantages, and some of them are important.
The first problem relates to invisibility of issues' structure and it doesn't allow running really complex projects, with a deep and entangled inner organisation. Flat lists of tasks cannot crystallize information by giving it a structure, and this, in addition, seriously damage the productivity of work, especially of managers. Why does it happen?
Asana, like any powerful tool for online collaboration, supports deep decomposition of extended issues. You can create subtasks inside a task, and divide newly created items further.
Let's remember about our astronomy web-site and about "Prepare content" task inside this project. In order to deal with the issue you should create subtasks called "Mercury", "Venus", "Earth", etc. If you want to elaborate additional popups describing planets' satellites, you have to add new subtasks to "Jupiter" and "Satur" items - their satellites can easily confuse an administrator responsible for the content. We strongly recommend you not to store information about these celestial bodies inside the same list, if you're not an astronomer or an anthropologist familiar with mythology of different cultures.
And here hides a problem, which puts to end the structure in Asana. You cannot look around, taking in all tasks at once, because interface doesn't support tree view for issues. Left part of Asana screen is always occupied by list of projects, central one is for the tasks of first level only and all the rest is pressed into the right block of the service: task with descriptions, its parent and descendants.
The concept of structure of information in Asana is enough underdeveloped to make running a complex project painful.
Carefully elaborated tree of tasks along with a deep decomposition of issues, have to support easy management of tasks' branches. Users should have a possibility to change tree nodes' descendants and parents, see the structure as a scheme, filter task in a tree and so on. Asana doesn't grant you such functionality because its interface strictly divide information between three types of items: projects, task and subtask. You cannot move a bundle of tasks from one tree node to another, with all comments and attached files, like in askcow or Wrike, and this is a problem.
Full-fledged tree tells tools of project management from bug- or issue trackers, and project managers along with software architects become first victims of such flaws.

Flaws in protection.

The safety of information in Asana is another serious problem of the service, and I don't refer to questions interfering with cryptography and data protection. The story is about errors inherited from human nature. In order to get the point, let's begin with a different approaches to security of data.
First approach consists in limitation of access to information and mixed up with numerous privileges. You have to grant them users and workgroups, in hope, that qualified employee doesn't make mistakes related to data management.
This concept has strong advocates and numerous followers, but in my opinion it is insufficient, because all, even the most skilled people, make errors (and sometimes intentionally). The second problem is constant downtime - collaborators often have to wait until an administrator grant them rights of no importance, possibility to edit a comment or to attach a file, for example. Such restrictions sometimes become ridiculous, you know (JIRA users know this problem well).
The second approach to safety consists in "No delete" principle. This concept is very perspective, but only few of tools of project management fully relies on it. The point of this paradigm is that all information inside the project cannot be destroyed - for example, closed tasks are placed inside a special storage, easily accessible for anyone, who want to restore them. Applying of these approach also assumes, that you can switch between different editions of the same item and, of course, such tools should have a powerful activity log. Currently, the best example of such tool of project management is askcow, where this conception is elaborated to perfection.
Third paradigm of ensuring the information is building up on "Undo" functionality. This conception is implemented in Asana, but it's going not so smooth, as expected, and at least few scenarios fraught with loss of data exist.
One of these scenarios relates to editing of tasks. If your colleagues change something in task, its title or description, the information about primary state of item is destroyed. The significance of this problem is complemented with an easiness of task edition, so you can lose important data occasionally due a misclick. In addition, you cannot undo such action.
Another scenario is also dangerous for the information, and it relates to direct erasing of some issues. You can delete a task without possibility of restoring it. Asana, of course, will offer you to "Undo" such action in corresponding popup, but as soon as you close it, your information is lost, if your e-mail notifications are switched off.
There is at least one case, when you can lose important project, but I offer you to find it by yourself. I'll only say, that it to deleting a project scenario.
Transparency of changes also contributes to unreliable protection of data. Asana activity log behaves strange sometimes and doesn't show complete picture of the situation. Certainly, it has been done deliberately, in order to get users rid of informational noise, generated by collaborators and their activity. This problem can be resolved by applying filters to activity log, but Asana does not.
Poorly elaborated conception of safety of information is the second problem of this online collaboration tool.

Complex project management in Asana: possible or not?

Absence of visualisation of the structure of projects, breaches in scenarios of deleting the information, lack of full-fledged activity log, all these are not critical while you're working on small projects with teams, you’re confident in. And here Asana does its best - the system is simple enough to get accustomed to work with. But, as soon as your projects start to require careful planning, issues start to need deep decomposition, and number of involved collaborator becomes significant, Asana stops fulfilling the purpose of a tool for online collaboration. It stops saving time. Management of long lists of numerous untraceable tasks, which have no clear relations between each other, is a thankless affair.
In addition you have to worry about safety of information related to your projects. Errors interfering with editing descriptions of tasks are usual in Asana. Moreover, someone can damage your information deliberately, and this is a serious problem too.
Anyway, Asana is a high-quality product built on a solid tech foundation, and the popularity of this service is a reliable evidence. But declared adaptability to complex projects is rather a marketing move, than reality. You can hardly tell Asana from RememberTheMilk or Basecamp – their functionality and facility are almost identical, except of possibility to divide subtasks, but this tool is definitely insufficient for full-fledged project management.
I recommend you to register an Asana account, it's free. This tool for online collaboration is worth trying it, and if the project you're running is enough simple, you'll probably find Asana fit.  

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

JIRA 6.0 - slow movement to nowhere

 Let's start!

Today we'll take a look at latest version of Atlassian product - JIRA 6.0 This tool for online collaboration is well known among many of project managers, and JIRA has its fans and haters. I'm not a fun, nor hater, but I worked with previous version a lot, when managed projects in social gaming. 
My teams applied JIRA as a main task manager during development. Before I started running these projects, I was familiar to groupware. I was curious in analysing existing online collaboration services: Basecamp, Acunote, RememberTheMilk, Fogbugz, Asana, because I participated in developing askcow project management tool. That's why my first acquaintance with JIRA was not so painful, in contrast to my colleagues - art and game designers.
The service was enough powerful to support managing small teams, which worked according to Scrum methodology, but lacks and disadvantages of JIRA were hard to ignore. I used this tool for online collaboration much, so how can I keep myself from review of JIRA 6.0 version?

What's new.

The graphical design of the system kept the same structure and only small changes were implemented. Sure, the screen become clearer, but the aptest novelty is "create issue" button, at last accessible in a click. This control is placed now on the redesigned header of working page. This move is absolutely sound - one excessive click for usual and very often use case is a crime against user, especially for the system of such level.
Another important change relates to list of tasks and task fields. Now you can see and manage both of them at the same time. Similar scheme was already introduced by Atlassian earlier in Grasshoper chargeable plug-in, elaborated for Scrum project running, so in JIRA 6.0 this piece of functionality is a long-awaited improvement. In addition, in contrast to Grasshopper extension, now it is possible to edit all task features without opening this task separately - that's nice and makes dealing with issues faster and more comfortable.
You can also change the width of fields, where list of task and task itself are presented. Maybe some JIRA users find this useful, but I'm not. The problems begin when someone describes an issue applying text with structure, trying to emphasize some statements or grouping them. This task assignee will hardly get the point when he'll face this text shifted due another width of task field - bone and even unreadable texts hurt people a lot.
I'd give a tip to JIRA interface engineers, you'd better deal here with irrational empty and non-informative area in the upper part of the screen, seriously. Why do I need to see irrelevant and rare used controls there?
Another important improvement, which matters for me, is a possibility of editing currently active workflows. This part of JIRA functionality was always one of my favorite features, and I always applied adjustable workflows in my work, despite rough and painful related use cases. Unfortunately, the process of workflow customization still remains unclear, and this is its main disadvantage. Alas for me and other users, JIRA developers didn't concentrate their efforts on this issue.
New design for mobile devices is an important area for improvement, everyone goes for mobile, you know, but previous JIRA version was enough comfortable for me and my tablet for dealing with daily scrums and sprint plannings. Along with a board, of course.
As for JIRA disadvantages, the most serious of them remain unfixed.

What was expected.

First, and this gap is the most critical, you have to constantly press F5 and reload the page of your browser in order to see updates in lists and tasks. In addition, switching between the services pages leads to reloading of your browser page. Where's javascript, may I ask? This is an annoying and time-wasting problem, especially, when you worked in Wrike or askcow at least once. The work become dynamic, when you see your project living in your browser, when new tasks and updates in old ones appear at once and you haven't to push F5 constantly. How many important issues were missed by my collaborators due this problem! It is a disastrous drawback, and that's why I gave up using JIRA
Another important disadvantage of JIRA tool is a simplicity of issues you can manage, and the point, of course, is in absence of tree of tasks. You can say that bug-tracker doesn't need this feature, but this is a very arguable issue. Any project manager wants to see the structure of the project he is running, and full-fledged tree of tasks is a must for project management tool. This also relates to Basecamp, Asana and Trello, for example. Why do I need tags, instead of usual search? Look at Wrike, look at askcow!
Third. I don't like interfering using cases and controls. All this remain in JIRA. I want to know about the shortest scenario for reaching the issue I'm currently interesting in, not two or three. I don't need two or three controls designed for the same purpose scattered along the screen. Structure of JIRA interface remains Achilless' heel of this service - it confuses people, and constant time wasting explanation is the only solution, especially when you collaborate with non-engineers.

Move along, citizens, that's nothing to see here.

Resuming this brief review, I can firmly say, that JIRA remains the same for a ordinary user. It definitely didn't become clearer, only a bit faster, thanks to integrated tasks and lists of them. The direction in which JIRA developers move is correct in general, but main problems of this tool for online collaboration - lack of project structure and of interactivity - remain unresolved.
Anyway, JIRA is good enough to prefer it to Asana or Basecamp, especially if you're experienced, but Wrike and askcow continue to remain the most advanced tools for agile project management at the moment.
You can read more about JIRA 6.0 on developers blog or here, if you're looking for details.

PS. Attention! Sarcasm warning! I want to congratulate JIRA developers on introducing long awaited possibility to change user name. At least you've done it, fellows! Ten years later.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

askcow - Basecamp killer is on the way

Meet askcow - cutting-edge groupware for agile management.

If someone would try to count existing project management services, he would hardly finish this task in an hour. But only few of listed services are good enough and up-to-date - technology develops very fast, and a product, which was perfect few years ago now becomes obsolete.
We want to tell you a story about cutting-edge project management tool for online collaboration, which turned a task management into pleasant and, it matters, controllable process.
The story is about askcow - the most advanced project management service at the moment - technically and conceptually. 
In order to start working with askcow you should only have a device with an access to Internet and a browser.
This tells askcow from traditional project management tools, Microsoft Project or Oracle Primavera systems, for example, which require an installation on your PC. Software of this type is very advanced, because they were built to support activity of large companies. Though these tools are powerful, disadvantages of such juggernauts of project management are numerous, especially when you apply them in agile teams.

Tools of project management - what's wrong with them?

Average and small companies can not afford these solutions for keeping their business run. High software prices and spendings on support contributes to expenses much, but the most disturbing and time-wasting issue of these tools is their weak usability. Deployment of these sowtware are often accompanied with complaints and hidden resistance from the personnel, who are forced to work into harsh interfaces built by engineers for engineers.
Jelly use cases make people waste time, and the problem starts hurting costs a lot, when time losses concern hundreds of people.
Cheaper solution were soon to follow as client-server services, and this generation of collaboration tools grew up mostly from simple bug-trackers. This generation is numerous and many of them are widely used nowadays. Such services are often handy, agile, but simplicity of their functionality is adjacent to primitivity. Truly monumental JIRA is a nice example of such tool. It seems, that JIRA offers users wide functionality, but at closer examination, you’ll see only a simple bug tracker, overburdened with complex, unnecessary and duplicating modules.
However, the most important drawback of JIRA is that it stores tasks inside flat lists. This makes service inapplicable for managing the complex and lasting projects. If you want to deal with a issue, which have sub-tasks of a different degree of depth, JIRA, alas, won’t go - it has no full-fledged tree of issues. All work inside this tool is being built around to-do lists. By adding issues into a list, you form a schedule for a day, week or month for each department or person, you have to manage. Just imagine, how long these list will be, when someone tries to set tasks for ten people for 5 days!
Information should have a structure, even if you apply agile in your team. The tree turns simple and flat to-do lists into a service of project management, but you can hardly find a sound tool corresponding to these requirements, even the excellent Basecamp doesn’t fit!
Lists, tasks and filters only, instead of tree-like structure.
Giving the credit to the beautiful brainchild of legendary 37Signals studio, we’ll anyway repeat: Basecamp is outdated, even despite its recent modernization. Created in 2004 this services rocked the people’s imagination about convenience of online collaboration, but, alas for Basecamp, to-do lists cannot maintain complex issues. Even a simpler project stored inside a tree can be run easier, especially when you deal with numerous tasks of a same type.

askcow tree of issues: unlimited depth and supersonic performance.

In contrast to JIRA and Basecamp, askcow has been built around a tree. We did it intentionally, following one of the most ancient cosmogonic idea about organization of Universe.
Tree creates a structure keeping the Chaos from prevail over the Order.
That’s why the tree is an askcow basis. Tree allows ordering tasks into semantic blocks, makes task management much faster and easier. For example, instead of closing a dozen of issues one after another, you can just shut down a tree branch, where they’re stored. Anyway, the most wholesome advantage of a tree - is an opportunity to build up your tasks inside the project around clear and understandable structure.
But tree also can also pose a threat to easiness of comprehension.
Projects require involvement of regular executives: designers, coders and cleaners of ion cannons, who don’t interest in details of management. They don’t want to get into a mess with organizational structure of a project, their purpose lies far away from challenging the Chaos, it’s rather an opposite.
All these people need from their tool is a list of task for a day. And here agile easiness of lists shows itself in all splendour. Look, for example, at Remember the Milk!
May this tool is very simple, may this service isn’t very comfortable for collaboration, but you can deal with to-do lists in Remember the Milk very easy. Agile teams often use this tool for collaboration, because of simplicity, but, you know, askcow is easier.

askcow - easier than RemeberTheMilk!

Of course, there are lists of tasks in askcow too, but we carefully elaborated them in order to make these lists clear and fast manageable.
It is you, not a tool, who decides, how to deal with tasks: in a tree, or according to their priority, or in activity log. In a click you can switch between the structure of the project, or its content.
Fast management means, for example, that the most important properties of a task can be changed right in the list. New items appear in these lists without reloading of the screen. Many of project management tools go without this useful features even nowadays, so askcow is much agile than them.
askcow is probably the fastest and most flexible project management tool at the moment, and this fact makes us proud.
So what’s about infinite lists, you may ask? Hundreds of confusing tasks, you don’t understand where they come from, became the nightmare of any manager, who was running a agile team of 10 collaborators at least once.
askcow deals with this complicated issues easily by applying bookmark, integrated into interface so as to make them permanently accessible.
If a list of tasks or a tree, you see inside a blue field is too long, click a bookmark - the list becomes shorter right away.

Command center for wagging the project.

Bookmarks allow you focusing on the most important, and we made handling with this piece of functionality a clear and pleasant case. For example, you can save your recent search as a bookmark, and from now it will be always close at hand.
If you suddenly want to constantly see how commander of a unit of Imperial stormtroopers manages his detachment, the solution is to create special bookmark: click "search" button, select the userpic of this officer in "created by" section, and save your new bookmark. From now you’ll be constantly informed about the activity of this Imperial stormtroopers unit.
By the way, in order to know, what’s going on there, you haven’t open this bookmark at all. Filtering excessive noise isn’t a single purpose for this askcow yellow module, bookmarks also display related activity.
Notification counter instantly shows unread updates without reloading a page of your browser.
A short look is enough in order to see, what’s going on with your project. You instantly understand, how many tasks were created, which of them are important and have to concern you, where new comments and files appeared - all this without surfing through a tree or digging in activity log.
For example, by choosing a bookmark, which displays “starred” tasks and switching to activity log, you’ll receive the most recent and important information in a two clicks, less than in a second.
Bookmarks get you rid of a dull job of following all insignificant updates, allowing you aggregating activity into clear torrents of information. Integrated and elaborated askcow bookmarks make commanders and managers constantly keeping the agile finger on a project.
Ordinary collaborator deals with askcow much simpler. He only has to select “mine” bookmark, switch to “priority list” and start working on issues, his manager set him for today.

Task - askcow substance.

Let’s take a look on typical askcow task.
First, you haven’t switch to special view of askcow or scroll infinite lists to get to issues you’re interesting in. Usually, you can reach any task in your project in a two or three clicks without a search.
Second, you can add information into a task and comments, without being afraid, that askcow will stretch your text into a single line, or a large picture will make buttons sliding into different directions. Your information is always has the same look before and after the "ADD" button is being pressed.
The same is for all controls. Interface has been engineered in order to make all buttons and fields always to have the same place, so you’ll get accustomed to askcow in an half of hour. From this moment, you’ll never pass off to interface, because we carefully considered all use cases.
Third. You can change any feature of your task, no matter, whether it’s a title, or a tree branch, where this task is stored. askcow saves all updates, so anyone can see, what has been altered. You can also compare between the different editions of same task, so your data is securely protected.
You cannot also lose any information from askcow, because nothing can be deleted. If you want to get rid of unnecessary or outdated task, just close it down and this issue will be sent into a separate tree branch. You can anytime restore the closed issue less than in a second.
All changes inside your projects are absolutely transparent and nobody can hide something from his colleagues. It was made intentionally by throwing out from askcow time consuming and annoying settings for bureaucratic micro privileges.
We consciously refused to engineer a monstrous tool of project management, requiring a constant intervention of system administrators. We threw out all annoying restrictions to add a comment or change task status, for example - why do someone has to waste his work time on waiting for a permission on action of tiny importance? A team has to be agile!
The only role for system administrator in askcow is to grant a user an access to branches of the project’s tree in a form of bookmarks. On the one hand, user can do whatever he wants in this part of the tree (except for deleting the information, of course), at other hand, he has no access to restricted areas at all. And there is a reason - why do simple space fighter pilot has to get into a mess with a Galactic Empire management?
No rubbish interaction with micro bureaucracy! We firmly built up the security on the three whales: bookmarks, which restrict access to information on fundamental level, and two principles - “Nothing to delete” and “Nothing to hide”.
One cannot delete anything, but can change it. All changes cannot be concealed. And if someone did anything wrong by mistake or willingly, you notice a problem and restore the correct state of an issue.
But let’s return to our tasks.
Fourth, you can comment tasks and attach to them files of any type. Of course, you haven’t download sound or video samples in order to listen and watch them.
Tasks are askcow substance, a content regulated into a tree. With a help of bookmarks you can surf through your issues faster than Ratatosk mail-squirrel scurries through branches of Yggdrasil.

Integrity, performance, clearness, control.

askcow is beautiful, and the story now is not about brilliant technical solutions, allowed making the navigation inside a tree of unlimited depth faster than anywhere. The story now is about askcow appearance.
We didn’t try to make this tool so handsome, when we started working on it. It is the functionality made askcow so sweetheart: readable information, automatized and optimized use cases, modality and infographical informational structure.
Beautiful planes fly beautiful, you know.
Wrike, for example, flies too, but... But make conclusions by yourself.
All use cases are mechanical. Adding a task or editing it looks similar. Switching between lists of tasks: tree, priority and activity log, takes place in a single click. The same is for filtering these lists - one click only. You can change task properties directly from lists. No need to scroll to “add task” button, it is always accessible. “One click only” is perfect solution for perfect tool.
askcow interface is accurately elaborated so you can focus on activity, not on the tool, because it’s almost impossible to make a mistake during adding or editing an information.
Modes of processing the data in askcow separated from each other, so you always have a clear imagination of what you are currently doing. Infographical interface clearly informs you about the mode you’re currently in. Mankind lost centuries because people forget about pressed Caps Lock often.
Thoroughly considered use cases are also built on the cutting-edge technical solutions. All works very fast. For example, updating an information inside your browser takes place without reloading pages.
But we want to be faster. And we become faster.
For example, in order to make askcowmore productive, we refused to apply widespread standard for transferring data, and invented a new one, more efficient than json. It allows us to save additional split seconds for you.
And it is only the peak of milky iceberg of technical innovations we applied during the building askcow

Holy Grail of agile management.

askcow is agile project management tool of a new generation. Its power allows dealing with projects of almost any complexity, and elaborated scenarios of collaboration makes project management fast and effective.
You can work with askcow through the most widespread browsers - Mozilla, Chrome, Internet Explorer, Safari, Opera, on almost all devices, including smartphones and tablets. The service is designed so carefully, that visual block of information change their dimensions according to a screen, and slides with the velocity depending on the performance of your device.
Architecture of askcow and its outer face designed in order to make the service as fast, comfortable and agile as possible, and we succeeded in making askcow almost invisible for people, who work with it.
We found our Grail of project management, and its your turn to empty it in rejoining the happiness of acquisition of a sacred treasure of comfortable collaboration - askcow.
Register your free askcow account at and start enjoying the ultimate tool for agile project management.