Project Management, Collaboration, and How Our Brains Work


accelerate-your-team-with-online-workspaces-assemblaI’ve been struggling with the learning curves inherent in adapting new project management and collaboration tools for my own company and have previously blogged about the way my own brain processes information – and a GUI – quite differently from that of my company’s project manager.

The more I explore project management and collaboration options, the more clearly I see that I gravitate toward either the simpler (Basecamp) or the more visual (5pm). I have a very hard time with linear (Wrike) although I do like Wrike’s reminder lists a lot. And despite loving graphics, for some reason the visual of a Gantt Chart view just doesn’t compute with me.

The two most recent project management/collaboration tools I’m looking at are Assembla and ProjectThingy. Knowing more about how my brain accepts – and rejects – data input and the presentation of that data,  I’ve been approaching both of these tools in a new, more informed way.

The Workstream of Assembla

My first impression of Assembla was “this was created by software programmers for software programmers.” Nothing wrong with that, however: Assembla has a linear, straightforward and literal interface. No nonsense, no superfluous frills. It’s functional, practical and pragmatic.

David Parmet at Assembla says the app’s tools are for anyone working in a distributed team. You have the option of selecting pre-configured spaces including Software Development, Team Collaboration, Graphic Designers, and an Enhanced Subversion Repository. While the focus is broader than software developers, the options seem to be prioritized with developers in mind. As a marketer, for example, I didn’t feel immediately accommodated.

Parmet points out that Assembla also has staffing management tools built in. The entire work arrangement including contract and time management can be handled through the system’s staffing tool.

Andy Singleton, CEO and founder of Assembla, validated my observation that the company’s target market is software developers with distributed teams.

“We provide them with a comprehensive set of tools for code management, task management (such as) ticketing, collaboration, time tracking, and what we call workstreaming – a view of what the team is doing, through alerts and the “Stream” page.,” says Singleton, adding, “This helps them start work faster and be more productive.”

Singleton does emphasize that the non-development team can take advantage of Assembla workspaces and tools available to everyone on any team. About a third of the Assembla workspaces consist of general collaboration tools such as a wiki, messaging, alerts, etc.

Assembla launched in 2006 and grew to 100K users as a mainly free service. In Q4 08, Assembla converted private workspaces to a paid model and since then, the company has been aggressively adding new features and improvements. Upcoming features include:

1. Templates – any Assembla workspace can be used as a template for another space. Assembla will provide a “commission” if your clients subscribe to their service using your customized, branded workspace.

2. Developer’s Toolkit – In the spirit of open source, Assembla offers developers a kit to add tools and make all of their code available with an open (but not free) license.

3. Assembla’s workstreaming features, according to Singleton, include:

  • Email, RSS, and web views of events in any tool (released)
  • A user/stream page where you can see events from all of your spaces
  • Micro-blogging to any message space from users/stream
  • A portfolio/stream view where you can see events from all spaces in a portfolio (released)
  • Webhooks tool for sending events to any REST-enabled application (released)
  • Event API tool for attaching outside application events to the Assembla stream, with their own icons and alert formats. Together these tools will provide integration with Twitter, Yammer, Basecamp, Facebook, etc.

Moving on to ProjectThingy

projectthingy-embeddable-project-and-large-file-collaboration-widget-that-lives-on-your-site-1ProjectThingy takes an entirely different approach to project collaboration. They give you code that you place on your site and suddenly your own web site is enabled with useful – albeit basic – collaboration tools. There isn’t really a project management component to ProjectThingy, but its streamlined features are made better somehow because they reside on your own site.

From the ProjectThingy Dashboard, you can see:

1. Projects
2. Milestones
3. Work Items (where you can add files or links)
4. Messages (where you can assign tasks)

That’s it. But when it comes to collaboration, aren’t those the core items we need anyway?

ProjectThingy is simple, but just because it’s simple it doesn’t mean that it’s lacking in usefulness. My brain immediately gets what I can do with it and how I can use it. It has its limitations (no RSS subscriptions or alerts, for example), but it is really easy to use. 5pm, on the other hand, had a steep learning curve for some of my virtual team members and others still aren’t using it properly.

ProjectThingy founder Chris Ritke loves the idea of building real applications as embeddable widgets and he started with UploadThingy (an embeddable large file upload form) in May 2008. He started ProjectThingy around the Fall of 2008 but was hesitant to make it publicly available until more recently.

“Let’s face it – project collaboration is a boring old thing,” Ritke admits. “But I think this new twist is exciting – and I’m seeing a lot of interest in the concept.”

ProjectThingy’s CSS is minimal so the look and feel of your Dashboard basically is your own site’s design. Ritke cops to the simplicity of his app’s functionality and that the real focus is on collaborating and sharing versus scheduling.

Says Ritke, “In these days of blogs and Twitter, I think it’s important to focus on keeping team members connected. And also team members trusting and respecting each other. So you’ll see that all team members have the same permissions. Because if you need permissions because you don’t trust your team then I would say there’s something wrong with the team culture – too many permissions just make everything unnecessarily complicated.”

Another plus about ProjectThingy is that file attachments can be up to 1GB. No Gantt charts on the horizon for ProjectThingy, says Ritke. That’s certainly a relief for my brain. He is, however, toying with a CRM-type Thingy as well as a number of other Thingies already in the works.

So, which one to use?

Because these two applications – Assembla and ProjectThingy – are meant to serve slightly different purposes, it is hard to pick one over the other and that decision needs to be based first on your need to get things done and then how your brain works: which one suits the way that your brain likes to receive information and interact with an application.

My brain works quite happily with ProjectThingy. What about yours?


Ritke from ProjectThingy emailed to say that his app does have email alerts: they are in the My Profile area. “Maybe they’re a little hidden,” he wrote. Well, they did hide from me! In My Profile, you have a number of choices for the alerts you’d like to receive including messages assigned to you and work items assigned to you.



I also oppose the theory of ‘one siz fits all’. But with my experience I have found that there are two types of PM tools. I define the two category’s as
a) Less is More
b) Give me more ( features)

As a design company we always preferred the former. We have wonderful experience with Base camp and active collab.
Off late we have shifted to It has powerful and simple project management and social networking features. We are loving it.

Chris Burbridge

Thanks for this great list! I have just tried out the demo of ProjectThingy, and Oh My God!

I love it. The initial experience, for the short-attention-span crowd (i.e., me!). Let’s you get and try it out instantly, without any signup. This is CRITICAL!

And it’s so intuitive. I immediately get it. I love how when you set up a new project (a) of course, it’s very easy, (b) it gives you a little box that says “Misson”. Much more fun than “objective,” or “target”. Lots of nice little touches like this. Yum.


we use the enterprise edition of wrike, and the gantt chart features work a dream. With enterprise you can link together linear tasks, which gives you drag and drop capabilities on the gantt chart view. Perfect for when ( as happens frequently) to fit in incoming projects, other planned projects have to be put on hold to make space in the programme for incoming and urgent tasks. My board love it, my team of 12 love it, and its had a big impact on efficiencies.

Avery Otto

Thanks for these recommendations which seem to be general purpose project management tools. For folks who wish to manage a software development project consider Code-Roller. You are absoluteley right that the big issue is information overload. That was our biggest concern as well. Code-Roller is all about keeping the team focused without burning them out with too many details.


I suggest you Teamwork, my company already uses it for one years and we are satisfied. We have just done the upgrade to the latest version (Teamwork 4 )which is really fantastic; they have added many features such as integration with twitter , gmail and google calendar.

Aliza Sherman

@laurel will definitely check out Onehub – and it is interesting how before I saw your post, I had a client ask for something that Onehub seems like it would be perfect for. Talk about serendipity!

Aliza Sherman

@Lisa You know, I think the fact that you like Deskaway is just proof that people’s brains work differently. I found Deskaway to be very confusing in every way as did my team. So one person’s “great tool” is another person’s “nightmare.”

Laurel Moudy


I hope you will check out Our customers tell us that it is extremely user-friendly and a great way to create a custom intranet or extranet in just a matter of minutes. The other tools you mentioned are more for project management while Onehub is collaboration and file sharing application.


It is well said that some project management software is more linear and some is more visual. You may want to check out Intervals. Though it leans more toward the linear, the visual reports are powerful and help you gauge where your time and productivity are going.

Biljana Pesevska

First, I must say that I also agree with the fact that not every tool is applicable for every type of project. That’s why for the more specific project types that are dedicated project management solutions.
Another thing that I wanted to stress out is that not all projects justify the price of the pm tool especially in the current situation. That’s why we have reduced our price @ $0.99 per user.


I checked out all the tools mentioned here. But each one has some issue or the other. Either the required features are missing or the prices are too high, which cannot be afforded in this recession. Finally, I found a tool – DeskAway (http://www.deskaway) which seems to be good and affordable and matches most of our requirements. Check it out.

Simon Mackie

@Sergei, yes, I agree. One tool is not necessarily going to be the best fit for all projects and all teams. Instead it is better to select the tool that helps everyone to get the job done.

@Andy I can see why you have a metered plan, but my first impression when visiting your site was that the pricing seemed confusing compared to most web apps in this space. That’s not a good thing.


Aliza, that you for mentioning 5pm.

We also have the deadlines reminders that are emailed daily (enabled through the “Settings” menu).

Everybody has a different approach to PM, that’s why, I think, there is no one applications that fits everybody. Instead there are a lot of choices. It means there is a lot of research to be done – and your articles help users with that.

Andy Singleton

A lot of people have told us that the pricing plan is confusing.

That said, there are some simple ways to think about it:

* We do offer a simple fixed price plan for large subscribers (more than 20 regular users). It is essentially $150/month for all you can use. You get 100 users and 1000 spaces for one year, for $1,800.

* If you have a lot of projects, the price is capped at $8 per user per month. That’s a simple calculation.

* Our most popular plan is a personal repository, which is almost always $2.30/month – $2 for the user, and a 30 cent minimum charge for disk space.

Why is it confusing? The open design of our network makes our pricing more challenging. First, our users and projects are all in one big network, so you can move projects from one subscriber to another. We consider this to be a big advantage over the lifecycle of a project, but it does mean that the idea that you will buy your own bundle gets a bit blurry. I think you will see more of this as cloud computing becomes more sophisticated. Second, we offer add-on tools that are from partners, and can carry (small) additional charges.

The metered billing bills you at the end of the month only for what you already used, so it is cheaper in many cases than a pre-billed fixed price plan. And, you can get a free trial and see what the billing adds up to.

PM Hut

Checked both.

For Assembla, the product looks very neat, but I believe they have an issue with pricing. Their pricing plan is very confusing:

“$2.00 per user per space, per month

$3.00 per gigabyte of disk space per month”

I think they can do it in a better, less complicated way, of course you’re not going to get the first one without the last one and vice versa.

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