What is Trello?
Think of Trello as an endless bulletin board where tasks, ideas and notes can be organized in columns.
Okay, I’ll admit: not so sexy. But Trello has the power to change the way you think about your projects. Promise.
I’ve been using Trello for about a year to manage a variety of projects: websites, events, new business ideas and — fittingly enough — blog posts. I’ve picked up a few tips along the way to help you get more from this amazing tool.
(Oh, and it’s free.)
To share or not to share
Trello can be used collaboratively or alone, privately or publicly. It’s up to you, and there are no cheesy pricing schemes attached to your choice.
When you invite someone to your board, you can grant them editing privileges or leave them as a read-only viewer.
Boards and cards
A board is a collection of cards organized in vertical columns. Some people call these columns “lists” or “swimlanes.” I call them “stacks.”
Why? Because I associate “lists” with to-do lists, and I think that’s limiting. Stacks are more abstract. Also: you can have a “stack” of cards, but a “list” of cards? That’s just silly.
Cards are deceptively simple. The “front” of card is a line or two of text. But clicking on a card reveals its magical backside. (I like to think all backsides are magical.)
Each card has a title, a description and an activity feed, like miniature blog posts. You can add images, attachments, checklists and even emoji to a card. Crazy.
Cards can be dragged around a board and reordered however you like, an action that is at the heart of Trello.
4 Tips for Working with Trello
1. One project = one board
It’s tempting to create one monster board to hold every project you’re working on and then then create stacks for each project.
You could do this. I won’t stop you. But I will be sad.
Trello works best when you think of a project with more detail than a simple list of to do items.
Most complex projects are not linear. They have overlapping components, parallel tasks, tasks that get put on hold, information coming in, information going out. Things are changing all the time.
Trello allows you to embrace that complexity — and, more importantly — to manage it. But you need to treat each project as a board it order to get there.
2. The default setup actually works pretty well.
When I first started using Trello, I came up with all sorts of elaborate schemes for my boards. I completely ignored the default board template, which includes three stacks: To Do, Doing and Done:
I thought it was weird. “Why would I want a stack for what I was currently doing? That seems… dumb.”
When you’re working on projects with steps that might take more than a day to complete, that Doing stack turns out to be super important. It’s a mental bookmark. The next day, when you come in after an amazing night of sleep, that Doing stack jump starts your day.
And when you’re using Trello in a team environment, that really starts to make sense. You might even assign a label color to each teammate so you know who is working on what.
But I’m getting ahead of myself…
3. Label your labels.
Trello allows you to attach colored “labels” to any card. These show up as small but noticeable colored notches on the top of the card.
At first, labels just seemed cute. “I feel like this task is… I don’t know, purple. Oh, and this one just kinda feels orange.”
But then I learned that you can add a short textual description to each color. This, it turns out, is huge.
When I’m working on web projects, here’s a scheme I use:
- Red: Blocker (we can’t launch until this is addressed)
- Orange: Annoying (technically this isn’t impeding core functionality, but not fixing it means annoying a lot of people)
- Yellow: Cosmetic (visual tweaks or minor UI improvements that are, if we’re being honest, mostly for my own peace of mind)
- Blue: Reference (data that I might want to come back to again later in the project)
A simple Low/Med/High system could work well, too. The idea is that when you label your labels, you add an extra layer of visual information that allows you to quickly gloss and prioritize across your entire project.
4. Get creative
There’s no wrong way to use Trello. That’s part of what makes it such a wonderful tool. With it, you could:
- Write a novel (stacks: Concept, Characters, Plot, Themes, Motifs, Recurring Motifs, Endings, Beginnings, and Research).
- Cut down on conference call lengths. Each person or team gets a stack, each card is an agenda item.
- Organize recipes (stacks: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner and Snacks).
UX designers and product managers can keep track of user stories. Each stack could be dedicated to a theme or a specific use case for your project.
Great tools unlock new ways of thinking about the world. Trello fits that criterion.
The more you use it, the more you begin thinking in terms of Trello boards. That paradigm shift is perhaps the greatest single benefit of the software — one that pops up even when your computer is off.
NOTE: I didn’t get paid to say any of this. When I find a good thing, I share it.
Header image credit: Dennis Hamilton