Following on in our series of agile tool reviews, Trello is a simple to use collaboration tool offered by Fog Creek software that helps teams manage their tasks or activities. Not to mention that it is also free, which is a bonus to anyone who is looking for a lightweight Agile management tool.
However, does Trello have what it takes to cut it in the rigorous environment of Agile software development? This review will explore the ins and outs of Trello, to help determine if it is a capable agile management tool.
One of the first things you notice about Trello is its simple, web-based ‘wall’ approach in representing a teams day to day activities. The application makes use of drag and drop functionality within the main screen, allowing users to progress stories through the workflow, or even to prioritise stories within a workflow deck.
Trello was tested using Firefox (version 7), however it does support the major web-browsers (Chrome, Internet Explorer, Safari), as well as use on mobile devices.
The simplicity also extends to the ‘cards’ themselves. They are represented how normal cards would be displayed on a physical wall, without being overburdened with details. While this is great, this does pose problems for management and tracking, which will be discussed later.
In terms of editing cards, the entry of details is relatively simple and straightforward.
However, one thing that is missing is rich text formatting ability within the description and activity fields. Trello does provide support for the use of a formatting markup language (called Markdown), although this is only available for the description field and the available formatting options are somewhat limited (adding headings, code blocks, or bullet/numbered lists).
How do you compose a story in Trello?
As a simple tracking tool, Trello does very well in allowing teams to create cards so that its progress can be traced through an established development workflow. The cards allow the user to provide a description of the task/story, attach supporting documentation as well as provide the ability to leave comments or activity notes for other users.
The attachment functionality allows users to upload multiple files for a card and supports all file types. At the time of writing, there does not appear to be a size restriction on the file sizes that can be uploaded for a card, however retrieval performance would be affected if more than one large file is attached to a card.
When Trello is put through the rigours of agile development however, it doesn’t quite stack up. The first noticeable limitation is that it does not provide native support to allow users to specify story effort, rank or prioritisation.
A Chrome add-on is available to allow Trello users to supply story points/effort to a card, however this feature was not tested for this review as it is presently limited to Chrome users and unavailable for use in other web-browsers.
In terms of priority, this can be represented by utilising Trello’s ability to shuffle cards within a workflow deck as well as the use of the labels to indicate importance. This however isn’t without its limitations, as the number of labels available is limited and cannot be modified other than changing the label name.
Finally, Trello does not provide support for integrating with source code management or continuous integration tools at this time, as well as lacks the ability to perform bulk operations (like mass card editing or progression through the workflow).
While not deal breakers, the limitations of Trello in terms of managing aspects of the Agile development process does limit its desirability as an agile management tool.
Can you use Trello for planning?
Trello is by and large a tool which electronically represents an Agile team’s development wall. This is clearly demonstrated by the representation of cards, and the use of drag and drop to represent the process of card progress and prioritisation within a workflow deck.
What is missing, however, is the ability to specify and allocate cards to iterations. Associated with this is the lack of backlog management capability. Backlog cards can be raised within Trello, but there is no easy way to divide the backlog into iterations – cards can only realistically be reflected as being ‘in the backlog’ or ‘in progress.
This also has implications for release management, as there is currently no means of providing release management details or links to cards that are being released as part of an iteration within Trello.
For those who choose to use Trello to help manage the day to day running of an iteration, Trello is best utilised with external planning tools to help with iteration forecasting, backlog and release management.
What reporting does Trello provide?
Trello currently does not support agile development reporting – all reporting will need to be performed outside of the application. While the omission of reporting is understandable, given Trello’s aim as a task management tool, it is still a shame that reporting has been omitted. The inclusion of a reporting pack as part of a add-on or plug-in would have been great for teams thinking of using Trello as their agile tool of choice.
How easy is to install and configure Trello?
One of the great features about Trello is that it is free to sign-up. If a user has a Google account, they can sign-up and start using the application straight away. Alternatively, users can choose to sign-up directly on the Trello website.
Trello doesn’t provide much in the sense of configuration options. Users can create boards and organisations as well as change the nature of boards that have been created.
The scope of configuration is nowhere near as detailed in comparison to, for instance, [Atlassian Jira]. Users have the ability to enable/disable a range of board options, from voting, comments invitation and visibility options, through to changing pre-defined board layout options.
For user management, new users can be added to Trello by inviting them to use the system. The process is relatively easy, with users providing the intended new users email address for inclusion, which will then trigger an email invitation for acceptance.
Users can also be easily removed from Trello, by using the delete account functionality, however this is not that obvious at first glance.
Trello is a no-frills application that is great for organisations that just want to use a tool to reflect their development wall. However, it would have been good to see additional options to allow users to tailor Trello to meet their agile management needs.
The ability to remove users via the delete account functionality could have been a little more prominent, however for a simple story wall application, it performs its function relatively well.
How much does Trello cost?
Fog Creek, the makers of Trello do not charge a subscription or download fee to use the application. Users can simply navigate to the site, complete the online registration and then they are ready to be off and running.
What support does Trello provide?
Dedicated user support is not available for Trello. Instead, users can receive help by using the Stack Exchange forum (which is external to Fog Creek) to help resolve any questions or issues that may arise. Fog Creek developers (the people who make Trello) visit these forums on a regular basis and are more than happy to help with queries. Alternatively, users can email Fog Creek with any issues or bugs they have found while using Trello.
It was a little disappointing that no dedicated support was provided, however given the product is free, it is also understandable.
Trello is a great tool for teams looking for a simple application
It allows them to monitor their iteration progress, without the hassle of a full scale agile development tool. Its simple to use interface and the ease in which cards can be progressed and prioritised through the workflow are real assets for the tool.
Beyond a simple tool to represent an agile teams development wall, the limitations of Trello start to emerge. The lack of reporting, limited ability to manage backlog and iteration stories, and the limited ability to assign critical story details like story points really hampers the use of Trello as an effective agile management tool.
In summary, Trello is a solid tool for individuals or teams that are looking for a simple to use tool that will enable them to manage their day to day activities or tasks. However, given its emphasis on task driven management, and the lack of agile management tools, it would be worth considering other tools to help manage development for an agile team.