Figuring out what makes one project management tool different from the next can feel like trying to taste the difference between two expensive bottles of red wine. Unless you’re a seasoned wine connoisseur or project management expert, it can be hard to know what to look for.
Even though software buyers might be looking for different things in a project management solution, it turns out there’s a high degree of agreement about the most important elements of a project management solution.
We surveyed over 200 project management professionals to find out their top buying criteria for project management tools. These five attributes rose to the top of the list:
- Ease of use
- Integrations with other software
- Project reporting
- Flexibility of the software
- High-level view of project statuses
These may seem like project management no-brainers. Who wouldn’t want an easy to use or flexible PM tool? But if you dig deeper than surface level, it’s clear that these attributes can make or break your team’s experience.
Next, this article will dive into each of these key buying criteria to figure out why they’re so important to project management end-users.
#1 Ease of Use
In a recent TrustRadius survey, 50% of PM end-users said that ‘ease of use’ was one of their top buying criteria. Extensive features and customization can be great in a PM tool. But the product also needs to be user-friendly enough to become widely adopted. If it’s not, you won’t get the benefit of centralizing everything within one platform.
Another aspect of usability to consider is training. Before making a purchase, ask yourself questions like “how easy was it for me to learn during the free trial?” and “how easy will it be to teach the rest of my team how to use the new tool?”. This will help ensure you’re thinking about the amount of post-purchase work you’ll have to do.
For example, this Clarizen reviewer found that an easy to use interface and mobile app meant less time spent on implementation and initial training:
“Clarizen is the most user-friendly project management and request system we have used with a built-in configuration that allows us to manage our workflows, including business testing and approvals. This allowed us to implement Clarizen with very minimal training. The system has six to a dozen ways of doing the same thing which allows flexibility. Also, the mobile app is fully functional and just as friendly to use.”Chris C. | Lead Systems Analyst | Information Technology and Services (10,001+ employees)
According to this Trello user, one big benefit of the software is its simple UI and ease of adding new board members:
“Trello is free to use initially, has a super clear UI, is super simple to add new members, and reliably does exactly what it’s advertised to. Creating and assigning issues to different users is very easy and clear cut. The customization abilities allow you to design your board exactly as you’d like for your team.”Verified User | Engineer in Information Technology | Computer Software Company (10,001+ employees)
#2 Integration With Other Software
Of the 200+ project management professionals we surveyed, 12% listed integrations with third-party software as one of their top buying considerations.
Most project management tools have a wide variety of software integrations available. However, 48% of survey takers used integrations with collaboration and communication tools the most. This is not surprising since a large part of project management entails communicating tasks, updates, and deadlines with contributors and stakeholders. Many respondents called out the necessity of integration with Zapier specifically, as this iPaaS facilitates integration with other tools.
While PM tools help facilitate online collaboration and communication, many organizations rely on other digital communication software as well. For example, even though our TrustRadius team uses two different PM tools almost daily, we’re also constantly checking Slack. Being able to push task notifications and reminders to slack is now an essential part of our daily workflow. Making sure our favorite online communication tool is integrated with the PM tools we use every day helps ensure we don’t miss upcoming due dates or new assignments.
For this Microsoft Project reviewer, their company decided to invest in MS Project because it can be easily integrated with other Microsoft products:
“Microsoft Project was selected because it integrates well with other Microsoft products and has better tracking and visualization tools that can be used with different projects.”Verified User | Manager in Information Technology | Machinery Company (201-500 employees)
“Atlassian JIRA Align (formerly AgileCraft) has an excellent suite of tools that integrate well with other tools and offers full support for various agile frameworks, including SAFe. It’s just a complete integrated package, whereas some other tools seem to be lacking in different areas. Several plug-ins can be integrated to help with pro serv invoicing and integration with GitHub, Jenkins, Confluence, and other tools that we use.”Gene B. | Vice President | Financial Services (10,001+ employees)
#3 Project Reporting
Whether you need to keep track of project status, task dependencies, or resource allocation—reporting capabilities are must-have for all project teams. They’re also a key buying consideration for 11% of survey respondents.
If you’re helping manage a project that’s large, complex, or cross-functional in nature, there’s a good chance you’ll need to share key project metrics and status updates with a wider audience. If this sounds like your company, make sure you invest in a PM tool that allows you to create customized reporting dashboards to share with internal and external stakeholders.
This user calls out Smartsheet’s flexibility in terms of creating and customizing reporting dashboards:
“Smartsheet is one of the major project management and data collection tools for our company. Smartsheet is used quite frequently across all departments in admin levels and offers a wide degree of flexibility with regard to dashboard creation and reporting… Fantastic dashboard creation and customization.”Joshua M. | Customer Account Manager | Printing Company (10,001+ employees)
According to this project management professional, Wrike excels at reporting for complex and cross-functional projects:
“Wrike is best for complex cross-functional projects where customizable calendars, dashboards, and reports are needed to automatically roll-up projects and results in data. Custom filters can be added for any data type, further supporting complex programs with sorting/filtering and reporting.”Meredith S. | Senior Marketing Project Manager | Hospitality Company (10,001+ employees)
#4 Software Flexibility
Assessing the ‘flexibility’ of a project management tool is more nuanced than evaluating other aspects like ease of use or reporting capabilities. Flexibility, or configuration, can mean different things to different people.
For example, flexibility might refer to how easily customizable the software is, or that it offers users multiple ways to visualize project progress. But even though the precise definition of ‘flexibility’ might differ from team to team, 1 out of 10 survey takers used this exact phrase to describe one of their top buying criteria.
Many of them framed this concept in terms of having a tool that could be used in multiple different scenarios, was easily configurable, and could handle project leadership switching hands throughout the life of the project.
This Airtable reviewer loves the product’s flexibility in terms of the wide number of project views and project templates available:
“We liked Airtable’s approach to organizing data and information and its rich set of views and number of templates. It does collaboration facilitation very well.”Verified User | C-Level Executive in Corporate | Computer Software Company (11-50 employees)
For this Wrike user, flexibility is indispensable in terms of being able to use different project views for separate business needs:
“Different views for different business needs: Our developers mostly use the list view, since they are most interested in “what are my tasks” and “how’s the priority”. For project planning, the timeline view is a great tool; our controlling people love the Workload view since this is a great place to do resource planning. So it’s all about tasks, but the different views make Wrike quite powerful.”Michael G. | Project Manager | Internet Company (11-50 employees)
#5 High-level View of Project Status
One important aspect of project management, and project portfolio management, is the ability to have a high-level, top-down view of all project progress and status. In fact, this is an essential capability if you’re managing portfolios of projects.
The ability to have a macro view of all projects is also important for companies involved in completing client projects. Sharing a summary view of overall progress with clients or customers is often required.
Greater transparency into project statuses enables this Workfront reviewer to assess resource availability and better estimate project timelines:
“[Workfront] allows transparency into project portfolios and project work. Better ability to prioritize and assess resource availability. Based on reviewing completed projects we can better predict/estimate timeframe for future projects, which allows us to better select which projects to work on, without depending on overly optimistic estimates by the teams.”Amy S. | Manager-PMO | Automotive Company (1001-5000 employees)
For this Planview Enterprise One user, having a top-down view of all projects allows his team to run risk assessments for each project and make adjustments where necessary:
“Planview is used by the IT department for project portfolio management, project management, and timesheets. By planning each project and the required resources needed, we can optimize the execution and identify risks in advance. The project managers have an easy and complete tool to track project status and support organization decisions.”Marco D. | Project and Portfolio Manager Officer | Pharmaceuticals Company (5001-10,000 employees)
Tips For Finding the Perfect PM Tool
The first step toward finding the perfect PM tool is knowing what to look for. Over 90% of surveyed project management professionals listed one or more of the 5 attributes above as key buying considerations. So along with your own specific needs and circumstances, keep these 5 key requirements in mind when you start identifying product options.
This article is primarily focused on making sure you’ve aced that first step, but here are a few tips to get you started on building your shortlist:
- Use the full free trial of the software.
During the trial, set up realistic projects that you and your team would actually be working on. This will help you get a good feel for how difficult the tool is to use and how easy it will be to teach the rest of your team. Plus, you’ll walk away with an indication of whether it has all the specific features and integrations you’re looking for.
- Read reviews from fellow project management software users.
This will help you get a better understanding of the pros and cons of each product you’re considering, the obstacles and challenges others in similar positions and companies have faced, and how they customized the tool to fit their circumstances. It will also give you the chance to collect some product-level insights from reviewers that look like you (i.e. work at the same size company, or in the same industry).
- Ask the vendor questions about the specific features you need.
This is one of the most straightforward ways to figure out if the tool you’re considering has all the features you need. If your projects will require specific integrations, ask the vendor about these to see how deep the integration goes.
If you’re looking for more in-depth information about specific PM tools, our Buyer’s Guide to Project Management Software highlights 11 leading PM tools and provides even more insights from end-users.
You can also download our Project Management Software Buyer’s Toolkit to help you get ready and stay organized while evaluating products.