to do list software

this is a ‘thinking out loud’ blog post.

For years my to-do list survived as a combination of my email inbox and a bit of A4 paper which i would scribble lists on to and write numbers next to them in the planned order i was going to do them. (which was somewhat laughable)

But things were being missed so it was time to look at different ideas.

Nothing has yet hit the sweet spot. This blog post tries to decide what the sweet spot is and if anything has yet come close.

Ideally: Something that can be accessed anywhere, is real quick to bring up and use, presents information just as I want it, allows me to track progress of the job/task, allows me to pass it to someone else (yes!). Also, ability to track changes, and – if it doesn’t accept email (like RT) have a nice big notes field for paste-ing in the email which started it all off.

So what have I tried:

Meetingmaker

Meetingmaker it pretty good software, and as you might guess, its main function is shared calendars (making meetings). A slightly odd history, it had no software updates for years, then suddenly they released a new version (about 2005) which was a lot nicer to use, with the message that they were now actively finding out what users wanted and developing new versions. Nothing has come since (apart from an update to change light-saving hours for a timezone somewhere).

Anyways, it comes with a to do list function. It has a windows3.1 feel to it, and a big thumbs down is the user interface. Being part of the diary/calendar package, it tends to be the window sitting behind your calendar window, which can be annoying. And it doesn’t remember your settings, so even though each time i open it i set it to not show completed tasks and to show in order of priority, it forgets this. Which is annoying.

Apart from this it does its job well. Title, Category (which are user defined), priority, percentage done and a nice big notes field. It does all the basics (in a ugly and slightly tedious way). What it fails on is the other stuff. When did I create this task, when did i finish it. I want to transfer it to someone else (should be do-able as we all use MM), I want to see a list of items completed this month. What progress have i made? All impossible.

RT

Until recently RT was not an option, it was so amazingly slow. I mean really slow. But now our IT services have upgraded it, and it’s much improved.

RT is a Request Tracker, and as such is not really a to-do list, and its functionality (and lack of) reflects this. A RT install has a series of Queues (e.g. helpdesk, webteam, workstation-support), and each queue has tickets (i.e. jobs/tasks). So, What’s it good at?

  • you or someone else (just by sending an email to a specific address) can easily created a new ticket, with the title being the emails subject line
  • It provides excellent progress tracking, each email you send is tracked, and you can add comments (which can cater for any notes you want to add but don’t want the requester to see).
  • You can add requesters, add owners (people like you who are dealing with this task), and remove them as needed (useful as jobs change in nature and different people required).
  • You can easily transfer to a new ‘queue’, if it belongs to another department
  • It includes ‘time taken’ and percentage done
  • everything is time stamped.

Downsides

  • Interface not great, eg when listing tickets (tasks) you just see the title of each ticket and last time someone updated it. anything more than that requires going in to the full ticket.
  • editing anything (owner, requester, status, flags) requires going in to some sub-screens, which is slow and annoying. They really need AJAX for this (hello flickr, you are amazing).
  • General navigation sucks. big time.
  • Things you think will be built in are not, especially reporting. What have we completed recently? my tickets? my tickets that i haven’t done anything with recently? tickets that need attention? or took a long time to complete? It does give you what is essentially a SQL interface, which is good, but not a quick way to recall saved reports or views, which in many cases is essential.
  • When looking at a ticket it can be very verbose. telling you lots of information you don’t want to know, and the log of activity takes lots of space but still missing out key information. For example, a ticket with just a few emails can easily span many many printed pages, as it shows the quoted text for each email, and has lots of lines showing you that an outbound email was recorded (which actually take up much more than a line as it has its own block), but still fails to show some important things, such as who exactly got that email (important for covering your arse!).
  • It has a concept of ‘fields’ which are associated to queues, you can think of them like categories. You can associate each ticket in a queue to many fields (the names of which you decide). However this is far to slow and requires far too many clicks.
  • People only appreciate the value of entering metadata/information if it is quick to enter and provides useful information in return. RT, like so many applications, does not meet this.

dot.project

I only tried this as my webhost, dreamhost (get good stuff by following that link!), has a one-click install for this open-source web based system.

This is the one I have tried the least, and after quickly logging on to it again, think i should try it again. First of all, when speed is the essence having a piece of software on a server on the west coast of the US, and me on the sunny south coast of the UK does not help (unless the server is google, in which case using it is amazingly fast, I mean amazing). But this small open source project has a lot of potential.

It has the concept of projects, and tasks (and other things, like tickets) associated with that project. But you as a user can see all tasks for you in a nice list, regardless of which project they belong to. In this sense, projects can be treated like categories, if need be. The interface is good. For example, hover over a task and a larger description pops up which the mouse is above it. this is javascript put to good use.

It has a lot of functionality and features and has good support for different users, so if you can get your whole team/colleagues signed up then it could work really well.

A downside, for me, is in the design, currently you need to browse to a project (which I use as categories) and then you can add a task, I would much prefer being able to see my tasks, and from them their be able to add more tasks as they come in (which I often want to do quickly).

Rememberthemilk.com

Rememberthemilk.com has had quite a lot of exposure among web2.0 fans. It has a lovely interface which makes great use or ajax/javascript. It also makes full use of single (no shift/ctl required, good!) keyboard commands, something which I caught on slowly to.

I’ve being trying out rememberthemilk.com for a few days. It works well, and again, brilliant interface, but doesn’t quite hit the sweet spot. Why?

First and foremost, if you select/add a task, and then immediately add/select another, they are both selected. In fact throughout tasks stay selected until you unselect them. Perhaps I am unusual, but i find this annoying.

I add one, give it a priority and some tags (the nearest it comes to categories, but hey, this is web2.0), do the same for another task, and find I’ve updated both.

It, like many of the applications mentioned, make strong use of deadlines and times. Which I don’t really use much (perhaps I should?!). I tend to be much more priority based, rather than hard deadlines. The task info appears on the right of your task list. It does have a number of properties, but these are mainly time/location based. It has a notes tab, and you can add many notes to a task, each – brilliantly – with a timestamp, but these are really designed for notes (it is in a 200px-ish box), so not really great for posting in that important email associated with the task. Plus ‘tags’ really have to cater for anything to do with categories/projects. So no drop down menus to select these by.

I’m not sure if its ‘adding a new task’ function is good or bad. Being ajax, it is quick, click ‘add new task’ type in a title and hit return and you’re done. And its (bank) properties will be shown on the right, but not selected by default (so requires a mouse move/click, or some keyboard command I haven’t learnt yet) Oh and remember that those properties are for the task, AND the one selected previously, unless you remembered to clear it before adding this one (which is quick once you leanr the keyboard shortcut ‘n’)…

…ok so I’ve just played some more to make sure what I was saying is true. I think the key is you need to learn the keyboard shortcuts. Also, oddly for me, even with many select, if you hit s for ‘edit tags’ it will only edit the last selected item. And you can select items, and move the cursor up/down using the keyboard to. It seems it takes a bit of learning, and a bit of getting used to, but could be useful. Again, add contacts, and you can then pass on things as required (though I suspect not everyone would love this interface, something i would have to consider). However one additional limitation is the lack of good progress/percentage complete. Viewing completed items is a little weird too… make sure nothing is selected, and move your mouse to some white space to be able to select ‘9 completed items’ to see them. Apart from the notes (with timestamps), there is little in the way of progress monitoring (I’ve already mentioned lack of percentage complete), and some way to summarise this in the list itself (number of days since last activity, for eg). Would be good.

Summary.

Nothing hits the sweet spot. I really want to-do list, ticket/email tracking and project management in one, with an amazing nice to use, use anywhere interface. Not going to happen. Funny enough, my conclusion after writing most of these is, hmmm, actually I need to investigate further. And that really needs a disclaimer, this is just my random thoughts, I haven’t read the manual or even used them for what they were designed for. I just used them in a way that suits me, and in a way I found intuitive. This means my words are probably of use only to me. Take note!

MM meets my needs in many ways, but the failure to track progress, provide timestamps and allocate to others is a real killer. dot.project needs another look (and perhaps installing on a local sever), and rememberthemilk requires more playing with and learning how to get the most out of it. Finally, I love the fact RT has such a clear record of activity, and as it is used by my peers, an easy way to allocate/pass work to others, across campus, and the need arises. However, it really is a ticket tracking tool and its interface is not perfect (the latter applies to all).

Lifehacker and other reccomendations, many of which I have not tried.

And on a totally different note, if you haven’t already, check out Wine Library TV.

5 Replies to “to do list software”

  1. Thanks for the informative post. Our company provides software that enables Job Seekers to organize all of the information of their job search.

    While your note was about general organization software, much of it is appropriate for special-use organizers as well. I’ve forwarded the link to our developers to see how we can incorporate many of your ideas.

    Thanks for your insight.

  2. Hiya. As one of RT’s authors, I’ve got a few quibbles about your RT downsides (especially about the new automated
    reporting built into RT 3.8 ;), but that’s not really why
    I’m commenting. I actually wanted to invite you to have a look at Hiveminder.com, our friendlier, hosted todo list
    management system. Basic accounts are free, though there’s a bunch of cool stuff you get if you’re up for paying a
    few dollars a month. HM might to a better job of being the tool you want, though if not I’d love to hear why not.

    -jesse

  3. Steve: thanks for the nice words.

    Jesse. 1, RT, we’ve just upgraded to 3.6 so can’t comment on new reporting in 3.8, and I think RT is fab!

    Funny enough someone sent me a Hiveminder invitation a few hours after posting this, looks good. For me, I like the fact jobs have a large text box for adding updates and info, and that each update is tracked (time, date, etc) v useful. Currently playing with Hiveminder and rememberthemilk.com.

    Cheers
    Chris

  4. Thanks for this post — I’m on the same quest. Something simple but effective please. My same complaints with rememberthemilk, btw. It’s just so darn difficult to add multiple tasks, and I’ve put it to a pretty good test. Thought it might be the one, but alas… I’ll let you know if I find anything. Please do the same for me! :)

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