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Sunday, November 08, 2015

Will we ever have a perfect task management tool?

8:26 PM Posted by Deepak Nayal No comments
The Problem:
All of us have tried various productivity tools for task management in the hopes that we will be able to find that one perfect task management tool that does it all. Unfortunately, we all have given up after trying different products for a few days/weeks/months, falling back to notepads and spreadsheets. Many companies have tried to build the ultimate task management tool. Some have come closer than others, but no one has been able to crack the code.

Just like everyone else, I have tried various task management tools: Wunderlist, Asana, iOS Reminders, Trello, Google Inbox, Excel, Notepad, mind maps - the list goes on. I used to get excited whenever a new task management product was released in the hopes that my knight in shining armour has finally arrived. But after trying out the product (or worse, just looking at it), the realisation used to dawn on me that this isn't what I am looking for. My heart has been broken so many times that I have now almost given up looking for a new productivity tool. Only rarely do I get excited about a new task management tool now.

Cause of the Problem:
Why is it that, like the legend of Big Foot, we have only heard of the perfect task management tool, but never seen one. There have been talks about this legend every now and then, but when you closely examine the evidence, it turns out to be a false alarm or a hoax. Why is it that something that seems so simple and basic to implement has turned into one of the hardest problems to crack in the software industry?

I believe the reason we are not able to come up with the ultimate task management tool is that this is a real world issue - not a technology issue. Different problems require different approach. While some tasks are easily managed as a list, some require Kanban style boards, others require mind maps and yet other require tables. This problem becomes even more complex when a other factors related to a task are considered - such as due dates, dependencies and priorities.

And then there is another aspect that makes task management even more complex: source of task. We get tasks from different channels and sources: email, personal needs (shopping or attending an event), work-related needs (preparing presentation or launching a marketing campaign), specific work-related software tasks (e.g. CRM tasks, JIRA tasks). It is not easy to pull out tasks from different sources and putting them in one command center for all your tasks.

The Solution:
All this begs the question - will we ever have a perfect task management tool? Will we ever have a single product that captures tasks from various sources and allows us to arrange and manage those tasks the way best suited for our needs. Well there isn’t one yet, but hopefully the day will come when for once the rumours will be true.

Like I said earlier, we have some good task management tools that have come closer than others in solving this problem. Asana and Trello are definitely two of those. In my view the perfect task management tool will have the following characteristics (in the given order of priority):

  1. Ease of use: Task management product companies hate to admit it, but plain old Notepad is probably one of the most used task management tool out there. Its simplicity and ease of use make it the best tool for creating lists quickly. The ideal task management tool has to be super easy and quick to use. Slow loading screens and multiple fields are a big no-no. The best task management tools I have ever used also have some of the easiest interfaces to use. Trello for example is brilliantly simple and intuitive to use. Speed is, of course, a major factor in making a product easy to use, and if you might think that this is a hygiene factor and any product can get it right easily, you would be wrong. Take Asana for example. While it is one of my favourite task management products, its iOS app sucks big time mainly because it does not work offline and feels very slow (as it connects with the server for every action). Wunderlist iOS app on the other hand is a lot better at offline access and performance. Wunderlist and iOS Reminders are in fact the best task management tools I have used, when it comes to performance.
  2. Ability to arrange tasks best suited to the user: People think in different ways and approach problems from different perspectives. While some people are able to work better with lists, others like working with mind maps and yet others like breaking tasks in Kanban style boards or lay them down in tabular form. There is no single best way to manage tasks. In my view, this is one of the biggest reasons no single task management tool has been able to dominate the market. The "perfect task management” tool will have to address this problem and come out with a way that allows users to arrange and visualise tasks from different perspectives. This is a tricky one because a lot of product companies trying to fit different requirements end up building a bloated product full of features. Balancing the requirement to visualise different perspectives, while still maintaining the ease of use, simplicity and speed of the product, is a very tough act to achieve.
  3. Don't forget email: Email is definitely one of the biggest sources of anyone's ToDo list, and the perfect task management tool will have to work well with emails - which unfortunately none of the good task management tools currently do. That is why I got excited when I came across Google Inbox first; however, the problem with Inbox (or any similar tool) is that it is restricted to email and is not fit for managing other tasks.
  4. Work as a service, rather than an app: A good task management product will have to be a service rather than an app. What I mean by that is users should be able to access or add tasks from any context (email, browser, mobile app, work products) rather than just being able to do so from within its web or mobile app. In order to do this, the product will have to integrate with other services and products well and, in doing so, it will need to ensure that it leverages its context properly. While a lot of task management products now do have their apps for different platforms, a lot of these do not integrate with other products (which can be possible sources of other tasks) and are not able to leverage their context (platform) well - even the best ones.

There are probably other important characteristics that I have not listed here, but these are the core features that any product vying to become the silver bullet of task management will have to get right. Currently most of the product offerings “think” that they have achieved characteristic #1 and [some] are going straight for #4. However, unless they get these characteristics right, in the given order, they are no where close to becoming the perfect task management tool.