The Best Software Development Project Management Tools, Compared

Photo by Danial RiCaRoS on Unsplash

Every year, I hear a collective groan from developers as it’s time to head back to work and they log into their old, slow project management tool for the first time after the break. There’s never a better time to consider using something else for your software development sprints than the start of the year, and there’s so many options that it’s a great time to pick something new.

When our tools get in the way, less gets done, so I wanted to take a look at the software project management tools that are out there for modern developers, and what they should be considering: it should help your whole team get more done, faster, without it being frustrating to use.

I wanted to compare the most commonly used tools, and which ones are best suited for various use cases. This post looks at the best planning tools in the crop, including JIRA, Clubhouse and Trello, using performance, ease of use, integrations and how the tool fits in with modern software development philosophies.

Ease of use

The most common complaint of modern developer tooling is that it can quickly become far too complex for developers to deal with. Instead of writing code, they’re probably stuck updating tickets or figuring out how to move things between virtual sprints.

Trello’s user interface is simple, sharp and easy to understand

Trello excels in simplicity, largely because it’s designed for all types of work, which means it’s much more approachable by default. The tool is simple to learn and understand, with enough complexity for scheduling and priorities with a little work, while remaining adjustable for all types of use case in a company.

Trello, however, is not specifically designed for software teams’ use cases so doesn’t offer much functionality beyond this to help, nor does it optimize to get out of the way and adapt to your workflow. It’s up to you to define your way of working, for better or worse, and figure out how to set it up within your team.

Clubhouse takes Trello’s visual drag-and-drop planning further, offering a similar kanban-style experience with swimlanes and tags. Where Trello is visually attractive and relatively simple, Clubhouse is both beautiful and able to adapt better to software development teams’ needs while still remaining approachable for the average user outside of the development cycle.

With Clubhouse’s tools, for example, each card begins life as a ‘story’ which could be a task, chore or feature. It allows the creator to add epics, projects and who requested the ticket, as well as the owner, external tickets and much more.

It’s friendly and clear enough at the same time, so anyone on your team can easily log a ticket themselves without specific training. That which makes a big difference in the early stages of building a new product, and helps reduce the load as you grow.

JIRA, like the others listed here, offers kanban views and release planning cycles, but has much more depth and complexity than any of these tools as it’s designed for both extremely large and small software teams, so offers a slather of features that can often feel overwhelming to new users.

JIRA has been around forever, so while it’s mature, it’s also overloaded with configuration options, views and other buttons that I often found myself lost or confused how to proceed. There’s kanban mode, scrum mode, bug tracking… and while those features can be useful, it often feels overwhelming when you’re just trying to get work done.

The biggest issue with JIRA, in my experience using it, is that it’s completely unapproachable for people outside the software development team. It works fairly well if you’re a technical person but it’s a confusing rabbithole for anyone else, leaving them excluded from the development process or requiring specific training to understand it.

Speed

Most of us want to get work done as fast as possible, so speed is top of mind for most modern development teams.

This section is subjective, largely because internet connections and configuration can vary, but I used Google Chrome 72 to test, with a 500mbps internet connection in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Each tool was loaded at least five times, with the results averaged across these tests to ensure consistency.

Trello is one of the fastest, most lightweight tools I compared, with a 40-ticket sprint board coming in at just 4.4MB of resources in under 1.7 seconds before the browser painted anything meaningful, and was incredibly responsive no matter what I did.

Loading a board in JIRA ‘modern’, which doesn’t have the full feature set yet required 42.3MB of resources the first time it was loaded, and painting to the DOM took about 3.31 seconds. Page loads took about 6 seconds before anything could be interacted with, but afterward it was snappy and responsive.

Clicking between boards or other views, however, took what felt like a long time before pages rendered, re-rendering the entire page between each view.

A look at all of the network requests JIRA makes

Using the ‘classic’ view, which most users are likely accustomed to and appears to be slowly being archived away, pages took 13 seconds before anything rendered and required 46MB of resources to load completely.

Clubhouse boards were surprisingly snappy, with 16MB of resources required the first time a board is loaded, and painting to the DOM taking just 250 milliseconds. Clicking around, I thought that it might be using offline syncing or a service worker to be so fast, but was surprised to see it isn’t at all — it’s just plain fast without it.

Out of all three, Clubhouse felt the fastest to interact with, rendering pages incredibly quickly and not seemingly like it was straining between page loads, despite offering more functionality than Trello.

Integrations

For software workflows, the integrations and platform-specific features that work with your team are often make-or-break, because you’re already using the tools you likely want to! Here’s a high-level overview of what each platform works with, and beyond the development team as well.

Clubhouse is focused on developers and has a number of integrations in that vein. There’s a GitHub and BitBucket integration, but no support for GitLab or other code tools yet. Outside of that, there’s also integrations with other tools developers use like Bugsnag, Honeybadger and Sentry, so errors can be placed directly on a card.

Today, Clubhouse doesn’t have an official marketplace, but it does have an API so it’s possible a third-party integration exists if one is missing.

Trello might be the most lightweight of these tools, but it still offers a bunch of integrations to help beef up its capabilities. In its marketplace you can find ‘power-ups’ for GitHub, GitLab, Bitbucket and many other common software tools, including JIRA.

These allow you to enhance a Trello card with further information from an external source,such as GitHub, so you can attach an issue directly to the ticket for future reference. Beyond that, there’s a ton of other integrations, like Google Drive, MailChimp and even Twitter, to get the wider team on-board.

The new JIRA interface is sharp, and well integrated

JIRA is famous for having a rich marketplace, and basically integrates with anything that has an API: GitHub, GitLab and Bitbucket are all supported, along with every productivity tool you can imagine. Many of these integrations are maintained by third-party developers, rather than the company itself, which means there’s more choice than Trello or Clubhouse today.

Software-specific tooling

As mentioned earlier, Trello is really designed for the ‘getting things done’ method of working but isn’t particularly suited for software teams. You can adapt it, as many others have, to work for you, but it won’t offer the nice extras that a software development specific toolset would.

To use Trello as a software development tool, you’ll need to use things like labels to indicate the status or category of a bug, since there aren’t any specific fields for that, as well as finding a way to tie it all together. Plenty of others have done it successfully, but it requires investment in setting it up just right.

For lack of a better metaphor, JIRA is like packing your suitcase with the kitchen sink. It’s designed specifically to offer the agile project management workflow and does so to a fault: there’s buttons and views for everything you could imagine, from burn-down charts to the plain-old kanban view for crunching through features on your roadmap.

A quick look at the feature page for JIRA really shows how many features it packs, and why it might feel bloated at times: there’s everything from sprint permissions to a release hub, which are useful features, but have crowded the experience for me in the past.

Clubhouse feels like a balance between the two: just enough features for getting your sprints (and agile work) done, but they’re sprinkled on lightly so it doesn’t feel completely overwhelming for everyone else.

There’s all the charts you’d need, and most importantly, it offers more structure than Trello by using the philosophy of stories, milestones and epics to get work done, which helps keep your team consistent when creating sprints.

There’s so much great tooling out there for developers these days, so I hope this comparison was a useful one, and you find the perfect tool for your own team. I encourage you to experiment with all of them, and decide how they fit your workflow before jumping in.

More by Owen Williams

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