As custom software developers, we're constantly looking at the tools we use and thinking, "We could build this better," or "If this were our product, we would add some new features." The reality is that, while we have no shortage of ideas, our development teams are pretty busy meeting client deadlines.
There is one tool, however, that we decided to tackle last year. Over the years we have used a variety of project management tools—most recently, Basecamp, which is a great platform for project management. However, it had a lot of extraneous functionality that we simply weren't using. Founder Brian Knudson said, "We realized that although Basecamp kept track of what was going on, neither our teams nor our clients seemed to have a shared understanding of where we were in the project development process." He explored other existing platforms and found that, "Everything in the marketplace was graphically generic."
Since strong, effective project management is such a critical part of our business, we came up with our own solution. Knudson describes it like this: "The beauty of the NogginHUB is that it adapts to represent a visual process and always grounds team members on where we have been, where we are currently, and what is coming next."
There are a number of differences from the tools we've used in the past. Design is a big one. The NogginHUB is clean and easy to navigate, and it's also simple to log in and quickly find the information you're looking for.
We have flexibility to add custom background graphics for projects, which can make the site look similar to the course we're developing. All of our clients have logins to see information about their specific project, but communication now occurs via email and the HUB manages things like deadlines, meeting agendas, and deliverables. Clients can also find the names of all the Noggins working on a specific project and access contact information for each team member:
Messaging happens outside of the HUB, via email, so clicking on a team member will automatically open an email message to that individual.
One of our favorite features is a clear map of the project timeline and deliverables:
With Basecamp, there wasn't an easy, design-focused way to discern our internal development deadlines from client deadlines. Navigating through a long list of dates and items felt clunky. On the HUB, we have a project progress bar that shows big milestones and the little deliverables that come along the way. It's completely customized for our unique development process.
One of the best things about the HUB, from an internal perspective, is that it's seamlessly integrated with the other tools we use. A project manager can add a deadline on her Google Calendar, and it's synced to the HUB. Any uploaded files go to the appropriate Box folder. An email to multiple team members will show up in the appropriate Slack channel. Our project managers don't have to maintain multiple versions of records or keep track of multiple repositories of documents.
Making time for ourselves
The first version of NogginHUB took about four months to develop, and to date we are still making some minor tweaks. Active client projects are using the HUB, but technically we are still considering it to be in beta as we wrap up cross-browser testing and integrate some of the feedback we've gotten from clients.
We've written before about the promise and peril of internal projects. For a lean production company like ours, it can be challenging to make time to build things for ourselves. Project Manager Kasey Waas said, "This one was easier because it would be immediately valuable for our clients. We put a lot more attention and thought and design oversight into the early stages." The lead Software Architect, Simran Khosla, enjoyed working on this project because, "When it comes to courses for clients, they're all unique but they're all courses. This was a cool experience because it was more like a website/app building exercise. It also came right in the middle of our year of design, so it was a super fun place to play around with material design."
Another lesson we've learned about internal projects is that it's tempting to constantly iterate. At this time, we're almost ready to take off the beta label and live with what we've done. Like any living, breathing product, we will want to refresh and update the HUB in a couple of years. However, we're resisting the urge to make changes every time we have a new idea or a client offers a suggestion. We're collecting client feedback and will keep close track of it for when we are ready to update.