May 6, 2016

From Brainstorm to Project: Trello

One of my favorite activities is brainstorming new things – letting the mind wander, not excluding anything from consideration, just putting things on the table and sorting it all out. For me, it’s the surest path to the right answers for any project worth doing.

How many times have you:

  • Scribbled ideas on a list?
  • Re-ordered or re-prioritized those list items?
  • Started more than one list, and move things from list to list?
  • Made notes on a few of the items?
  • Maybe even put them on Post-It notes, so you could move things around to get a better overall picture of the effort?

I’ve done all of these things. The problem with lists are that they’re too linear and too structured. My OCD tendencies want to keep things in a neat tidy order – which really bogs down the brainstorming process. The Post-It note approach has always been effective, because it helps me to visualize the components in logical “buckets”. The problem with Post-It notes is that after a while, the glue breaks down, and there’s not much room for notes & comments. The other challenge is how project ideas get shared with teammates. These are all barriers to taking a really good brainstorm into something real.

TrelloEnter Trello – a free iOS , Android and web browser application from Fog Creek Software.  Trello gives me the Post-It note model I mentioned above, except it’s on my iPad or in a browser window, with all the flexibility of actually taking the effort from brainstorm to real project.

Take the list I made above, except now I get to do the following:

  • Create an individual board for each of my projects/brainstorms.
  • I can make my board private or public, or make it private and invite specific individuals to participate (like a project team).
  • Within each board, I build lists that contain cards that represent tasks, milestones, events or whatever it is that I’m trying to organize.
  • Each card is like the Post-It Note, with a title, description and a whole lot more. I’ll get back to this.
  • Cards can be rearranged simply by dragging them on the screen – that means rearranging the order in a list, or even moving a card from one list to another.
  • I have unlimited boards, lists and cards (and as a result, no Post-It Note dried-up glue issues).

Back to the cards, which are the heart of the app. Each card represents an idea, task or whatever your singular element is for your board. The great thing about Trello is that each card can be embellished not only with a title and description, but also checklists, attachments, comments, tools for ideation (meaning “vote for this”)

So I created a sample board, for something called App Project:

Trello Board

This board had three lists to start with, I added an additional one (the highly creative List 1). Each list contains various cards. At a quick glance, certain attributes are visible on each card; this is where it gets fun.

The circled items are also shown in the list view; here’s what it looks like when we open the card for “Check hosting information”. At a quick glance, I know there are two attachments, four checklist items (of which one has been completed), two comments and an available description of the card (versus only having a title on the card).


Across the top of the card, I have a few more options, such as voting for an item:


Setting an optional Due Date for the card (and you’ll receive e-mail notifications of items due/overdue):Trello-card-duedate

Assigning a label to an item (and the label text is customizable at the Board level):


Assign people to the card (if you’re collaborating with others who have been invited to participate in the board:Trello-card-assign

Comments/Activities, Checklists and Attachments can also be added to the card, using the options at the bottom of the card.

Comments are mixed in with the Activities on the card (everything that occurs to a card is logged in the Activities) – which is one of the few things I don’t like about the app. Sometimes it’s hard to find the comments in the mix (as is shown in the example below).



Checklists, on the other hand, are really slick – complete with the ability to create more than one checklist within a single card. The completion status of each checklist is shown, in addition to the status of all checklists in the card.


So let’s say a checklist item ends up being a more complex thing than originally anticipated (which of course never happens) – and now it really should be its own card. Not a problem – there’s an option to convert a single checklist item into a card with one tap. Very nice.

Attachments (at least in iOS) are limited to either images that are stored on your device (the Camera Roll or another album in the Photos app) using the Attach Existing option, or you can take a new picture or video and automatically attach it to the card.


This is where the web browser interface becomes a bit more powerful; not only can I choose other file types to attach, I can grab items from my cloud-based storage services at Google and Dropbox. This is the same card shown in the browser interface:


I was able to add a PDF file, along with a Word document, Excel spreadsheet and PowerPoint presentation, all of which sync’d almost instantly to my iPad. I was able to open all of the attachments, however the only one that retained its fidelity (and usefulness) was the PDF. I don’t know that I’d recommend this for swapping files for projects, but rather for attaching supporting items to a card entry. There are a lot better services for file management (like Dropbox, Box, Google Drive or Sky Drive).

For a free product, this is a really impressive set of features. The collaboration tools that are available on top of these features make it extremely powerful. There’s notification to members of the board on just about everything that happens:

  • Somebody adds a card to a list > members get a notification, event is recorded in the activities.
  • Somebody completes a checklist item > members get a notification, event is recorded in the activities.
  • Due date is approaching on a card > assigned people get a notification.

One thing to note about Trello, though, which is probably going to turn a few people off – it needs a live connection to the Internet to be fully functional. There’s no off-line mode, so the boards become Read Only when the device can’t connect to the cloud, with no ability to add or edit cards. Here’s hoping offline support is a feature they’re working on (perhaps for a Premium version, similar to Evernote).

If you’re a business and want to use this for collaborative project management, there’s a Business Class version of the tool (that’s not free, but still pretty cheap) that provides some more robust board management options for administrators. However, it’s by no means necessary to have Business Class in order to take advantage of nearly all of the functionality that Trello offers.

For the really nerdy types, who want to find a way to create integration with Trello, there’s even a new API that facilitates data exchange to and from other tools. (I’m not going to lie, this kinds of stuff excites me.) Or, if all you want to do is download the contents of your boards, there’s an export option (but it’s limited to JSON file format – if you don’t know what that is, as your favorite web site developer).

If you want to learn more about it, take a look at the tour on the Trello website. Better yet, download the app and take it for a spin with your next project effort -whether it’s planning a family event, organizing a swim meet, planning the school carnival or simply brainstorming ideas for your next work effort. It’s a very interesting tool, and you can’t beat the price.

About the Author

A banker-turned-technologist, Sam is programming and technology consultant and self-described electronic gadget freak. He’s been a personal computer user for nearly 25 years (think about that for a minute), and is someone who firmly believes that technology, when used the right way, makes life better for those who use it.


  1. Wonderfully comprehensive review of what looks likes very useful app. I’m always looking for ways to capture brainstorming ideas and, like you, have tried all kinds of methods. Definitely going to give Trello a try.

    BTW, have you thought about writing app reviews for AppAdvice? I don’t know what model they use for reviewers, but they’d be lucky to have you as a contributor.

    • Nice of you to say such things. Never heard of AppAdvice until now, so it looks like I’ll have to check into it. :-)

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