Project Management Software – Issues and Requirements

Though many businesses use project management software, a sentiment exists in some circles that successful project managers often achieve results in spite of their software tools, rather than because of them. The claim that project management tools  provide an effective way to boost productivity is disputed by others, citing the large amount of money spent every year on software that quickly gathers dust on a forgotten shelf. There are even heated debates about, “what exactly is project management software?” 

In my opinion, any tool—including project management software—must be used knowledgeably and correctly for its benefits to be realized. I find that some project management tools are vastly superior to others in productivity improvement, either because they are streamlined for a PM’s job tasks or simply because they support a greater range of processes and data collection possibilities. That having been said, I can also report that I have seen effective project management done with only Excel®. The point is to select tools tailored for your job and learn how to use them.

One important thing to remember in choosing project management software is that something like 80% of the PM’s job is communication. For this reason, the primary functionality a project manager should look for in his or her PM software is seamless integration of data that facilitates rapid understand and response. PMs need software that assures timely and accurate information that is sufficient to identify if a project is running as scheduled or an employee is keeping up with tasks.

A potential problem area created by some project management applications involves the software making unwarranted predictions or presenting myriad unnecessary options. Though these suggestions may be valid or the options may provide more flexibility, it can often result in the project manager becoming confused or completely sidetracked away from the original project requirements. Again, effective project management software provides tools for data collection, analysis and distribution. The software should not attempt to take over those tasks completely nor determine the best course of action. If the software was that good, we would not need to train project managers – right?

Another issue that arises in the use of project management software is the ambiguity of the information presented. For example, even if the software presents the seemingly simple prediction that a project will take 100 hours to complete, difficulties can arise in the interpretation of this information. A novice project manager might be unable to see other aspects of this task that affect hours-to-complete. For example, will these 100 hours be spread over days, weeks or even longer? How will the human element of the team affect this estimate? Every time an employee takes time off, calls in sick, falls behind in their assigned task or is pulled to work another project means the schedule needs to be adjusted. In my experience, good project management software is powerful enough to track these human elements and show remaining work or effort. Smart PM tools can greatly increase the effectiveness of a project manager’s resource and schedule management.

The lack of software integration is yet another difficulty that frustrates even the most skilled and efficient project manager. Regardless of the proficiency of PM software applications at completing a given task, failure to integrate with existing data from other organizational systems often means the project management program’s results cannot represent the current situation accurately. It is not enough for PM software to provide the option to integrate with other well-known programs. PM software should be designed to seamlessly integrate with other organizational software-based systems.

My conclusion: While software cannot replace effective management or make important decisions, PM software helps project managers spent time in an optimally efficient manner on those tasks requiring his or her expertise.

Software Usability – Resources for Usability Evaluation

I had an interesting discussion with several people this week that I could summarize this way: “How does software get designed and built that no-one can use?” 

“Usability is the combination of fitness for purpose, ease of use, and ease of learning that makes a product effective.” according to the University of Maryland’s Guide to Usability. Not everyone loves software usability testing. It has been jokingly said that if the software was difficult to code, it should be difficult to use. Unenlightened project managers may even think of users as the enemy. Of course, that is not true. Satisfied users are salesmen for your products and champions of future business opportunities.

However, pleasing users can be challenging.  If you are a software or project manager you know what I am talking about.

In a usable product, says, Dan Costenaro, Microsoft Outlook Program Manager, "Anyone can walk up to your piece of software, sit down in front of the computer, and accomplish their goal. If it’s not goal-driven from the user’s perspective, they will never figure it out." I agree.  Dr. Karen McGraw takes this even further, adding that, “If the user interface is not designed to support the user’s mental model—the way they approach their tasks and work—it will take them longer to learn, accept, and effectively use the new system.”

I wholeheartedly support the increasingly sophisticated tools and processes being implemented to evaluate software usability. Some of these are useful during formative testing, when the design is fleshed out, while others are more effective during summative usability testing.  If you are newly converted to the importance of usability testing or a seasoned veteran always interested in more information, here are some of the resources I suggest you investigate.

A good place to begin is Usability Net’s Methods Table  represented in the graphic below. On their website, each cell leads you to articles and more topic information.  It is worth wandering around on this well organized site to get an overview of usability evaluation.

 

user-focused-testing

 

Here are a few more sites with information on usability testing:

Guidelines for Usability Testing with Children
Microsoft UI Guides and Usability Testing
Performance Centered Design white paper
Usability Professionals Association
Practical Usability Testing from Digital Web Magazine
National Institute of Standards Usability Reports
Userview Remote Usability Testing (I have not used this service, so I am not recommending it. However, the ability to “watch” users interact with your applications remotely could be useful in some instances and they have a free trial available.)</p>

So bottom line for a PM:  Ask your development team what steps, processes and tools they are using to ensure that the interface or product is usable by the user.  If you have had some excellent or unpleasant/unsuccessful experiences with usability testing, please share with other PMs in your comments.

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