5 free collaboration tools to kill off time-wasting email
Project Management: Trello
For all the reasons stated above, email remains a particularly bad way to co-ordinate groups and stages on projects. Enter Trello: since its launch in 2011 the app has become a go-to platform for painless project management.
The beauty of Trello is that once you get started it’s so easy to use. Using a card-based system, you can create cards for various tasks, set up deadlines (and sync them to your email client calendar), add to-do checklists, tag key players with @ to make sure they’re notified, and share links and files (up to 10 mb—and if you’ve got file sizes bigger than that see WeTransfer, below). And you can move cards to different lists by simply dragging them. If you’ve ever killed a rainy-day hour playing computer solitaire, manipulating Trello’s cards will seem second-nature.
Why we love it
You can see the whole project workflow in a glance and have all the project content in one place. The visual structure is simple, intuitive and self-explanatory. Best of all, you can pick it up in a snap, which is why so many of our clients have adopted it for working with us too. By assigning cards to different teams (e.g. design, copy, all the way to accounting) you can move your project step by step all the way to final billing. And it has helped make our workflow more efficient as we and our clients are on the same visual page about which deadlines are assigned, which prioritized and which imminent.
Some clients have expressed concerns about security, and depending on your needs, Trello may not be recommended for sending sensitive data like briefs or performance metrics (though it doesn’t necessarily make more sense to use the standard fallback—email—either). And one major feature that some at Moskito Design would love to see is a progress bar to actually see how close you are to being done.
If you’re still slogging through endless email chains to manage projects both internally and externally, then give Trello a try.
With everybody tripping over themselves these days to add to the growing mountain of praise and adulation for Slack (the newest contender for the title of The App that Killed Email), you might lose sight of the fact that there ever was another free alternative to email for intra- and inter-office communication. But Skype has been admirably shouldering that burden for us since the late noughties.
Owned by Microsoft since 2011, the chat and web-based calling app claims 300 million users. You can use it to talk for free to other Skype users, message to individuals and groups, video conference and even share files. Microsoft says the free version is great for small businesses of up to 20 people but even though we’ve topped that number by now we still haven’t found a limit to its usefulness.
Why we love it
Even if we don’t practice the monkish silence avowed by companies like Basecamp, if you work in an open office plan quiet communication is a gift from the gods. Skype means you don’t have people talking in your ear (even if you might have to disable notifications to keep your eyes focused on your work).
You can make and remake groups at a moment’s notice, and we love it for internally sharing server pathways when we archive projects and data. And it’s your time machine to scroll back through past conversations and make sure nothing gets lost. Lastly, the fact that it’s already so widely used and understood makes it a convenient alternative to email for communication with clients and collaborators.
We use it almost exclusively for messaging, which works great, except when it doesn’t. Sometimes there are compatibility issues between Macs and PCs that cause attachments to disappear and earlier this year others reported problems with messages simply not showing up.
Another minor complaint is the search bar’s unforgiving attitude toward spelling errors. If you work with multinational colleagues you’d better be sure you know your Giulias from your Julias otherwise your search will turn up empty-handed. File sharing is painfully slow so we use it (or Trello) only for the occasional small, intra-office document.
Add it all up and when Skype went down in late September and we were forced back onto email for a tortuous day a number of us did start jumping on the Slack train.
It’s not that there won’t be a better, more reliable messaging app to come down the pipeline, but for now Skype’s accessibility, universality and basic functioning continue to be as regular of a feature in our lives as a morning shot of espresso.
File Sharing: WeTransfer
If you’ve got files to send, Amsterdam-based WeTransfer couldn’t be easier. There’s no software to download and install, no usernames, passwords or registration. Simply open WeTransfer in your browser, load a file (up to 2GB for the free version) and put an email address for both sender and recipient. The recipient will get a message with a download link. Or you can post a link. Unlike other file sharing apps like Dropbox, WeTransfer stores files temporarily—the download link remains valid for only 7 days.
Why we love it
We use it primarily for sending heavy raw data files like hi-resolution images to clients like editorial houses or, when collaborating, with any files too big to send via Trello. Paste the link into your Trello card and it’s good for 7 days. It’s great for sending files when the company you’re collaborating with doesn’t allow them to open zip files and it’s also great for batch sending.
Best of all, we love that there’s no software or installation involved, which makes it easy to use with clients of any size and capability and on a moment’s notice. Depending on the speed of your connection, uploading can be very fast. And it’s just one less password to memorize.
WeTransfer is for file transfer, pure and simple. Send it and forget it. If it’s important to keep shared versions visible to all parties, you’ll have to look elsewhere (see Google Drive, below).
For sending massive one-shot files without the hassle of software installation or registration, WeTransfer is dynamite.
File Compression: TinyPNG
Whether you’re running a sprawling e-commerce site or a one-page WordPress blog, slow loading speeds can have a negative impact keeping people engaged with your site. One of the major drags on loading speed is image size, and what you need to do is compress them. TinyPNG offers “advanced lossy compression”, or significant compression with only minimal loss of quality.
You get 500 images/month free (5mb max, batch up to 20 images but you have to download each individually). It works in any browser and there’s a photoshop plug-in.
Why we love it
The compression to quality-loss ratio is simply astounding. Meaning it’s hard to believe they can get your images so small and keep them looking so good. And its interface—drag-and-drop your images with no registration needed—can’t be beat for fast workflow.
The one drawback we’ve found is that files have to be downloaded one at a time. A annoyance, to be sure, but a minor one we cope with in exchange for sticking with the free version.
For friction-free high-quality image compression, give TinyPNG a try.
File Management: Google Drive
Google Drive is Google’s cloud-based storage system and freely accessible to anyone with a Gmail account. You can store up to 15 GB of files but what really sets it apart from other cloud-storage systems is that it’s stocked with Google’s office suite of apps for word-processing, spreadsheets, forms and slide presentations.
It integrates perfectly with Gmail and even without the dedicated app you can access your files from anywhere and edit, share and sync files. A Google Chrome browser plug-in lets you even edit documents offline and it syncs when you get connected. It’s essentially the final nail in the coffin for email-based collaboration.
Why we love it
With Drive you can forget all the headaches that go with file sharing via email. We’ve adopted Google Sheets for many of those things we used to use Excel for, and can all keep on top of changes even though the same document may get accessed simultaneously from people working in 5 different European countries. Saving is automatic and instantaneous (but you can always undo) and the Version Control feature allows you to see the history of every change made and by whom.
Google’s lookalike productivity suite doesn’t have all the functionality of its Microsoft forebears. One particularly annoying lack is the inability to zoom in Google Sheets, particularly useful for getting to grips with some of the massive spreadsheets our merchandising team uses to create retail inventories. And our dependence is now so complete that when Drive goes down―like it did in early October―a number of us were breaking out into fits of hysteria.
For seamless collaboration it’s a great, if slightly limited, productivity suite all wrapped up in a accessible free cloud storage service.
Many of the above apps aren’t new, but if you’re running your business collaboration on email some of them may still be positively revolutionary. Give them, or others, a try, as we’ve begun to do with newer players like Slack. And stay in step as the world finally moves beyond 20th-century email to collaboration fit for the new millennium.