Projjex: Online project collaboration for the rest of us?

I have recently been checking out Projjex, a relative newcomer to the online project/collaboration/document management market. The "cool kid on the block" when it comes to this field is 37signals' Basecamp, but it seems like the two companies are after very different audiences. Basecamp is synonymous with "Web 2.0" and has a look and feel that suits this crowd. In contrast Projjex seems to be going after the older (more mature?) audience with an offering that emphasises practicality over design.

My sweeping generalisation is that if you read TechCruch religiously then Basecamp is for you, whereas if you have never heard of TechCrunch (or prefer 'real news') then Projjex is probably more to your liking.

The genre clash dilemma

Before I go over Projjex I need to get a couple of things off my chest. The problem I have with these project/collaboration/document management tools is that they are trying to do too much with too little. It is like a summer blockbuster that cannot decide whether it is an action, comedy, drama or romance film and just ends up being nothing. Pulling something like this off is almost impossible and at some point the software developer has to put a stake in the ground and focus their efforts on one primary thing. For example when you take a look at the 'traditional' desktop each one of these functions is handled by a dedicated product:

Every one of the above products has a very deep feature-set and whilst it is possible to monitor projects in Sharepoint or manage documents within Outlook, these capabilities are purely secondary and often accidental.

In contrast both Projjex and Basecamp apply the 80/20 principal (see Joel Spolsky's critique) in order to cover such a broad problem space in a realistic amount of time. On one hand this works well because it provides a slick (a.k.a. spartan) user interface. However on the other hand this limited functionality soon starts coming up short as people gain an understanding of the product. Personally I would much rather use (and pay for) a deep product that seriously tackled the one problem space rather than investing my time in a service that did a little bit of everything poorly.

For example the feature that makes Microsoft Project "kick ass" is its ability to visualise the abstract world of project management. At meetings or in emails nobody is interested in seeing a list of milestones or tasks - what everybody wants to see is the really pretty gantt chart clearly illustrating the process spaghetti going on. Unfortunately what software developers see as important (and easy) when they come to Microsoft Project is the list of dates and tasks. Consequently what we end up with in tools like Projjex and Basecamp is that text-based list of things we all hated looking at in the first place. Personally I think the product that will kick Microsoft Project of its pedestal is an offering that somehow does away with those boring lists entirely.

A consequence of this generalist nature is that these project collaboration services have a walled garden approach when it comes to interaction because the underlying assumption is that every person associated with the project will be a signed up member of the service. However if I am using Projjex and a business partner has chosen Basecamp we should not need to have accounts on both systems to collaborate on different projects. If these services were more focused then I am sure more effort would be placed on getting them working together (e.g. Basecamp for collaboration and Projjex for project management). Unfortunately because every one of these companies are going for the same 'generalist' pie, there is no room for negotiation or partnership. I am sure this tune will change once a major player enters the arena, sending the smaller companies clammering for higher ground. Which leads me to my second thing...

Where is Google?

This project/collaboration/document management market seems ripe for Google to come muscling in. On paper it would seem like a no brainer for a Google Projects like service:

  • It would tie in nicely with their Google Apps offering.

  • GMail, Google Docs and Google Calendar would integrate perfectly.

  • It would support open source development and compliment Google Code.

  • There is an opportunity to do something really different.

At the back of Projjex and 37signals' minds must be some lingering uncertainty around if (or when) such a service will be released. If past events are any indication the result would not be good as it would draw users away from these smaller services and probably force Microsoft's entry into the online market. As a potential user this is a problem because you do not want to entrust a business critical task on a service that will be run out of business (or at the very least eclipsed) by a major player in the (perhaps) not too distant future.

Why not swim with a big fish?

What we have yet to see is any of these project collaboration tools take the task of desktop/web integration seriously. For example if Google ever do release a project management tool that integrates seamlessly with GMail, GCalendar, etc. would it not make sense to be the competitor with excellent Outlook and Sharepoint support? Alternatively by deeply integrating your product with Google's services it may lead to hesitation before the release a competing product (see & Google).

The problem with this theory of course is that it breaks the 80/20 rule. If something is to integrate seriously with any of these applications it by definition must be a deep product. Compounding the problem is that building this integration takes far more effort than adding extra features to your proprietary web-interface. Unfortunately the fact of the matter is that integration trumps aesthetics and functionality nine times out of ten. An online project management tool that integrates seamlessly with Outlook is far more valuable to a heavy Outlook user than one that does not.

Only time will tell whether Google or Microsoft enters this market and if they do whether smaller services like Projjex can survive or even flourish. In the meantime lets take a look at how Projjex shapes up as standalone service within a relatively immature market.

Projjex at a glance

If the look of Projjex had to be summed up in a couple of words for the catwalk it would be "subdued practicalism" (note, I don't think practicalism is a real word).

The fact that Projjex is not glitsy is a matter of taste, but personally I believe it is a good thing. When it comes to business critical tools what you are after is something that works when you need it and gets out of the way when not. On this scale Projjex performs pretty well, it is uncluttered and designed with an eye to getting things done first, and looking good second.

Whilst the introductory videos did a very good job of introducing the functionality and setting the tone for the product my initial experience was not very welcoming. When I first went to log in with Safari I was presented with this rather intimidating message:

Note to Projjex developers: If a site works in Firefox 2/3 it will pretty much work in Safari or any other Webkit-based browser. Sure, go ahead and display a warning message if the person is using Netscape Navigator 4, but in the case of Webkit if the only issues are going to be minor bugs then the warning should be more subtle. As far as I could tell things worked fine with Safari except for a couple of negligible graphics issues, all of which looked more like bugs with the site rather than the browser.

What works


It was a pleasant surprise to see lots of useful tool-tips appear on each new page. Whilst it may seem trivial these aids helped point out things that first time users who never read manuals should know about.

Dialogs instead of page loads

The project creation and data-entry tasks were all pretty straight forward for anyone used to using applications like this. Rather than using lots of different pages Projjex opts for a dialog model that is very reminiscent of a desktop application. This is a wise move because not only is it familiar, it also feels more responsive and more consistent.


One user interface feature I really liked was the ability to quickly fill in time-sheet information. For this Projjex uses a hybrid spreadsheet/dialog approach that is not only fast but very easy to understand. Time-sheets are a necessary evil and with this in mind it does a very good job.

Minute taking

Lots of applications let you setup meetings, but very few follow through with emailed minutes and attendance. The idea is that as you are having your meeting you record changes to the project (i.e. add requirements, update tasks, etc.). Once the meeting finishes you 'close' the meeting in Projjex and it generates a set of minutes based on the changes made during the meeting. This is a really good idea because it closes the loop between organising a meeting, recording the changes and notifying everyone.

Simple yet sophisticated security

For every entry created in Projjex you can assign sharing rights that range from completely public through to private. There is also an option to share entries only with those in your business. Whilst it may appear simple, the fact that these permissions can be inherited or individually set provides a lot of flexibility when it comes to mapping out your project with others.

What doesn't

The dashboard

Dashboards are the one place on any system where things need to be visually appealing. I would say the most successful dashboard ever is the one provided by Microsoft Outlook. That alone has probably helped sell more copies of Exchange than any other function or marketing campaign. The dashboard is your first impression of Projjex and to say it is underwhelming would be an understatement:

In contrast checkout this one from

The dashboard needs to be the place where all this abstract, textual data is aggregated and presented in a clear and visually appealing manner. Currently as it stands the Projjex dashboard is something you want to get away from as quickly as possible because it just feels so stale.

The dashboard is also an excellent place to integrate with other systems, for example an easy place to start are HTML widgets for websites such as iGoogle and Facebook. Beyond that is the fragmented desktop widgets/gadgets environment (Google Desktop, OSX, Yahoo and Vista). The dashboard should arguably be the first and last place you visit during the day, so striving to make it ubiquitous and appealing is the goal.

Lack of visualisation

Beyond the dashboard is the lack of any serious charting functionality to enable project data to be summarised and visualised on a single printed page. When it comes to projects and communication the ability to stick a gantt chart in front of people's faces is the single best way of getting them to understand the overall project and where they sit in it. By not answering this problem Projjex are forcing people to export their data into another, competing product (e.g. Microsoft Project).

Beyond gantt charts is the lack of visualisation of documents. When all your documents are stored on a remote server it is important that you can quickly see the right file without having to download it completely. The fact of the matter is that people never name their files intelligently or take the time to adequately describe them with meta-data (e.g. 'This document describes...'). Projjex needs the ability to quickly preview contents of commonly used files in the same manner as Alfresco Share. For example image files should have thumbnails generated and text documents a preview of the first page rendered.

In conclusion

Overall Projjex is a solid service that contains a couple of really good features (meeting minutes and time-sheets). The interface is very practical and works well in general. Projjex needs to focus on integration with third-party services and develop the depth of functionality in one or two key areas. If you are working in a small team and looking for a low-cost, project/collaboration/document management service then Projjex may fit the bill. However be warned, if you are looking for Web 2.0 glamor, Basecamp maybe more to your liking.