June 30, 2016

Trello vs. JIRA: Choosing an Agile Project Management Tool

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“Agile” has become a bit of a buzzword in recent years, and thus, lost some of its gravity.

But in the context of project management, agile still means something; it indicates a specific methodology used to collaborate, manage work in progress, and deliver products on time.

Agile project management software is designed to uphold and expedite this process through enhanced visibility, task distribution, and workflow automation. Of late, this functionality has appealed to marketing and creative teams as well as software development and service teams.

ALSO READ: 4 JIRA Alternatives for Your Dev Team

If you’re shopping for an agile project management solution (or any project management tool, really), you’ve probably come across JIRA and Trello. These two platforms have become immensely popular and share a portion of common audience, but they have different strengths and different applications.

In this article, we’ll compare Trello vs. JIRA based on systems and pricing, team collaboration, task management, agile PM features, and integrations. Read on to see which solution makes the most sense for your team.

Systems and Pricing

The first thing you should know is that Trello’s basic version is free. If you’re looking to spend as little as possible to get a basic collaboration tool for your team, this may be a show-stopper. The free version of Trello gives users access to all project management features and doesn’t impose any limits on the number of boards you can create or users you can add.

Trello’s paid version, “Business Class,” gives you the ability to sync data with other business systems (Slack, Github, Salesforce, etc.), a board collections feature, and few basic administrative tools. Subscription fee is charged per user, per month. For about twice as much per user, you can upgrade to Trello Enterprise and get two-factor authentication, single sign-on, premium customer support, and onboarding assistance.

If all you need is an independent productivity tool to keep tasks organized and share work between team members, the free version will probably suffice. If you’re working with code from a repository or data from another business system, you will need a paid edition of Trello.

While JIRA’s cloud-based platform doesn’t have a free option, the cost is negligible for small teams and scalable for large ones. Instead of a per-user subscription, you pay a flat rate each month based on the size of your team. JIRA also offers on-premise deployment for users that want to customize their setup and install on their own hardware.

Both products, for the most part, offer all of their features in a single module, although JIRA is part of the larger Atlassian suite, which includes Atlassian Confluence, HipChat, Service Desk, Bitbucket, and other products.

Let’s take a look at features.

Task Management

Task management is the heart and soul of every project. Break down the project into smaller pieces, then decide what needs to get done and who needs to do it. This is true whether you’re working on a piece of software, planning a marketing event, or designing a new branding guide for your company.

Trello excels at task management; it’s also one of the easiest platforms on the market to learn. Tasks and project work are logged using a three-part hierarchy: Boards, Lists, and Cards. You can create and organize these elements however you want, assign cards to specific users, assign due dates, and attach files. In their words, “a Trello board is a list of lists, filled with cards, used by you and your team.”

trello board tasks

Trello board, with lists and cards.

The only potential downside here is a lack of pre-built workflows; you’ll have build processes from scratch for any work you want to manage in Trello.

JIRA takes a different approach to task management, although with some of the same features. Most out-of-the-box JIRA workflows are designed to help teams build, test, and release software, but you can also create custom workflows for use in other product development and agile scenarios. Then again, JIRA’s task management features are baked directly into an agile framework (more on that later), so you’ll have less flexibility if you aren’t working on a software release.

kanban task management jira

A Kanban board in JIRA.

As with Trello, you can create tasks (stories) and cards, assign them to team members, and move them between columns such as “To Do,” “In Progress,” and “Done.”

Team Collaboration

Inasmuch as it’s important to move tasks toward completion, it’s important for team members to communicate about progress and requirements along the way. Both platforms offer a number of features to make this possible.

With Trello, you can invite any number of people to share the same board, which means everyone will have the same visibility into project status and tasks. Users can comment directly on cards, share attachments, @mention other teammates, and, of course, use emojis. All users assigned to a particular card, list, or board will receive notifications via email, SMS, or push, based on their preferences.

Trello sends users notifications when they're mentioned on a card or task.

Trello sends users notifications when they’re mentioned on a card or task.

JIRA has the strong advantage here of being integrated with HipChat — Atlassian’s team collaboration/internal messaging app, whose basic edition is free. That means users can send messages and collaborate directly on project assets without leaving either app. Then again, Trello offers a native Slack plugin with their Business Class and Enterprise editions. The more appealing product in this area will mostly depend on which messaging platform (if any) you already use.

hipchat interface

The HipChat interface.

ALSO READ: Slack vs. HipChat: Choosing a Messaging App for Your Team

JIRA also offers the more “traditional” collaboration features: team member task assignments, notifications, file sharing, etc.

Agile PM and Features for Dev Teams

There’s really no contest in this category. While Trello excels as a flexible, visual task management platform (Kanban, in a way), it doesn’t offer most of the agile features a traditional software development team would look for — like Scrum and sprint planning, a backlog of user stories, detailed project reporting, issue tracking, and code repositories. You might be able to find a way to customize some of the workflows and hierarchies to mimic these features, but it won’t be the same.

JIRA, on the other hand, was built specifically to serve agile software development teams and offers a whole gamut of features to that end. Whether building code or tracking issues (available in JIRA’s Service Desk edition), JIRA can support Scrum methodology, Kanban, or a mix of the two.

sprint planning in JIRA

Sprint planning in JIRA.

You can pull user stories or issues into your current “sprint” and distribute tasks among your team, then track progress with a Scrum board or Kanban board, which displays sprint days remaining and a filtered view of project cards.

JIRA’s agile reporting features (burndown charts, sprint planning) will help you keep everything on track and deliver fast, functional product increments.

JIRA's release planning dashboard.

JIRA’s release planning dashboard.

Integrations

In many cases, you’ll need to exchange data between your project management app and other systems, like helpdesk software, a code repository, or even something simple, like a time tracker. Before you buy, make sure the vendor supports native integration with these systems, or you’ll be forced to set up a workaround.

Trello has a decent, but short list of native apps in its library. A few of the more noteworthy include Zendesk, FogBugz, Slack, Github, Salesforce, and Google Drive. In terms of sheer quantity, JIRA again has a strong advantage, with a massive library of native integrations for time tracking, test management, CRM, reporting, code review, email, cloud storage, and so on. Think Trello integrations plus 1,000.

Both vendors offer a free developer API for customers that need to set up manual integration.

Making Your Final Decision

Trello is a simple, customizable kanban board for teams that want to work “agile,” but aren’t observing the whole liturgy of agile development. JIRA is an project management tool for by-the-book agile teams that are building, fixing, and releasing software.

With such a clear delineation, it shouldn’t be hard to decide which product is right for your team. But keep in mind that Trello and JIRA aren’t the only two viable products in this category. Use our Product Selection Tool to browse other PM solutions and get a custom recommendation, based on your needs.