The False Promise of Trello

Every year, like swallows returning to Capistrano, I return to Trello. Entranced by its clean interface and enticed by positive reviews, I embrace Trello as the perfect personal productivity tool. Inevitably, after a few hours to days, I turn my back on the app, disenchanted as ever.

Despite what it does well, Trello fails to deliver in three key areas.

Lack of export

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Trello can import multiple spreadsheet cells into individual cards. Paste all the cell content into a single card, and you can then create multiple cards. There is, however, no corresponding export capability. Trello can export data, but only to the obscure JSON format. Unless you write your own translation code, the JSON format is not usable, especially with spreadsheets.

There is a Business Class (paid) option that allows export to familiar CSV format, but that costs $120 a year. By comparison, the entry level pricing for Evernote is $35 per year. By any measure, even the free version of Evernote is much more useful than any version of Trello. Paying $120 for data export available standard in most other applications is excessive.

Why is export so important? First, the lack of analysis or visualization capabilities in Trello means you must export data to another application to perform these functions. Second, export provides a backup capability. Without an easy backup mechanism, you must trust Trello to safeguard project content. Sorry, team Blue, but I prefer to look after my own material. Also, the lack of an export capability means it is not possible to easily move my content to another application. Perhaps I’m a cynic, but I suspect this is Trello’s main rationale for handcuffing their users.

Lack of easy deletion

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Trello’s approach to deleting content is unconventional, almost bizarre. In early versions of the tool, you could not delete content. You could archive cards, lists, and boards, but you could not remove them. They were permanent.

The latest versions of Trello now allow deletions, but you pay a price. Trello buries the delete command in unlikely places that require multiple mouse clicks to use. The price in lost productivity from navigating unnecessary menu options is a steep price to pay, especially in light of the lack of batch operations.

Lack of batch operations

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As a test, I imported cells from a spreadsheet into a Trello list, appending the new cards behind existing cards. Then I realized I had put the cards in the wrong list. No problem, right? Delete the new cards and start over. Or copy the cards to the correct list. Or hit ‘CTRL-Z’ to reverse the action.

Wrong.

Trello doesn’t allow operations on multiple cards. You can copy, archive, or delete a list, but must handle cards one at a time. This is insane. I can’t even conceive of a productivity tool that doesn’t allow operations on multiple items at once. To force users to touch every item is… unproductive.

Use spreadsheets instead

So, disillusioned, I turn my back on Trello yet again. I return to the one tool that has never failed me: spreadsheets.

At its most basic, Trello is little more than a fancy interface wrapped around a spreadsheet. Compare the two.  Trello has boards made up of lists that contain cards.  Spreadsheets have workbook tabs (boards) made up of columns (lists) that contain cells (cards).

Trello makes it easier to move and reorder cells, true. Other than that, however, spreadsheets outperform Trello:

  • Easy import and export
  • Easy deletion
  • Easy batch operations, including sorting
  • Easy analysis and visualization

The main reason I annually migrate back to Trello is my desire for a cloud-based tool for productivity management. The best cloud alternative to the flagship Microsoft Excel is Google Sheets. Unfortunately, Sheets is a pale copy of Excel.

Next year I will try Trello again. For a few days, until the delusion passes.

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