29 free or cheap online collaboration software tools for you and your team

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Under “fire, pants on”, please file my blog post of not two weeks ago, claiming to have seen the light on how to choose online collaboration tools so that you accommodate the least-geeky member of your team. As a philosophy, that lasted for 10 whole days, but as a practice it survived for less than 48 hours. The truth is that I go into each project as if half the value I bring to a team is the opportunity to introduce them to new software tools that will make them smarter, happier, and more attractive to the same or opposite sex.

But the door-to-door, project-to-project evangelism of productivity tools is not a scaleable model. So here you have it, an inventory of the software tools that I bludgeon gently encourage my colleagues to use. These are all web apps, except as noted, and are all free, except as noted.

    Project management, time tracking and scheduling

  1. Basecamp: A project management platform that includes task management, messaging, file sharing, calendaring, time tracking and “writeboards” (shared documents). Use it as the hub for planning and tracking your project tasks and deliverables, and to exchange all project-related emails so that they are archived in one place without overloading your inbox. By setting up separate permissions levels for members of your immediate team, and your client, partner or subcontractor teams, you can keep selected task lists and email threads private to your inner circle, while coordinating communications and planning with a larger group. Free for one project, $24-149/month for premium plan.
  2. Google Calendar: Online calendaring tool that lets you see your calendar on any web-connected device, or even sync to your computer or phone’s calendar. Use it to manage your personal schedule, share your availability with your team, view teammate’s available windows (you can each set your calendars to show available/unavailable rather than full calendar details), subscribe to your closest colleagues’ calendars, and invite people to meetings or calls.
  3. Harvest: Time tracking and invoicing tool. $12-90/month depending on the size of your team. Use it to log and track time on your projects, track expenses, invoice clients, and see reports of invoices paid and outstanding.
  4. Doodle: A scheduling tool that lets you identify a set of potential call or meeting times and find a common time that’s convenient for everyone invited into the Doodle poll. For scheduling any call or meeting that has to accommodate the scheduling constraints of more than 2 people.
  5. Communications

  6. Skype: Audio & video teleconferencing tool, running off software you install on your computer. For one-to-one video calls, or calls where we want to exchange links via text during the call. But not for group calls if I can avoid it, because I have yet to do a group call on Skype that didn’t spend the first 15 minutes trying to get everyone on the call before inevitably losing one or more callers sometime during the meeting.
  7. SMS: Text messaging on cell phones. For urgent issues, for “I’ll be there in 5 minutes” when running late, for sending passwords to someone after just emailing them with a username, for “sorry can’t talk in a meeting” messages when I fail to take a call.
  8. AIM/Gmail chat: Instant messaging/chat service, accessed through web interface or a desktop chat client (like iChat).For conversations with my immediate team or closely collaborative subcontractors, just about anytime day or night. Opening an IM to a colleague is less intrusive than calling them; if they are in a meeting they can still answer quick questions or tell me when they’ll have time to reply. It’s also one of the fastest and most reliable ways for my close colleagues to get my attention, which is why I only use it with a very small circle.
  9. Email: For heartfelt thank yous or confidential exchanges that don’t belong in the Basecamp record.
  10. Writing, file and document management

  11. Google Docs: Online document management with real-time collaborative editing, in doc or spreadsheet form. For tracking project tasks and contacts (in a spreadsheet); collaboratively drafting documents or project plans, particularly with more than 2 collaborators (Word’s “track changes” rapidly becomes a nightmare if you send a document to 2 different people for comments at the same time.)
  12. Evernote: A flexible online notebook to hold all your documents (or snapshots, or voice memos), synced across multiple devices (web, phone, tablet); install the (free) software app for your computer and phones or use the web version when you’re away from your own machine; . Create a shared Evernote notebook for minutes of team meetings, drafts of documents and notes you want to share with the team, a single note with the contact info of everyone on your team, snapshots of whiteboards creating during meetings (so they become searchable thanks to Evernote’s text recognition) or web clips of any pages you want to include in a shared compilation of project-relevant research (you may want to create a separate shared notebook just for that research file). Pay for Premium service ($45/year) to enable editing of notes in a shared notebook, plus other benefits listed here.
  13. Subethaedit: A document editor you install on your mac, which lets two or more people collaboratively edit a document in real time; free for 30 days, 29 Euros for purchase. As long as I’ve invited you into the document over wifi, you’ll see what I type as I’m typing it. I use this for real-time collaboration when working with a colleague in a setting that doesn’t have reliable wifi, by creating a computer-to-computer network over wifi. (If there’s solid wifi, I now use Google Docs since it’s completely real time, too.) We use this to take collaborative minutes during team meetings (so the person who is talking doesn’t have to type while they talk) and to have a set of collaborative minutes and backchannel during every client meeting or pitch.
  14. DropBox: Cloud-based (i.e. online) file storage and file sharing. Create a dedicated project folder in the top-level of your DropBox account, and invite other members of your project team into the folder. Use it to store all background documents on your project plus any working documents and deliverables; organize these into subfolders.
  15. Syncplicity: A DropBox-like cloud-based file storage service, but with automatic syncing to Google Docs. Use Syncplicity on its own or with DropBox so that the latest version of any doc or spreadsheet in your Google Docs account is automatically synced to your local computer here’s how), so you can edit it while offline or simply work in Word or Excel. Move files into your Syncplicity folder to have them automatically upload to DropBox.
  16. Scrivener: Mac or Windows application for writing long documents, especially books and scripts/screenplays. Store a project on DropBox so you and your co-author can each keep it synched to your respective computers, and take turns writing or editing your common project. Instructions on using Scrivener for collaboration are here, but be sure to read this page about Scrivener + DropBox and note the warnings against opening the same file on two different machines at the same time. Free for 30 days, $40-$45 to buy.
  17. MindMeister: A brainstorming and mindmapping tool for creating flowcharts or mindmaps, and sharing those with a team (you can give others permission to view or modify). Free for up to 3 mindmaps (or for even more for the first 30 days), $5-15/month after that. Use it to map out a project vision, outline and organize a document, break a large group into smaller teams, map out the structure of a website or analyze any challenge visually. If you haven’t used mindmapping as a thinking or planning tool, read http://www.mind-mapping.co.uk/make-mind-map.htm”> a good introduction here or here.
  18. Twitter and social networking

  19. Twitter: Post 140-character status updates or private messages. For exchanging quick questions-and-answers via DMs, posting mentions of my colleagues that give them kudos for their work, compiling Twitter lists of tweeters who cover the topic we’re working on, and reaching out to others about our work.
  20. Hootsuite: Tool for viewing, composing and scheduling updates to Twitter, Facebook and other social networks. Upgrade to a premium account ($15/mo) so you can share access to a Twitter account with colleagues, assigning tweets to team members for response, or queueing up tweets for review before sending.
  21. Listorious: A list of Twitter lists (I know, I made fun of it, but I’ve seen the light.) Use it to jumpstart the Twitter account for a new project by finding and following a few relevant lists, or to find experts whose tweets will be helpful to your work.
  22. Facebook: Social network. Friend the people you are working with on a project or on an ongoing basis, and get to know them as actual human beings; this is a great way to build your working relationship. If you don’t want to share all your adorable kid pictures with your colleagues (I recommend that you don’t), or if you have other reasons for keeping some of your Facebook posts off the radar of your clients and collaborators, follow these instructions on how to use Facebook lists to share different content with different groups of people.
  23. Link and citation sharing

  24. Delicious: A social bookmarking tool for storing, organizing and sharing links to websites; use it alongside or instead of your browser’s built-in “bookmarks” or “favorites”, or better yet, use a tool that keeps your browser bookmarks in sync with delicious. Choose a common tag or tags that you and your team members will use to bookmark relevant resources (after first double-checking to see that the tag isn’t already in use), and share links by tagging them instead of circulating them by email; subscribe to the tag from within Google Reader or iGoogle so that you can see the latest links from your team.
  25. Zotero: A Firefox extension for creating and managing a citation library, organizing your notes about articles/books, and inserting citations (endnotes or footnotes) into a document. Create a Zotero group for your project team (see this how-to) and use it to share the resources (and especially, the annotations) you add to your citation library.
  26. Papers: A Mac application for finding, downloading, organizing, annotating and citing PDFs instead of leaving them scattered all over your hard drive. Create a Livfe collection (“>here’s an overview) to share your citations and notes with other colleagues who need to work from the same documents (for copyright reasons, they’ll have to re-download the PDFs to their own Papers library. Free to try for 30 days, $79 to buy.
  27. Image sharing

  28. Pinterest: A tool for collecting, curating and sharing images you bookmark from across the web and organize into “pinboards” (like bulletin boards) of favorite images. Set up one or more pinboards for your team and set the board settings to allow “me + contributors” to pin images. Create a pinboard of design inspiration for your team, a set of product options you are considering purchasing, an image file of photos or pictures you may want to incorporate into a document or website, or infographics you want to tweet.
  29. Skitch: Image capture and annotation software tool (Mac and Android only, iOS coming soon). Use Skitch to capture screen shots of web sites or applications, annotate them with comments or change requests, and upload them to Skitch servers for sharing with your team members.
  30. Blogs & content management

  31. Google Reader: An RSS reader for aggregating the RSS feeds of different blogs or searches, so you can read them all in one place. Set up subscriptions to the blogs that are relevant to your project, or to the RSS feeds for relevant Google news or blog searches. Place those feeds in a single folder within Google Reader, save that folder as a bundle and then share the bundle with the other members of your team. (Note that your bundle will be visible to anyone who has the URL.)
  32. WordPress: Blogging and content management system. Use a WordPress or other blog to share news about a project-in-progress, or to create an internal (password-protected) site for project musings that are shared only with team members.
  33. Drupal: Content management system for running blogs or complex web sites. I often work with teams to build and manage Drupal sites, or to create ongoing content (e.g. blog posts) for those sites. The key to working effectively as a team on a Drupal site is to make good use of its roles system, so that you can safely assign a new team member to a role that lets him create content without worrying he’s going to nuke some other aspect of the site.
  34. App management

  35. Mailplane: Gmail client for Mac, with easy switching between different Gmail accounts. If you are responsible for reading or responding to email on behalf of a website or project team, set up the website’s email hosting through Google Apps, and add the email account you’re managing (e.g. info@yourwebsite.com) to the list of accounts in Mailplane. Now it’s easy to switch between your own Gmail account and the Gmail account you’re managing for the team. Free for 30 days, $25 to buy, SO worth it.
  36. Prism: Firefox extension or standalone app. If you are using a lot of web apps, it’s easy to lose them in a mess of browser windows. I wrap each of my favourite web apps as a separate app, and put links to each app on your desktop or in your launcher or doc. Mac users can also use Fluid to do the same thing.

That’s the roundup of tools I currently use on a regular basis, and that I’ve used as collaboration tools this year. I add new apps to my toolkit all the time — Google+ is just starting to make its way into my collaborative workflow — so I’m always eager to hear about new collaborative tools that could change my life. What are the essential tools in your toolkit?

4 Comments on this site

  1. Tod Maffin

    Great list, thanks A!

  2. Ann Douglas

    I really, really, really love Instapaper (www.instapaper.com). I can use it on my computer and my iPad. (I could probably use it on my iPhone, but I’ve been finding it difficult to read on my iPhone since my last birthday. Or maybe even the on before.) There’s an Instapaper plug-in that I can add to Reeder (which is the computer and iPad-friendly tool I use to repackage the feeds from Google Reader), so that I can save my favourite posts from my newsreader as I read them and allow everything else to be deleted within 24 hours of being read. (This is key. Otherwise I end up with so much info-sludge I can’t find anything.)

  3. Albert pinto

    Thank you for recommending these helpful tools. I would like to recommend proofhub in your list. Have a look on it.

  4. James

    Another very good online collaboration tool is: on premise R-HUB web conferencing servers. You may try the same.

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