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Flexible Project Management with Trello: Boards, Lists, and Cards


You may have heard the buzz about the project management and collaboration product, Trello. Created by Fog creek Software, this hosted tool can assist anyone with getting and staying organized — whether you’re a solopreneur launching a new initiative or you’ve been running an established business with an array of remote employees. Trello can help you manage a single project, juggle multiple workflows, or, keep a handle on both personal and professional interests.

Trello’s success comes from its flexible design. It provides the basic elements and you can arrange and organize them to match the structure your project demands.

Unload Your Brain

“Basically, you can use Trello to unload your brain, then move things around in a way that works for you,” says Ben McCormack of Fog Creek Software. While a flexible approach to organization is great, there’s another thing that makes Trello even better: “It’s free,” says McCormack.

Despite the overwhelming popularity of the product, McCormack says the product was intended to be free, and will remain that way:

Our plan was to put it out there, hope that people would love it, invite others to use it, and it would market itself. We do have some additional pay features, such as Trello Gold and Business Class, but we’re not pushing those on our users.

This tutorial will help you become familiar with Trello's basic terminology, and then walk you through the steps to organizing a project. Get set up with Trello for free to follow along. Once you are familiar with Trello, you can take advantage of its flexibility to work out a method that suits your business.

Understanding Trello’s Terminology

Trello is based on three main elements: boards, lists, and cards:

  • A board is often used to house a project. Think of a late night TV crime drama; at the start of a new case, detectives notoriously gather around a large white board. It collects everything involved in solving the case: leads, suspects, and things to investigate. Items are crossed off, added, or moved around. The board is constantly updated as the case progresses.
  • Within boards are lists. These typically represents the different stages of progression toward project completion. Think again of the crime drama: at the start of a case are several tips to explore, which may quickly turn into dead ends or become solid leads. This could be represented by three lists on the board: tips, dead ends, and valid leads.
  • Cards are the equivalent of to-do items which populate your list. What good is a list without any items on it? Each card can represent a specific action, which can be moved among different lists as it progresses or changes hands. Cards can contain a wealth of information, such as photos, conversations, documents, or links. They also can be broken down further using checklists.

While your job probably differs from a late night crime drama, the basic elements are the same. The board represents your overall goal. Cards are your to-do items, which can be moved among lists, depending on their progress in the project.

But because of Trello’s flexible design, there’s nothing forcing you to comply with this setup. “You can set it up to work for you, ” says McCormack. “One client used a list for each customer. Within that, they used cards to represent areas of work for that customer, and broke the cards down further by using checklists.”

Let’s take a look at a basic Trello setup.

1. Getting Started with Trello: A Basic Setup

Step 1

Your first step in using Trello is to create a board. Click on the Boards menu item in the right corner of Trello, then choose New Board. We’ll call this board Software Release. A board starts off with three default lists: To do, Doing, and Done.

Step 2

You can work within these three lists, edit their titles, or add more lists to them. For example, if you are planning a software release, you might start off with a list of features to be assigned among your staff. Let’s edit the title of the first list from To Do to Features. Click on the list, edit the name, then click Save.

Step 3

You know that later in the project, you’ll need a list for software that is ready for testing. Double-click on the blank space below the lists, and a box appears. Type the name of a new list, Testing, and place it in fourth position on your display.

Step 4

Now your Software Release board has four lists:

Step 5

You can move lists around to arrange them in an order that’s logical to you. Perhaps you decided you want Done to be the final list, so click on that and drag it to the last position:

Step 6

Now that your lists are set up, you can enter some cards. First you want to itemize the features you’re planning to work on in the release. Each will have its own card, which will start off in the features list. Click on the Add Card button under Features, then enter the description of the feature: Update the user interface. 

Step 7

Continue adding cards for each planned feature. Right now you’re just creating the cards, without adding any content; we’ll look at cards in more detail later.

Step 8

You can move cards between lists by clicking on the card and dragging. Let’s move Fix known bugs from Features to Doing.

2. Adding Others to Your Board

A Trello board can be either public or private.  This setting is displayed at the top of a board, to the right of the board's name.

If you’re a business of one, your board can stay private; you don’t need to invite other members. Private boards are also a great way to organize your non-business affairs, such as planning a party or keeping up with household repairs.

But if you have others working with you, you’ll need to set your board to public so you can add the people who are working on the project with you. Choose Add Members from the sidebar menu. If the person isn’t already on Trello, enter an email address to invite them to your board.

Once the member accepts the invitation, you can begin interacting with them; you can assign cards to them, they can receive notifications of changes to their cards, and they can engage in discussions.

3. Filling Out Cards

Cards are an invaluable way to keep everything relevant to a task in one place. Rather than having details scattered among various emails, documents, images, or conversations, you can pull everything together on the card, where it will remain even after you archive the project.

Let's take a closer look at what you can do with cards.

Step 1

When you double-click on a card, a more detailed card screen displays. Here is the expanded card for the Update the user interface item created earlier.

Step 2

You may find it helpful to categorize your cards. The Labels and Members areas on the upper right corner allow you do this. You can click on Edit Labels to color code a card — perhaps to specify department, priority, client. Or, you can use Assign to link a card to a Trello member.

Step 3

On the left, you'll see the Activity column, where users can engage in conversations, or to enter notes to themselves. If you're entering a comment to another user, identify the person by typing the @ sign with their Trello name, or by clicking on the down arrow symbol just below the comments area. Trello will send that person a notification of the message.

On this card, you type a comment for the user @seanhodge1: "You'll be taking over the user interface for the new release".

Step 4

On the middle right column are the Actions, where you can enter more details about the card. The first action enables you to break down the card into more detailed checklists. Click on the Add Checklist button, then enter a name to describe your checklist.  Here, we'll call the task Read results of user survey.

Now you can type specific checklist items for that task. They will appear as a list with a checkbox beside them. You can even copy items from another list, if you had several tasks that are composed of similar items.

Here is an example of the completed checklist created for the task Read results of user survey.

Step 5

Due dates are an important part of any project, so you can click on the Due Date button in the middle of the Actions column to add a date to this card.

Step 6

You can attach images, documents, or other files to a card, which makes it easy to share information, particularly if your workers are remote. Click on Attachments and you can add files from your computer, Google Drive, or your Dropbox.

Step 7

In addition to clicking on the card and dragging it, as we did earlier, you can use the Move Card button to move the card as it changes hands or progresses in the project's cycle.

Step 8

The bottom two buttons allow you to Subscribe to a card, which will keep you informed on the card's progress, or Archive a card once it's completed.

Gain Peace of Mind, Extra Time

As an online business owner, you know the pressure of juggling tasks and wearing many hats. A free tool that helps take over some of your organizational duties can be a welcome relief. Once you've mastered the basic components, you can set Trello up in the way that works for you, then focus more of your time on growing your business, rather than organizational overhead.

Trello supports the following browsers: Chrome, Safari 5 and 6, Firefox, and Internet Explorer 9 and 10.

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