How to organize a project with a client

Our philosophy is that working with a client is always a collaboration. Every client is unique thus every project is unique. The hard part has been figuring out how to organize a project with a client. Email doesn’t work, paper gets lost and many applications aren’t meant for collaboration. The best option is an online, web-based application that team members can use no matter where they are.

Why organize a project with a client?

First, it’s a collaboration. The clients have hired us. We have discussed the project with them and everyone has expectations. We will always need answers and feedback from them on various aspects of the project.

Email is terrible for this;  answers can be hard to find, especially with team email threads. It’s all too easy for emails to get lost in the shuffle. Organized is not a word that describes email well.

Second, it’s important to be transparent with a client. They need to see how much work goes into the project. It helps to set their expectations when they see that the process isn’t magic. This is also good for our industry as a whole because it’s good for a client to see where their money goes.

How do you choose a project management app?

What app works for you will depend almost completely on you. We’ve tried quite a few apps for both project management and to-do lists:

  • Asana (full featured but a distant, distant second)
  • Basecamp (popular but results in ridiculous amounts of email
  • Todoist (great for an individual, terrible for collaboration)
  • Wunderlist (there’s something off about the collaboration)
  • Trello (<— the winner)

Each of them have their  strengths and weaknesses and most are free. Our main requirements are:

  1. Simple to use
  2. Able to handle multiple projects
  3. Capable of task management (aka to-do lists)
  4. Due dates for tasks
  5. Email notifications (without excess)
  6. Easy collaboration tools

How to organize a project with a client using Trello

We love Trello – it’s easy to get the hang of but deep enough to be useful for complex projects. And collaboration with it is a joy. It also happens to be free, which is a great bonus.

Trello is built around the concept of boards – think of them as bulletin boards. Boards can have members – people who are invited to boards. Anyone who is a member can be tagged in a comment and receive a notification – that’s where the collaboration with clients kicks in. Notifications can be replied to directly from email, making responses a no-brainer.

Boards are then divided into lists. Lists are filled with cards – think of cards as post-it notes that are moved around with ease. Except that Trello cards are way, way more than Post-It notes. They can have checklists, comments, due dates and much more.

Here’s a screenshot of the real Trello board we’re using right now with our client Done & Done Home:

How to organize a project with a client

Our basic project is divided into 5 lists:

  • To Do: everything that needs to be done
  • Waiting For: tasks waiting for answer, files or other information
  • Doing: tasks that are being worked on
  • Review: tasks that are complete and being checked for errors
  • Done: tasks that are complete

Using cards in Trello

Cards can be moved from list to list when their status changes. That’s the most basic way of using Trello.

Cards also display some simple data that helps us know what’s happening at a glance. Here’s a look at the Doing list from the above board:

A 'Doing' list

Each card can be color-coded with labels, with up to 10 different colors available. The icons show whether a card has a description (the horizontal lines) or comments (the word balloon with numbers).

The most useful one is the checkbox – that indicates how many tasks have been completed in that card.

Now here’s the Done list:

A 'Done' list

You’ll notice the green checkbox icon – that shows that all tasks in that card have been completed. You’ll also notice that the second card is a duller gray. That’s a feature called Card Aging that shows which cards have been updated more recently. It helps us focus on what’s active – and keeps us aware of what needs to be done.

A completed card on Trello


An overview of a card in Trello

Cards are where all the power is in Trello. To the right is a completed card. You can see the label(s) at the top.

Next is an option to create a description – helpful for details or directions.

Below that is a checklist of tasks. Cards can have an unlimited number of checklists and tasks; tasks can be dragged & dropped as needed, even between checklists. The green bar above each checklist gets longer as more tasks are checked off as well – a nice visual touch.

At the bottom is the Activity area that keeps track of comments and all other actions. You’ll note that I made a comment when this task was completed, tagging my clients who were then notified by email. If they needed to, they could have responded by email and had their comment appear right here as well.

Customizing cards in Trello

Trello card optionsCards in Trello have quite a few customization options; you can use as few or as many as you need. Here’s a run-down of what each option does:

Add – things you can add to a card

  • Members: Team members can be assigned to cards; this automatically subscribes them to updates
  • Labels: Customized labels can be added
  • Checklist: Add a checklist to a card
  • Due Date: Add a due date to a card & all tasks contained in it
  • Attachment: Attach a file, either from your computer, Google Drive, Dropbox,, OneDrive or a URL; attach as many as needed.

Actions – things you can do to a card

  • Move: Move a card to a different board and/or list
  • Copy: Copy a card to a different board and/or list; decide which checklists to copy with it.
  • Subscribe: Get notifications by email.
  • Archive: Store a card out of sight or delete it (admins only)

Trello + project management rocks

That’s a quick overview of how to organize a project with a client. They’ll have a better idea of what the process is and will appreciate being an active part of the team. Designers, developers and project managers will have one place to keep track of tasks, information and updates.

And there’s a major, major bonus for design and development firms: You can copy checklists, cards and even entire boards. That means you can create steps and processes to use on future projects. We used to keep a Google Doc with lists of pre-launch and post-launch website tasks. Now we just copy the lists from the previous project – which means we get to edit and improve our processes from project to project.

What do you use for collaborating on projects? Tell us in the comments!