Work management software is boring. Innovations are rare and you may think that no cool new vendors appeared in the last 5 years. Indeed, Asana is 10 years old, JIRA is everywhere and Trello was released in 2011. Are there any new tools coming? Can we expect a new paradigm shift?
I believe it is happening right now. There are few promising vendors that trying to disrupt work management market 🌊.
Vendors: Airtable, Zenkit, Notion, Coda
Let’s try to generalize what drives this new wave. These drivers sorted by importance, so first one is the most important.
- Domain Generalization. There are no specific entities like Tasks and Projects anymore. Specialization is gone. Everything is very fluid and you can define your own semantic. It means you can quite easily use a tool to track Leads in simplistic CRM or User Stories in software development project.
- UI Generalization. There are various ways to see information: Tables, Lists, Timelines, Kanban Boards, etc. All vendors try to generalize UI this way. Old vendors try to keep up with this trend as well, see how Asana and JIRA added Timelines recently. Interestingly, the first implementation of UI Generalization appeared in Targetprocess in 2013.
- Automation. Users are becoming more savvy and want to automate boring actions. Even in latest iOS release there are automation rules. No wonder work management software should keep up. Coda gets Automation very seriously, Airtable less seriously and other vendors rely on Zapier (so far).
- Document-oriented approach. Most new vendors rely on documents or spreadsheet to handle work. Documents are becoming really rich with visual widgets, interactivity and subsections. Coda takes this approach to extreme claiming that “Document is an App”, Notion tries to do almost the same.
None of the ideas above are very new (well, maybe UI Generalization is the most fresh). For example, QuickBase has Domain Generalization and Automation a decade ago. However, QuickBase is old, it’s UI is terrible and technological platform is outdated. New players will beat it eventually.
Work management software market entrance barrier is relatively high. To join the race, you need at least 2 years and 6–8 people team with tons of experience.
It is time to dive into new vendors. They sorted chronologically, and Airtable is riding the wave with its first release in 2014.
First Release: 2014
Motto: Relational spreadsheets on steroids
Why use Airtable when there are free alternatives like Google Spreadsheets? 30,000 companies found the reason. Airtable is somewhat-relational database with a very good UI and think-through user experience.
It is flexible enough to support common and unusual cases, like track farm inventory, plan a trip to Japan or organize a wedding.
You can start from scratch with a spreadsheet and quickly design your own app by adding columns and connecting several spreadsheets together.
People are familiar with spreadsheets, they have years of experience in Excel, Numbers and Google Docs. It means Airtable is very easy to grasp and conceptualize. You can quickly build a mental model of the system and create your own things. Three main concepts are fields, relations and blocks. Fields are very easy to understand and use, relations and blocks are harder. But you can start with fields only, solve some of your problem and then dig into more complex concepts.
The real thing is that you create not abstract rows in a spreadsheet, but entities with a custom entity type. You can see a row differently: as a card, as a popup, as a calendar element, etc.
Basically, you are designing your own database. This is a core of all new wave tools. The simplicity of this process is the core strength of Airtable.
Airtable has open API. It doesn’t have custom Blocks creation yet, but it will come eventually.
You can’t connect Bases together. It means you can build data islands, but with no connections. These islands are isolated. Imagine, you have a list of Customers. You want to use the same list in two Bases: CRM and Ideas Tracking. You just can’t do it. All you have is manual replication of Customers list in two Bases, which is labor intensive and error prone. Somehow relational part of Airtable breaks here.
While Grids and Calendars are great, Kanban Board is not so good and there are no Timelines. It all means UI Generalization is not the strongest part of Airtable. It is quite hard to use Airtable for projects management, especially for software development projects. It starts to feel cumbersome when you have several teams and dozens of user stories in progress.
The last serious limitation is lack of Documents. It is even not possible to have a rich edit field inside an entity. You have to store all unstructured information outside Airtable, and it makes Airtable weaker as a single source of data management.
First Release: 2016
Motto: Simplicity, Choice, Growth
Zenkit is quite weird beast. It seems it has a good engine under the hood, but everything becomes not so good on UI layer.
In 2018 development stalled. There were few new features and nothing major released. It is not clear what’s going on. Maybe they are cooking something important, maybe product will be abandoned soon.
In Zenkit you operate with Teams and Collections. This terminology is quite weird. Basically, Team unites several Collection, while Collection is a separate entity type.
On the image below HR is a Team, while Applicants and Positions are collections. You can link Collections together, this creating your own Domain.
You can visualize Collection as a List, Kanban, Table, Calendar and Mind Map. It works, but overall perception is that some of these visualizations are not finished. For example, you can’t have hierarchical Lists, you can’t set other Collection as a lane on a Kanban, you can’t group rows in a Table, etc.
Zenkit works relatively well for individual users or for small teams. You can create your own Apps via Collections and visualize data using List, Kanban, Table, Calendar and Mind Map views.
Zenkit is fast and easy to use.
You can’t connect Collections from different Teams. It means you will face exactly the same problem as with Airtable. If you have Customers in CRM Team, you can’t reference Customer in Ideas Team, for example.
Zenkit has no public API, no custom UI extensions and poor integration with third-party software (only Zapier is supported). It looks very strange, since when you have flexible domain, integration becomes paramount.
Zenkit has no Documents as well. It means Document-oriented work management is not there.
Frankly speaking, Zenkit is quite close to Airtable and can solve very similar set of problems, but Airtable is more deeper application with similar limitations. Mind Maps is the only unique feature, but it doesn’t compensate all Zenkit weaknesses. It is hard to recommend Zenkit when you have Airtable.
- Zenkit, First Take: A usable and customisable task management tool
- Why this former Trello user has moved to (and is loving) Zenkit
First Release: 2016
Motto: All-in-one workspace
The last two apps (Notion and Coda) are closer to each other than the rest. Let’s start with Notion.
In its first release Notion was just a Wiki, it became a work management software with Notion 2.0 release in March 2018.
In all honesty, the 2.0 is the real 1.0 for us. We added tables, Kanban boards, and calendars. Along with the existing notes and wiki features, Notion can finally deliver on the “all-in-one workspace” promise. We think you’ll love it!
Indeed you can insert “Database” blocks into documents, transforming documents into apps. In fact App is a Workspace in Notion. For example, this is a Workspace for Tasks tracking.
You can install many Workspaces, they visible in sidebar. Each Workspace can have several visual representations of information.
Notion is Document-oriented from day one. It is a powerful Wiki with all bells and whistles you need. You can create complex nested documents really fast and share them easily.
You can connect databases from different Workspaces together. So far this functionality does not give you much, but at least you can have fully connected domain (improvement in comparison with Airtable and Zenkit). There is a hope that later it will be possible to utilize connected domain better, like group by reference in Kanban Board and create nested hierarchical tables.
Notion is fast, it has slick design, great usability and it’s joy to use. The flow of creation is almost fun. Notion powers creative individuals.
Notion is great for individual usage, but not so great for teams. Small teams can survive the flexibility, but it seems larger teams are having troubles with the structure, it is hard to keeping everything together. When you have a lot of data and a lot of cases, Notion explodes.
What makes it hard for teams and companies? The are several things that matter:
- Notion designers break familiar semantic. Databases in Notion are Tables in fact. It is quite weird to have a relation to CRM, when you just need a reference to a Customer.
- Database represents just one entity type. It means you can solve a basic problem inside a single Workspace (like track tasks or plan blog posts publications), but more complex problem demands several Workspaces. For example, you need Features and User Stories inside. You just can’t have them in a single Workspace in a usable way, so it becomes cumbersome when complexity grows.
- You can’t see all required entities in a single place. Basically, you can’t create views that shows entities from several Databases.
It all makes Workspaces shallow and inconvenient for complex problems, like product management or software development management.
Notion has no open API at the moment and no custom UI extensions. It means integration abilities are poor. API is coming, however.
First Release: 2017
Motto: Document is an App
Coda is strange. You want to love the product due to innovation, but just can’t.
Main entity in Coda is a Document. But make no mistake, this is not your familiar Document, it is an App. Below is an example of a single Document that allows you to run iterative software development project:
Every Document can have several Sections inside. On the image above Sections are on the left and they are grouped into Folders. To me Section is a usual old document, so terminology in Coda is unnecessary weird (common pattern in all vendors, only Airtable get it right). Running work management project inside a document sounds insane, but it works to some degree when you accept that “Coda Document” is a group of Documents in fact.
You can create as many Sections as you want inside a Document and visualize data using Kanban Boards, Tables, Charts, Calendars and Detail Views.
Notion and Coda concepts are very similar, but the devil is in the details.
Document-orientation helps to connect data and text in a similar way as Notion does. These two apps almost on-par here.
Coda has automated actions. You can automate many things, like assign a new task to a developer, send notification to Slack, etc. Automation is really powerful and it makes Coda unique, since all other vendors rely on Zapier and don’t have good automation rules.
Integrations in Coda are Packs. You can connect Document to various external applications and do interesting things, like import data from Trello, create Pull Requests in GitHub with a button in a Document, etc.
Coda has API already, which is always good.
Overall, Coda provides great automation and integration abilities, but not everything is shiny.
Coda UI is too fluid. When you move the mouse, you see popups, highlights, new controls appearing everywhere. It just feels like it’s too easy to break something and you don’t feel in control.
On the first sight, document-orientation is taken to extreme in Coda. However, it has serious unexpected limitations. Documents in Coda are not connected. Yes, you can have many Sections inside a single Document, but you will have hard time implementing Wiki for the company using Coda.
Coda is complex. Everything demands high level of cognitive effort. Automation rules, Integration Packs, Formulas (especially formulas), Document concept — everything is hard. Very often you know that you can solve a problem and build a solution with Coda, but you just give up.
So yes, Coda is for creators. But. With Notion creation feels like a game, while with Code it feels like a war.
- Coda is a next-generation spreadsheet designed to make Excel a thing of the past
- To turn docs into apps, Coda had to rethink productivity from scratch
Paradigm shift in work management software market is happening. The change is driven by flexibility, unification and automation. People demands fewer well-integrated tools.
My personal ranking of new wave work management software is this:
- Top tier: Notion and Airtable
- Second tier: Coda
- Outsider: Zenkit
Summary table is always good to have:
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