One of the many benefits of being involved in the short-lived project to revise this for the forthcoming release of ASP.NET 4.0 was the opportunity to try out various online collaboration tools for the author team to keep in touch with each other and to keep track of what we were all doing. Various suggestions were made, but rather than keeping track of the project on a synchronized Excel or Google spreadsheet, we went for a Kanban board kept online at AgileZen.com.

I suspect we barely scratched the surface of what the site can do, but in terms of keeping track of who has got what chapters to write and where they are up to, and signalling to the rest of us when something had been done, it was pretty good. The whole user interface is very straightforward. When you create a new project, an empty board is generated for you with some generic phases that each task in the project – known as stories here – will pass through before being complete.

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In the end, after a bit of modification to match the phases on the board to the standard phases of a chapter on a book, we ended up with this. Things not yet begun were added to the Backlog and moved into Draft 1, tech review etc left to right until they’d end up in the Archive as a finished document. Non-writing tasks went from Backlog to Other Tasks to Archive. This was a little more awkward than it probably could have been. My guess is that the two story workflows, writing and non-writing, could have been refactored into a more generic, single one probably more akin to the original set of phases shown earlier, but hey it worked for us.

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Co-authors were created as Administrators to allow us to change anything we liked on the board while our editor was online as a look-but-dont-touch Member. AgileZen lets you create as many user roles as you like with various combinations of the permissions shown below, but with such a small team, we only needed the two roles.

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A nice touch is that the use of Gravatars for the board users. Invite users using an email address with a gravatar attached to it and you’ll see it automatically shown wherever they have a story in play on the board.

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In conclusion, I quite liked Agile Zen and would use it again, even though we didn’t get far enough into this project to test the kanban functionality behind it to any great degree. Working with it was very intuitive and at $9 a month to accommodate a team of four and three projects (pricing structure here), it was more than cost effective for our needs. I’d have liked a more centralised area for conversations between the team, perhaps something akin to Shareflow. It is possible to write notes within each story, but that’s not a conversation. And it’s probably not what kanban boards are for either, but it would have been nice to have all the collaboration tools in one place.

I have a feeling that AgileZen would be a good fit for fans of the Getting Things Done \ Scrum approach to organisation, especially across a team of people. Fans of lean software development and six sigma management strategies will certainly like its shallow learning curve and the (apparent) power behind it. Have a go. A one-person, one-board account is free to anyone.