Zen: Does This Project Management Tool Live Up to its Name?

zenlogo2I’ve seen my fair share of online project management apps during my time here at WebWorkerDaily. Generally speaking, they all claim to reduce the stress produced by the project management process, but Zen is a good candidate for the most bravely named among these apps. It definitely raised my expectations, at any rate.

Zen also uses a lot of other buzzwords with which those well-educated in PM practices with which will no doubt be familiar. It claims to be a “lean” PM solution, and talks about the service being able to replace a manual kanban board and spreadsheet. I was expecting to see the ghost of Six Sigma also raise its ugly head somewhere in the promotional materials, but luckily, no such specter appeared.

I was especially interested in the claim that Zen works on a “board” rather than a “list” basis, and to see what effect that would have on my actual project management habits.


Zen looks like you’d expect a standard, current-generation web app to look like. It has simple, clean lines, a minimalist palette, and uses a tabbed menu interface for navigation. I like the inclusion of a hint bar across the bottom of the screen, which is often just wasted space in an app like this. I don’t need the full window to use Zen effectively, and the hints significantly reduce ramp-up time for new users.

Picture 8What Zen reminds me most of is a blog theme, which is not a bad thing. I’m used to reading and navigating blogs, as are most of you. Like the hints panel, the blog-style layout also adds to Zen’s pick-up-and-playability.

Color choices, typography and graphics are all a little too bland for my taste, but at least they don’t intrude on the actual usage of the app. Most project managers would probably opt for function over fashion anyway, so count this one in Zen’s favor.


The basic unit of Zen’s system is the “Story,” which is like a task, assignment or sub-project. You add a story by entering a description (up to 1,000 characters), details, size and tags. Once it’s been added, you can reassign it to different team members, mark it as ready, and then drag it into either the “Working” or “Complete” columns depending on its status. The drag-and-drop interface is a very nice touch, but the system might feel a little inadequate for people who are used to setting more detailed tasks.

Picture 9If you don’t like the column view, switching to the “Work” tab will give you a list-style overview of all the Stories in progress. This table gives you an easy way to filter projects according to completion status, owner, phase and size, and is probably most useful if you have a lot of simultaneous tasks on the go.

“Performance” and “People” offer macro-level overviews of your in-progress tasks, and provide pretty impressive visual feedback that allows you to quickly and easily keep tabs on everything that’s going on. Graphs and charts are automatically generated using Flash (s adbe) to show you things like lead time and efficiency, while the “People” pane shows you your whole team and their role breakdowns (which are customizable) at a glance.

Picture 11Finally, the “Process” pane allows you to fully customize the stages involved in your project workflow. For example, I added an “On Hold” category for projects that had been started, but will be delayed for whatever reason. Each phase has a fully customizable name and description, and an optional limit that will restrict the amount of stories that can occupy that phase concurrently.

Pricing & Options

For people who need very little in the way of options and flexibility, Zen is free. But that’ll only get you one ongoing project (albeit with multiple Stories), and zero collaborators (so you’re on your own). For $9 per month, small organizations can get three ongoing projects and three collaborators, and a built-in IM client. From there, plans range from $29 to $99, and offer significantly more in the way of user and project limits.

Zen lives up to its name in many ways, since it reduces clutter and focuses on the core components of project management, but it may not be deep enough for PMs with a detail-oriented style. Those who prefer macro-management, and tend to be more visual or tactile in nature, however, will find it the perfect online PM solution.

Has Zen reduced your PM stress levels?