Guide to Online Collaborations: Useful Tips, Tools & Apps
The art of online collaboration has been slowly fine-tuned over a couple of decades. One could argue that digital networking started with the popularity of mobile cell phones. But the World Wide Web has expanded to create a meeting ground where ideas can develop into something very real and tangible. Working with a team of any size is going to require some compromise. And with the right tools and ideologies it’s possible to build some of the future’s greatest technological advancements.
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It seems a lot easier to do this in writing than when you need to put your ideas into motion. You need to get everybody thinking on the same page and communicating their ideas efficiently. This requires strong leadership and the right platform for launching creative endeavors. In this article I want to share some of my pointers to getting your team collaborating online.
Getting the Team Organized
Over much trial and error I have come to the conclusion that organization is the number one piece of advice you should follow. If you take anything away from this article, it should be how to get your team organized.
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Each project may need a different style of organization. You must have a clean method for sharing ideas and grouping related topics together. E-mail is an obvious choice since you can setup categories and tags for archived discussions. But it’s not so great for real-time sharing between multiple people.
Chat applications are another solution, yet not so great with saving older text conversations. This means it’s extremely difficult to organize the information or even access it on a later date.
I believe a private discussion board can be the perfect place to share these ideas. Each of your team members can create new threads and reply to comments in real-time. It doesn’t matter who is online since all the older posts are threaded in a linear fashion. You can also group these into categories and subcategories on the forum homepage.
Commonly most web hosts will default to a PHP/MySQL server environment. For open source solutions I recommend phpBB or Simple Machines. Each has their own set of web templates which are perfect for small team collaborations. Both scripts are still in active development and show no signs of stopping any time soon.
Another big roadblock your team will run into is organizing tasks. These can include everything from marketing, content development, design/graphics, and coding the frontend or backend of a website, plus consider any other important tasks which you need to get done.
In regards to task management there are more than enough paid solutions to consider. Flow is a beautifully designed task management system built for small-large teams. Tasks can be grouped in a list format or displayed on a monthly calendar. Plus, you can organize tasks into categories and tags, and attach them onto a specific user. The company has even developed Flow apps for iPhone and Android devices. Unfortunately their management system will cost up to $100/year and that isn’t reliable for many small businesses.
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For a free solution I recommend Wunderlist. This must be one of the best free task management systems you can find online. Their web app is very intuitive and allows you to share with other friends in your network. This means you can build a project workspace and any new tasks you create will automatically sync into their accounts! Wunderlist supports Mac OSX and Windows, plus iPhone, iPad and Android mobile applications.
Storing your files into the Cloud has almost become a necessary modern day solution to file storage and file sharing. There are so many apps you can find which offer cloud-based storage for all of your team’s project files.
The purpose is to setup a single area where everybody can access important files at any time of the day. This is essential if you were working with people from different parts of the world and living in completely different time zones. It would be difficult to always stay in sync with each other. But cloud storage has dramatically changed the situation for the better.
CloudApp is probably the first idea which comes to mind. Their pro accounts are very reasonably priced and you have almost no limits on the total number of files you may upload. Free users will never see their account expire, so all their files are safely stored in CloudApp for as long as is needed.
Another solution is Droplr which is a newer app on the Cloud Hosting scene. They also have software built for Windows and Mac operating systems, which means you can totally bypass the web interface. The only difference between these two apps is their UI design and pricing charts. Take a look at both and see if you would favor one over the other.
Google Web Apps
When discussing collaboration in Cloud we cannot forget Google. Their pioneering products have pushed the limits in the field of Internet technology and placed free tools into the hands of entrepreneurs. My favorite example has to be Google Docs where you can create an unlimited number of word documents, spreadsheets, and presentations. All you need is a Google Account and their immense network of server farms will keep your files stored securely.
The best part is their unique sharing system and easy-to-use interface. Once inside a document you can edit privacy settings by clicking on the “Share” button in the top right corner. This will display options where you can open the document to the public or limit to a select number of people. These are managed by e-mail addresses, so even if your team members do not have a Google Account they can still login and edit the content.
Working on Mobile
Not everybody has made the transition from desktop to mobile platforms. Granted there is still a heavy need for using desktop computers which offers plenty of screen real estate, not to mention the support for thousands of applications. But mobile phones running iOS or Android are quickly becoming the norm in popular culture.
We are even noticing young kids who download new apps onto their iPhone or iPod Touch. It’s difficult to ignore the mobile market when it comes to online collaborations. There are so many products available, yet only the most notorious have been able to release applications for mobile.
Two great examples include Basecamp by 37signals and Socialcast. Basecamp is more of a traditional collaboration tool where you can create project workspaces and delegate tasks for different users. This is perfect for smaller project teams who make a small profit off their work. Socialcast, on the other hand, is a much more in-depth product. They do offer a free plan which is great for testing out the site. If you glance over their product info page you’ll notice all the little details put into this product. Their mobile support is impeccable and allows you to access even the most notable features. Some of these include web traffic analytics data, task assignments, Outlook e-mail, and even microblogging widgets (status updates, post comments, questions, etc).
More Popular Web Apps
Along with the above I’ve put together a small collection of very popular web applications for online collaboration. Syncing tasks and building a new project has never been easier with these powerful tools.
I recommend you try each product just to see how it works for you. If any app feels clunky or useless don’t be afraid to drop it and move onto the next one. Your time isn’t something to be wasted, and when you find the right app you’ll know it!
I had used Pando a few years back collaborating with another web design agency. The service was excellent and it’s so easy to upload files and assign them to specific users.
The app is built for desktop computers and features a keen drag-and-drop interface. Their primary affiliate company Pando Networks offers enterprise-level hosting and bandwidth for more powerful businesses. Definitely read a bit more about the app and try it out if you’re interested.
This is another really cool startup which has yet to let me down. Professionals in the tech industry know that word of mouth is a huge piece to marketing. And Dropbox has proven to be incredible with this technique in expanding user upload limits through affiliate referrals.
The main site has links where you can download the software for Mac, Windows, Linux, or even mobile devices. Their team is incredible and the app really does “simplify your life”. The basic free plan limits your upload storage at 2GB, but pro accounts and teams can increase to 1 terabyte or more!
Wunderkit may be my favorite choice out of all the online web collaboration tools. This is developed by the same people who made Wunderlist except with a lot more features. The app has a social connection where each user has their own network profile. This displays their current project workspaces, tasks, user photo, bio, and other personal info. But the best part is that Wunderkit allows you to segment public and private workspaces.
This makes it super easy to collaborate with many different people all through a single application. And even better, they have support for apps in the OSX and iOS App Stores.
This is a small yet notable app to feature as an online collab tool. Snyc.in will create public notes which are defined by unique key IDs. You can add any text such as link URLs, bullet points, HTML markup – really any form of text input.
Then by copying the note URL you can share the same text with all of your team partners. They have the option of editing what you’ve already created or even adding their own notes into the mix. And you can define settings where each author’s edits will be highlighted a different color and categorized with a time stamp.
Admittedly the app is not so helpful with archiving your past edits. But if you need a live cloud-based text file for sharing simple notes then Sync.in is perfect.
Zoho is very similar to Basecamp except their free version is extended forever. Any free account is limited to 1 project workspace with an unlimited number of users. You are also limited on file uploads, but the wikis and other tools are excellent.
If you have never heard of Zoho Projects before I highly recommend taking the tour quickly. This includes a few screenshots to familiarize yourself with the admin panel and many of the underlying functions. Their pricing can get very expensive in comparison to the other options I’ve provided. But if you can manage with a free account, Zoho offers a great solution as a temporary project workspace.
Networking and collaboration is always a gray area for new teammates. It can be difficult to define who are the project leaders and what are the tasks assigned to each member. Thankfully we have access to the many apps littered throughout this post to make the process a bit easier.
I hope this guide has clarified some of the inner mechanics required for working online. Any team will need to be comfortable sharing ideas and having respect for each other. Creative types love to build new things – it’s in our nature. And the only thing better than building creative ideas is building them with other people by your side.
Author: Jake Rocheleau
Jake is a user experience designer for both web and mobile platforms. Having over 4 years of freelance projects under his belt, he frequently writes articles on topics of modern design trends and social media. You can check out some of his work on Dribbble or follow his tweets @jakerocheleau.