Choosing to use Microsoft Project as your team’s dedicated project management app makes sense only when a number of stars align. First, you really must have a certified project manager on board to drive the software. Second, time has to be on your side and your certified project manager can’t be rushed to learn to use the tool. Third, your team should already be a Microsoft house, or it should be willing to become one. Fourth, the number of projects your team manages and their level of complexity should be quite high. If your organization meets these criteria, Microsoft Project may prove to be an invaluable tool. If not, you’re better served by another option, and there are many.
If you’ve read this far and realized that Microsoft Project isn’t right for your team, I recommend three other options. For small businesses, Zoho Projects and Teamwork Projects are the PCMag Editors’ Choices. Both are reasonably priced and very easy to learn to use, even if you’re not a project management master yet. The other tool that earns the Editors’ Choice is LiquidPlanner, a high-end tool that’s ideal for larger teams managing not just projects but also people and other resources.
A Few Caveats
Microsoft Project takes a long time to learn to use and even longer to master. I am writing this review from the point of view of someone who has not mastered it (not even close) but who has experimented with it for some weeks and asked questions of Microsoft representatives to learn more. My point of view includes comparison testing with dozens of other project management apps, from lightweight ones designed for small businesses to enterprise-grade options.
Because Microsoft Project is something of a bear, I would recommend complementing my article with user reviews by people who have worked with the tool extensively and can provide different insights into how it holds up in the long term.
Pricing and Plans
There are two ways to buy Microsoft Project. You can add it to an Office 365 subscription or you can buy a standalone version for on-premises deployment. The options get confusing, so let me go through them piece by piece.
Office add-on. When you add Microsoft Project to an Office subscription, you get the cloud-based version of the app. There are three pricing levels for this type of purchase: Project Online Professional, Premium, and Essentials.
Project Online Professional costs $30 per person per month. With this level of service, each person gets to use the Microsoft Project desktop app on up to five computers for project management only, not portfolio management. Even though it’s a desktop app, it still runs in the cloud (i.e., it requires an internet connection to use). Access via web browsers is also included.
Project Online Premium costs $55 per person per month. It offers everything in the Professional account, plus portfolio management tools. It comes with advanced analytics and resource management features that you don’t get in the Professional account.
The third level, Essentials, is not a tier of service so much as a role type you can choose for team members who have fairly limited responsibilities in the app. It costs $7 per person per month. You have to have a Professional or Premium membership first to utilize the Essential option. Essential users can only access Microsoft Project via a web browser or mobile device. They can only update task statuses, work with timesheets, share documents, and communicate with colleagues. They don’t get desktop apps or other functionality.
Standalone on-premises deployment. If you don’t want to use the cloud-hosted version of Microsoft Project, you can host it locally, and there are three options for how to do it.
One is Project Standard, which costs $589.99 charged as a one-time flat fee. With this version, you get one piece of software installed locally on one computer, and only one person can use it. It’s old-school software in the sense that it doesn’t have any collaboration features. You get project management tools, but nothing for resource management.
The next option is Project Professional for $1,159.99. Each license is good for only one computer. It has everything in Project Standard, plus the ability to collaborate via Skype for Business, resource-management tools, timesheets, and the option to sync with Project Online and Project Server.
Project Server, the last option, is a version of Microsoft Project that enterprises can get with SharePoint 2016. I could go into detail about how to get SharePoint 2016 and the three tiers of enterprise service for Office involved, but I’ll assume that if this option is of interest to you, you already have a support person at Microsoft you can ask for more information.
If we use the $30 or $55 per person per month price for Project Online Professional as our base for comparison, which are the tiers of service I imagine are in your wheelhouse if you’re reading this article, then Microsoft’s prices are on the high end for small to medium businesses.
TeamGantt is a good place to start for comparison. It offers service ranging from a Free account to an Advanced membership that costs $14.95 per person per month. It’s a web-based tool that includes collaboration and is much easier to learn to use than Project.
A comparable plan with Zoho Projects costs a flat rate of $50 per month, regardless of how many people use it. Teamwork Projects offers a similar flat monthly rate ($69 per month for as many team members as you need), as does Proofhub ($150 per month).
If we turn to more high-end tools, LiquidPlanner starts at $599.40 per year for a small business account of up to five people. That price is based on a rate of $9.99 per person per month, but this particular plan is only sold in a five-seat pack. LiquidPlanner’s most popular plan, Professional, is better for medium to large businesses. It works out to be $45 per person per month, with a ten person minimum. Like Microsoft Project, LiquidPlanner takes time to master in part because it offers so many tools for both project management and resources management.
Other project management platforms that are suitable for larger organizations include Clarizen (from $45 per person per month), Celoxis ($25 per person per month; five-person minimum), and Workfront (about $30, depending on setup).
I can’t stress enough the fact that Microsoft Project is meant to be used by experienced, or more precisely trained, project managers. It’s not designed for learning on the fly. It doesn’t come with clear tutorials for getting started. It assumes familiarity with both big concepts and fine details of project management. If you’re thinking you might use this software but you (or the lead person who will be using the app) don’t know what a burndown report is, I would seriously advise you to consider a different tool.
The app itself looks a lot like Excel. It has the same familiar tabbed ribbon interface seen in other Microsoft Office apps. The spreadsheet portion of the app holds all the data related to tasks or resources. To the right of the cells is a Gantt chart reflecting the schedule as you build it.
Microsoft Project supports all the typical things you’d want to do in a project management app. For every task, you can enter a lot of detail, such as a description, notes, start date, task duration, and so forth. Recurring events are supported, as are dependencies, custom fields, and baselines for tracking actual progress versus planned progress.
The bars in the Gantt chart are interactive, so as you adjust them, the information in the cells updates as well. When a task is in progress, you can indicate the percent that it’s done by sliding a smaller line inside its associated spanner bar toward the right.
In addition to having a Gantt chart view, Microsoft Project offers calendar and diagram views as well. The calendar view is self-explanatory, while the diagram view is similar to the Gantt view, only it contains additional details about the task. If you follow a timeline better when there’s some sense of a narrative behind it, the diagram view could be useful.
As mentioned, the first time you use the app, there isn’t much coaching on how to get started. Some apps provide interactive on-screen tutorials. Others start you out in a sample project. Still others point you early to a channel of help videos for getting started. Microsoft Project has none of that. In fact, the little that Project does provide may merely add to your confusion, such as this little nugget of information that I saw on day one:
“To be clear, Project Online is NOT a web-based version of Project Professional. Project Online is an entirely separate service that offers full portfolio and project management tools on the web. It includes Project Web App, and can, depending on your subscription, also include Project Online Desktop Client, which is a subscription version of Project Professional.”
Even after having gone through all the pricing and plan options in detail, those words still make my head spin.
Features and Details
Microsoft Project is powerful when it comes to the more detailed aspects of project management, such as resource management, reports, and timesheets. Powerful doesn’t mean easy or simple, of course.
In Microsoft Project, with the tiers of service that include resource management, you can manage work (which includes both generic people and specific people, as well as other “work” related resources), materials, and costs. You can do a lot with these elements if you have the time and the inclination.
For example, you can add detail to materials resources, such as a unit of measure, and if you want to get really detailed, you can enter costs for materials. What if the costs of a material changes over time? In Microsoft Project, an additional detail panel allows you to track and account for changes in cost over time.
With work resources, I mentioned you can track specific people or generalized people. Depending on the work you’re tracking, you may need to assign general human resources, such as a “front-end programmer” or “QA tester,” rather than a specific person. It all depends on what you’re managing and how.
Reports are highly customizable, although, like the rest of the app, it takes time to learn how to use them. Some of the more rudimentary features are neat and surprisingly simple to use, however. You can generate a report by navigating to the report section and selecting what data you want to appear in different modules on the page. Using a field selection box on the right, you can make the topmost element the project, and below it you might add a table showing how much of each phase of the project is already complete, and so forth.
All the elements you add to the report are stylized, and they don’t automatically adjust to accommodate one another. For example, if text from one element runs long, it can crash into another. Other minor visual elements often need finessing, too. You can end up wasting a lot of time resizing boxes and nudging elements left and right to make it look decent, which probably isn’t what you’re getting paid to do. That’s a designer’s job, really.
That said, styling the reports in this way has a purpose. Once you finish with all the adjustments, the final product looks ready to export to a presentation directly (in PowerPoint, no doubt), so you can go from generating reports to sharing them without many additional steps.
Within the timesheets section, for those versions of the app that include it, you can have team members fill out weekly time sheets for whatever duration you need, such as weekly or monthly. Team members can report not only time spent on tasks related to projects, but they can also indicate what time of work it was, such as research and development or fulfillment. Another option lets people add time to their time sheets for tasks aren’t specifically related to a project. For example, if Julia drives to meet with a client, the team might want to record that time and bill for it, even though the travel doesn’t appear as a task on a project.
Room for Improvement
I’ve already alluded to the fact that Microsoft Project could offer more assistance in helping people get started with it and learn to use it.
Additionally, Project is weak when it comes to in-app communication. The problem is that Microsoft is a kingdom, and within its realm it already has plenty of tools for communicating. You can fire off an email with Outlook, or schedule a meeting in Calendar, or pop into Microsoft Teams for chat, or Yammer for conversations, or Skype for video calls, and so forth. But sometimes, when you’re working on a project, you just want to @ message someone or ping them in a chat and ask a question without breaking the context of your work by navigating to another app. Seeing as these tools already exist, why duplicate them in Project? (Some might refer to Microsoft as having an “ecosystem” rather than kingdom. An ecosystem can’t help but be what it is, but a kingdom chooses its boundaries.)
Indeed, traveling around the kingdom annoyed me to no end while I was testing Microsoft Project. A desire to share information might result in the app whisking me away to Outlook. A need to update something about a meeting scheduled in my project could leave my computer loading a new tab for Calendar without my consent. Many times, I wanted the ability to adjust all the details related to my project from within the project management app, not somewhere else.
While Microsoft has plenty of its own apps that work with Project, many organizations rely on tools that come from somewhere else, Salesforce being a prime example. Project does not integrate with many other tools. It’s not supported by Zapier either, which is an online tool that can sometimes connect apps and services that don’t natively talk to one another. If you’re hoping to loop your project management application into other online services that your team already uses, whether Slack or Trello or Salesforce, then Microsoft Project is not a good tool to choose.
A Powerful Tool Within Its Realm
While powerful and thorough in many respects, Microsoft Project fits only very specific companies. More and more, this is the case with many Microsoft apps. Your team needs to already be invested in Microsoft products for Project to make sense. It also works best for medium to large organizations, but not small ones. Plus, you need a qualified and experienced project manager on the team to be the person driving the app.
If Microsoft Project isn’t an ideal candidate for your project management needs, I suggest small outfits look into Zoho Projects and Teamwork Projects, whereas larger organizations managing many more projects and resources take a dive into LiquidPlanner. All three earned the PCMag Editors’ Choice.