Trello is getting out of to-do lists and into fixing the future of work
It's not just boards and cards, and it's not just a productivity tool anymore.
Trello doesn't want to be a productivity tool anymore. At least, not in the way it's been lumped in with so many other tools in the past. Instead of a digital version of the sticky notes on your whiteboard — the Kanban framework it borrowed from software development and helped popularize everywhere — Trello now wants to be the dashboard for your entire digital work life.
What that looks like in practice is Trello rethinking the idea of what a Trello card actually is. Going forward, a Google Doc can be a Trello card. A Figma design can be a Trello card. A YouTube video, a Dropbox file, an Amazon listing — they all can be Trello cards. All exist essentially as miniature apps inside Trello, where they can be moved around, organized and discussed. Michael Pryor, Trello's head of product, said it has 30 integrations already, and it's opening up an API to anyone who wants to build their apps into Trello cards.
To explain why Trello is doing this, Pryor cites a statistic: A recent Okta study found that large companies deploy an average of 175 apps to their employees. Other studies have found that workers spend up to a third of their workday just looking for information. After decades of being tied to Lotus 1-2-3 or the Office Suite, workplace software has been thoroughly unbundled. And it's mostly a giant pain for everyone involved. "We want to help people get control of these information silos and this information sprawl and try to help them understand it," Pryor said, "but in a way that makes sense to them."
Trello is far from the only company trying to stitch things back together. Steve Wood, Slack's head of platform, told me last year that "we kind of want to be that traffic cop, or the integration layer" for every app a company uses. Slack is trying to turn messaging into the hub around which digital work spins. Dropbox is doing the same with files. Monday and others are trying to do the same thing with a to-do list. Everybody wants to be the single source of truth, the system of record. Pryor knows, after a decade of building Trello, how hard that is to do. "You might get good in this one particular area," he said, "but somebody is gonna be better at something else. It's just hard. I don't think anyone could get a critical mass." He's betting against the great rebundling of the office suite.
Trello's bet is thus simpler than most. Pryor and his team think that maybe what employees and teams actually need is just a really nice way to keep everything organized. In that sense, the new Trello is less like a to-do list and more like the evolution of a file browser. It just wants to take everything you have, wherever it is, and help you keep it all straight. That wouldn't require the entire team to buy in or switch tools, and it would work well even if the boss isn't interested. And in this era of totally unbundled software, it seems more useful than ever.
In the new Trello, a board can also be a card. In another board. Which is some serious "Inception" stuff.Image: Trello
The other thing Trello is doing is shifting away from just doing the one thing people know Trello for. When Trello launched in 2011, co-founder Joel Spolsky called it just "a bunch of lists," with cards you could move between them. That was once a novel idea, and it won Trello tens of millions of users. Now it's just called "boards," and practically every productivity tool under the sun offers them. Trello has become a feature, like Stories or text chat, rather than a standout product in its own right.
Going forward, Trello users can see their cards — in whatever form they take — in a bunch of new ways. There's a calendar view, a timeline view, a map view and a customizable dashboard view. Cards can also now live on more than one board simultaneously (which solves one of Trello's longest-standing user frustrations), with their contents mirrored everywhere. Every board is a hub of stuff, even when that stuff is other boards. A board can even be a card now, which gets heady fast.
Eventually, all those Trello cards might be practically alive. Pryor showed me a prototype of a Trello board with a card that updated in real time, showing all of his open tasks, with a live count on the front of the card. Another card could contain 10 overdue Jira tickets that need to be discussed. "In Jira, you can't discuss 10 issues," he said, "because the base level is an issue. So you have to pick an issue to discuss. But because Trello is this in-between, you can create a card that represents that query. And you can talk about those 10 issues inside Trello."
Trello's new approach tends to come with two challenges. First, there's the "fixing your too-many-tools problem by adding another tool" issue, which Trello hopes it can skirt by virtue of the fact that more than 50 million people already use Trello. (Pryor said it's "way more than 50 million," but wouldn't be more specific.) Second, as Slack and others have found, it's not easy to get paying customers when your primary benefit is to improve the other apps they already pay for. Slack likes to talk about how it's the "2% of your software budget that makes the other 98% more valuable," but it has struggled because Microsoft Teams doesn't cost that extra 2%.
There's also what you might call the Frenemies Conundrum, in which an app integrates other apps while also competing with them. That leads to multiple ways to do everything, inevitably prizing one over another, and creates general confusion and chaos. When I asked Pryor if Trello is done being its own product-management tool, instead focusing entirely on integrating everything else, he said only, "I don't know." But then he brought up Pinterest, and the huge amount of value it brings to people with its collection, organization and search abilities. There's no point in Pinterest except as a way to access other things — there's no huge library of native Pinterest content — but Pinterest is doing just fine. Maybe Trello's future looks like "Pinterest for work."
The need for order in the chaos of work software is clearer than ever, and companies around the world are rethinking their software stacks as they shift toward a more remote, more digital future. Trello's hope is to be the glue that holds the rest of work together, for just a few extra bucks a month.