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Should you manage projects with Clarizen 3.0?

The software is a bit slow to load and won't provide much use to large companies, but if you operate a smaller firm, Clarizen is a fine choice.

Clarizen this week announced that it launched version 3.0 of its online project management tool.

Clarizen 3.0 adds a variety of new features, including the option to manage business issues, track expenses, and view Gantt charts. The company also tweaked Clarizen's design and added more tutorials to its site to make it easier for users to learn how to use Clarizen.

I've put version 3.0 through the paces and evaluated the project management tool to see how it stands up to alternatives, like OfficeZilla, which I took for a spin earlier this year.

Clarizen is certainly more powerful than OfficeZilla and it works quite well. But should it replace your project management software?

After getting through the process of signing up (Clarizen has a free 30-day trial, so you don't need to input payment information), it took just a few seconds to get underway. The software immediately asked me to name my project. Once I did, I was brought to the project management console to start working.

Clarizen gives you hints when you first create a project that help you determine what to do next. So, if you want to start adding milestones to your project, the app's listing of "milestones" that can be renamed are there for you. Once you rename the milestone, it's immediately added to the progress chart above the administrative console.

Clarizen 3.0's management console. Screenshot by Don Reisinger/CNET

I also found it easy to add more milestones or tasks. As Clarizen pointed out to me in a meeting last week, the "right-click button is your friend." Whenever I wanted to add a task to a particular milestone, I needed only to right-click and choose that option. Creating each new item took just seconds.

With the same right-click menu, I was able to assign employees to different tasks. I input the person's name and email address. Clarizen then gave me the option of limiting their ability to view all the options the tool offers. That's an important feature. For many companies, giving contractors or new employees full access to the project, including budget, income, and expense information, is simply out of the question. By checking a single box, Clarizen makes it easy to block access to certain employees.

I was genuinely impressed by Clarizen's set-up process. Depending on the size of your project, it could take seconds or hours. But either way, it will certainly be quicker than other tools, like OfficeZilla, thanks to its fine design and handy right-click menu.

Experience with Clarizen
One of the first issues I noticed with Clarizen was its slow load times. For example, switching from the main project console to work items--a place to modify what kind of work needs to be done to complete the project--takes too long. Moving from a page, like work items, back to the project console took even longer. It was annoying.

That said, Clarizen is still a useful tool. Its Resources page makes it easy to sift through different employees and see what they're up to. You can quickly assign them tasks, see how much work they're performing at any given time, and determine if they're being tasked with too many jobs.

Clarizen's project progress feature is outstanding. It uses a proprietary algorithm to determine whether or not your project is behind schedule. If it is, a red ball will be displayed next to the task that should have been completed. A green ball means you're on track. You can tweak task settings to ensure the algorithm is calculating the right amount of time to complete the task.

Tracking time is extremely easy in Clarizen. Employees can go to their time sheets, find the task they've been asked to perform, and input how many hours they worked on it each day. They can then submit that to the project leader for approval. On the project manager side, users can track how employees are spending their time, see how much of their work is billable, and determine whether or not they're profiting off their work. In today's economy, that's a handy tool to have.

Clarizen tells you when your project should be completed. Screenshot by Don Reisinger/CNET

But when it comes time to determine just how usable Clarizen is, we need to consider the user. Clarizen is by no means designed for big companies. It's a tool that will work fine for a small to midsized enterprise, but larger firms will need a more capable product. So keep that in mind as you consider Clarizen for your next project management tool.

New features

Since Clarizen 3.0 boasts a few new features, I thought I'd take the time to look at the two major updates in this version--Issue management and Expense management.

Issue management
Clarizen's issue management is useful, but it seems rather extraneous. In essence, the Issue management pane allows project managers to highlight problems with the project, assign someone to solve the problem, and describe exactly what needs to be fixed. On one level, it makes sense: whenever there are issues with work performed, the Issue management pane will make it easy to inform the employee. But at the same time, most project managers will highlight those issues in the individual task items, so some companies might not even use this feature.

Either way, creating an issue is simple. You need only to click the "new issue" button, fill out the fields, and assign it to an employee. That employee will see the new task in the project pane, including its priority and due date.

But I'm still not convinced it's really necessary.

Expense Management
The Clarizen Expenses feature is simply outstanding. As someone who once worked in the accounting field, inputting expenses was a daily occurrence. And not one of the many tools I used did expense management better than Clarizen.

When you get to the Expenses pane, you can create an expense report. You can input your own expense description or pick those created by the project manager. If the project manager created expense categories, you can choose the appropriate item from a drop-down list. If not, you can add your own.

From there, it's self-explanatory. You need to input the date your expense was incurred, how much it was, and check the "billable" and "reimburse" boxes if your company can charge the expense to the client and pay you back for your charges. The tool even has an attachment option that allows you to upload documentation proving your expense.

Bottom Line

Overall, I was impressed by Clarizen. It is a bit slow to load and it has some features that you might not use, but I was generally happy with the experience. It won't provide much use to large companies, but if you operate a smaller firm, Clarizen is a fine choice.

And for such an affordable price -- plans start at $24.95 per user per month up to $49.95 per user per month, depending on the number of licenses you need and the length of time you plan to subscribe to the service -- it's even more attractive.