Zenkit, First Take: A usable and customisable task management tool

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There are a lot of tools for managing to-do lists and tasks. Zenkit is a friendly but reasonably powerful planning system that combines the kind of features you'd find in Trello, Microsoft Planner or Wunderlist with some basic spreadsheet, database and calendar functions and a mind-mapping option. So far, it's been a web service with mobile apps that included only a selection of the main features.

Now there are apps for Mac, Windows and (unusually) Linux. They're Progressive Web Apps (PWAs) without much integration to OS services like notifications, but they give you offline access to the full feature set without having to fiddle around in the browser to manage offline storage and syncing. It's also nice to see that the apps have some basic keyboard shortcuts for accessibility.

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If doesn't matter what collection style you start a Zenkit project with -- you can just change the view.

Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet
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The templates that come with Zenkit save you time when setting up a new project, but they're pre-populated with sample data that you'll need to delete if you're using them for more than practice.

Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

Features

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You can invite anyone into your team in Zenkit, although they will have to get a Zenkit account even to see items.

Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

It's the combination of features that makes Zenkit interesting. As you'd expect, you can create projects using templates (for a small number of common project types), add people to them, create tasks (with a wide range of custom fields) and assign them to team members, add sub-tasks and so on. Team members currently have to sign up for Zenkit accounts, but you can send them an invitation from inside your project. Guest access is on a long list of planned extra features.

You can also switch the view from the Trello-style Kanban board, with tasks grouped into rows and columns by your choice of meta-data, to a spreadsheet-style grid, a to-do list (you have to turn on checkboxes manually) or a calendar. You can also view it as a mind map, although you have to specifically create tasks in a hierarchy to connect them.

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Open an item and you can edit and add fields.

Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet
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Table view shows more details of your items at once.

Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

A more traditional Gantt chart is also on the roadmap, but that won't make Zenkit a formal project planning tool as it doesn't have recurring tasks, repeating calendar events, dependencies, milestones or project time tracking, for example. Collaboration in Zenkit means assigning tasks, looking at activity feeds and leaving comments -- there's no option to jump on a Skype call or a Google Hangout with the rest of your team.

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Zenkit is really more like a simple FileMaker Pro application with the basics of planning built in and the option to customise fields extensively. Tasks have standard fields like due date, status and description, but you can add custom fields like a start date, checkboxes to create sub-tasks, basic spreadsheet-style functions, or a link to other tasks to get a more sophisticated way of organising information. You can add number and currency fields, but not percentages (if you want a Percentage Complete field, you have to trust people not to type in something over 100). You can attach files, but there are no tools for marking up documents or images.

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Add a wide range of custom fields to get exactly the details you need -- although you can't add validation options to fields.

Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet
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Filter the items that show up in a view, and then save the filter so you can use it to make a custom view.

Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

You can filter one of the standard views by any of your task fields, but you can't create a complex filter like "only show tasks that are overdue and haven't been assigned to anyone". And while you can assign tasks by dragging a name from the list of members onto a task, that's not obvious -- we manually added 'assigned to' fields to several projects before discovering the option to drag. Save those filters and you can them to make your own views -- there isn't a standard Today view, or an Overdue view, but you can create them by combining groupings and filters and giving that view a name.

Navigation & integration

There's a plethora of ways to navigate around Zenkit projects, collections and teams. Almost all of the menu options duplicate something you can already do by clicking in the hamburger menu, and we occasionally longed for a browser-style back button to get back to the previous view. It's not obvious, but you can also dock views, filters, members and activities to make it easier to navigate around -- in calendar and mind map view you can pin the unscheduled and unconnected menus as panels to see what you haven't yet dealt with, for example. The layout is very polished for a web page, but still doesn't have quite the same power as a native app layout; the panels you haven't docked pop up over any panel you dock on the right-hand side of the screen.

There's no API for developers to create plugins, and Zenkit only integrates with a handful of services directly. You can import from Trello and Wunderlist if you already have tasks and plans you want to switch over, or from a spreadsheet or database file (Access, Excel, CSV or Google Sheets). You can attach files to items that are stored on Google Drive, Dropbox or Box, and you can sync your Zenkit calendar -- but only to Google Calendar.

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The new Zenkit apps are PWAs without deep OS integrations, so you get notifications inside the app rather than where your OS displays other notifications.

Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

You can use Zapier to trigger actions like creating Slack reminders, adding customers you enter in a project to your Google contacts, or creating new Zenkit items when your account is mentioned on Twitter or you add a note to EverNote. You can also use it to keep a Zenkit project in sync with other planning tools like PomoDoneApp, Trello and Asana, and Zapier would also let you build integration with Office 365. Businesses using Office 365 and SharePoint already get Microsoft Planner as part of their subscription so they may not be target customers, but there's very little integration with the Microsoft ecosystem unless you build it yourself. Zenkit is also only available in English, unlike Microsoft Planner.

The free and commercial versions of Zenkit (Plus, Business and Enterprise) are the same; what you pay for is the ability to have more items in a collection, more people collaborating on a project (limited to five in the free version) and bigger storage limits, as well as preview access to new features. It's on the pricey side at $108 or $348 per user per year, but new features are added regularly and the one bug we found was fixed within hours.

Conclusions

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The big advantages of Zenkit are that it's easy to get started with, and there's a lot of customisation available to make it suit your project and the way you work. The disadvantages are that you have to do that customisation to make it more powerful, and to achieve any integration with Microsoft tools. We'd also like to see the PWA apps take a lot more advantage of OS features like notifications or jump lists -- right-clicking on the Zenkit icon on the taskbar to open it directly to a particular view, the way you can open Excel with a particular spreadsheet, for example. There are a lot of things Zenkit doesn't do, but its simplicity also makes it very approachable.

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