Review: Flow

I’m starting up some new projects and trying to get organized. So I’ve spent some time this week looking at Flow, a new web-based task management app from MetaLab. I actually had beta access to it, and was impressed. But at the time, Flow’s iPhone app was under development and it wasn’t a complete solution for me. Now, Flow is ready for prime time and has an iPhone app and even a beta Mac app. Could Flow be the answer to my task management needs?

What I need

I’ve been looking for a solid task management app for a while. Between personal projects and involvement with organizations, I manage a lot of projects and need a system to keep me on task. I primarily work alone, but sometimes collaborate with friends. Whatever solution needed to work effortlessly on my home and work machines and on my iPhone and iPad.

37 Signals’ Backpack is my go-to app for keeping notes, info and checklists. I’m not looking to replace Backpack. And I’ve hacked together a system for using it for projects, but I really need something more robust for task management.

I looked at apps like Things and OmniFocus. Things was interesting, but I was worried about the complexity of syncing between all of my devices. OmniFocus was powerful, but perhaps too complicated for my needs. I’m a fan of 37 Signals’ Basecamp and used it extensively with my board when I was president of AIGA South Carolina. But for a single user, the $24/month package is overkill while the free package isn’t enough. I haven’t really found something that fits my needs.

What can Flow do?

I’ve been using Flow for the last couple days.  There are three elements to Flow: the web interface, the iPhone app and a beta Mac app.

The Flow web interface acts like a very well designed Mac app. It’s quick and easy to add and sort tasks. The system is very intuitive and works exactly like you think it should. 

Adding a new task on the Flow web interface.

Tasks that are not filed in a project appear in the inbox. These may be new tasks you entered quickly or tasks that a contact may have delegated to you. Flow gives you flexibility in displaying your tasks. “Upcoming” shows you the tasks for the week ahead.  There are set views for tasks you have delegated or flagged. And the “My Tasks” view lets you sort your tasks by due date, project, tags and more. You can attach files and notes to tasks.

The iPhone app gives you a very similar experience to the web interface.On the left side of the app, below the various preset views, are tabs for Projects, Tags and Contacts. You can drag projects around to organize them or click on them to see active tasks assigned to the project. I haven’t played with Tags much, but they allow you to view tasks by tag instead of project. For example, this could be helpful if you want to see all the tasks tagged “writing” or “design” regardless of their project assignment.

Flow does let you delegate tasks to others and add people to projects. I tested it with a friend and delegated a task to him and we were able to comment back and forth. Of course, for this to work, the other person needs to have an account, which might limit it’s usefulness. (Metalab plans on introducing a Collaborator View to allow people without accounts to view and complete tasks. This might increase the usefulness of the collaboration feature.) Flow will send you email notifications when there is activity on one of your projects so you can stay in the loop.

The iPhone app is also very strong and is as intuitive as the web app. There are a few minor issues. You can’t add new projects from the iPhone app, only assign tasks to existing projects. The end result is that you have to place them in the Inbox and assignment them to projects next time you log into the web interface. And for some reason, I feel like I have to manually refresh the view more frequently than I should. But in general, a very strong first effort that I’m sure will get better.

The beta Mac app is an nice little addition. If you are expecting a full fledged desktop client though, you’ll be disappointed. Instead it’s similar to the app that Dropbox offers. It adds a menu bar icon to the top right on your screen and allows you to quickly add tasks. It only works on Snow Leopard, so if you haven’t upgraded, you are out of luck. It’s helpful and does make it easy to add tasks very quickly. Considering how strong the web client is, I personally don’t think there is a need for desktop client Mac app, unless you want to access your task list without an internet connection. If you frequently need to access data offline, Flow isn’t for you. 

The Mac app joins the trend of placing an icon in the upper right side of the tool bar. But it does make it easy to enter a new task from the desktop.

What’s Missing?

Flow is still missing some things that would make it more useful. Obviously, it’s the first iteration so they are still actively adding and tweaking.

The big one is recurring tasks. I have several tasks that I need to do weekly or monthly that I would love to set up on a recurring basis, but Flow doesn’t support that right now. According to the support forum on their web site, recurring tasks is the most common request and is a priority to be added. I’m sure they are working on it and hopefully the feature will arrive soon.

I’d love an iPad app. The web interface isn’t very touch friendly so your best bet for using Flow on the iPad is to run the iPhone app. It works, but a native iPad app has the potential to be awesome.

And finally, I want a print style sheet. Or some kind of mode to give me a printed task list that doesn’t have all the site navigation. By no means is this a deal breaker, but a nice feature to have that (I believe) should be relatively easy to accomplish.

How much is too much?

Flow is basically $10 a person per month. You get discounts when you buy multiple accounts. And you can get a discount for buying a year ($99/year). When they announced the initial pricing, there was a small uproar that $10 a month was outrageous, especially for large teams.

Is Flow too expensive? I think it depends on your situation.

I intend to use it primarily as an individual. I’m looking at $10 a month for one account. For comparison sake, for Backpack, I have a Solo account that is $7 a month. Basecamp can be significantly more expensive depending on which package you use, but they also offer a free, limited account. I really believe that for an individual account, in comparison to other web services, $10 a month with no limitation on the number of projects is fair.

The other comparison though is to a system like Things or OmniFocus. Both of those are significant up front investments, but are then free to use. For a Mac App, iPhone app and iPad app, Things is roughly $80 ($50 Mac + $10 iPhone + $20 iPad) and OmniFocus is about $140 ($80 Mac + $20 iPhone + $40 iPad). And for someone like me that has two Macs, the cost is even a little bit more. But after that initial investment, using the system is free unless you choose to install a paid upgrade. Over several years, Things or OmniFocus should be significantly cheaper than Flow.

Within days of announcing their pricing, they revised the discount structure for teams. Flow’s originally pricing structure made it very expensive for large workgroups. I’m sure it’s an understatement to say they got a lot of feedback on the pricing. Previously, under Flow’s original pricing structure, users with more than 25 accounts got a 25% discount. So for my entire team of 25 at the office, it would have cost us a little over $185 per month. Under the revised pricing, groups of more than 10 get 50% off. So that same team of 25 would pay about $125 per month. Flow also offers a discount of 30% for groups of three or more. That’s not inexpensive, but much more in line with what other products like Basecamp cost. It’s definitely a step in the right direction.

Personally, I think the logic behind the pricing is that Metalab thinks most Flow users will be freelancers and small groups that collaborate with other individuals who purchase their own subscriptions. This is a very different, decentralized model than the administrator-based model that most web apps use for their products. For some people, this will be a better approach. For others, this pricing approach is cost prohibitive. It simply depends on your needs.

So will I continue to use it?

For people who have already invested in Things or OmniFocus, is there enough here to make you switch? I doubt it. And if you are happy with your Basecamp site, I imagine you’ll stick with it. But Flow is a product that for some people - like me - might just be the perfect task management system. I expect that some of the missing features will be added soon and I hope they’ll keep improving the product. For now, I’m going to try it for a month or so and see if it will work for me. (And of course, I’ll post updates as I continue to use it.)

If you want to try out Flow, sign up for a free two-week trial account at getflow.com.