Trellisaze II: Updated guide to using Trello in the lab

Back in 2015, I wrote a guide to using Trello for lab organisation. I figured it was time for an update because a few things have changed since then and the topic of using Trello for larger labs came up on Twitter. Note that other kanban-style software is available.

Basic Trello setup

I set up a lab workspace and invited everyone in the team to it. We have three main boards (described below) that everyone in the workspace can see. I also invite each person to all three boards. This enables them to post and participate on them.

I also have two personal boards. One is my to-do list (only visible to me) and the other is for organising non-work stuff (shared with people at home). None of these can be seen by the lab. None of the boards are open to the outside world.

How it works

Each board has multiple lists (vertical columns) and in each list are cards. These act like sticky notes on a board. You can make notes, add attachments, checklists, set due dates etc. with each card. It works well for tracking progress of projects and for making everyone aware of information that changes quickly.

When a card is finished with (priorities change, no longer relevant) the card can be archived or deleted. Whole lists can be sent to the archive too. Cards and lists can be retrieved from the archive if you want to work on them again. Whilst we do use this function, the cards disappear when being archived, so we use a “Done List” and a “Backburner List” for each board. Dragging a card to the Done List gives a great feeling of completion but can be quickly reversed if it turns out the card needs more work. The Backburner List can be good for collating those rainy day ideas that are good and shouldn’t be forgotten.

How we use Trello in the lab – three boards

The three lab boards we have are:

  • Experiments – lab members’ ongoing work
  • General – Lab organisation
  • Papers – paper writing and publishing

Experiments board

Each lab member has a list and a set of cards. During weekly one-to-one meetings, each person and I review the cards. 1) We agree on new tasks and make new cards. 2) We review progress on existing cards. This review means adding comments on progress, moving the card to Done if it is completed, or perhaps archiving/deleting/moving to backburner/renaming if priorities change.

It’s a useful way of tracking progress especially if someone is struggling with a task, or putting it off, or has too much to do. It can be a good way to document these things and have an evidence-based discussion with them about their work.

General board

This is like a big pinboard in the lab. It has useful information about contact details, grant codes, general info (some of which is also in our lab manual). It is also where we track orders. We make orders for reagents on a rota with a different person doing it every 4 weeks. Everyone collects items from stores and Trello helps us to organise this. A person can make a card to request that something be ordered. The “ordering person” makes the order and moves the card to the “ordered list”. When it arrives, whoever collects it moves the card to the “arrived list”. This means anyone can check at anytime where their item is in the pipeline.

Making and moving cards is low friction meaning that the system stays up-to-date.

Papers

This board is for tracking progress of paper writing. We have a list for all manuscripts that are at any stage of the publication cycle including pre-prep. There’s a colour coding system to indicate where they are up to (in prep, submitted etc.).

Each paper has a list. Usually, a manuscript list begins as a series of cards, one for each figure. This allows us to plan the manuscript. Sometimes we have a sketch of a whiteboard brainstorm attached to a card. This list is used to track the progress of getting the figures completed. Then when we start writing, we assign cards for different tasks. For example, “replot data from Figure 4c as a violin plot and add to figure” might be a card. It is possible to assign lab members to cards so that it is clear who’s responsible.

Assigning someone to a card means that they get alerts when anything changes about the card. This is good if you have two people working on a task together. Tip: it is possible to subscribe to the entire board so that you get an alert about any change to any card.

Manuscript writing normally ends with a series of small tasks that need to be done, e.g. checking each section, getting the GitHub repo sorted out. We normally make one card for these tasks and use a checklist on that card for each to make sure everything is done and nothing is forgotten.

An example of a completed checklist for a paper showing minor tasks

When the manuscript comes back and reviewers’ comments need addressing. We make cards for each one and assign someone to do each. Again, we track progress as we go and people can be reassigned if there are issues with getting something done. Tip: we use a code for the reviewers comments so that we don’t forget which comment the work is addressing. 2M3 is Referee #2 Major comment 3 whereas, 3m6 is Referee #3 minor comment 6. Very minor corrections are managed with a checklist. We tend to use colour coding when these cards are completed experimentally but not yet added to the manuscript. The card is moved when it is added to the manuscript.

What changed?

A few things changed since the last post:

  • We use Slack for rapid discussion and now virtually none of that happens via Trello.
  • Broad, subject based boards failed, e.g. we had a “Cloning board” where progress could be updated but these boards were just a duplication of what is in people’s ELN. There is duplication in our current system when people are doing revision experiments, but we don’t have a solution for that.
  • We fell out of love with Trello for a while but in the last 18 months we have used the boards a lot more.
  • Trello was acquired by Atlassian.

Setting up a similar system is pretty straightforward. Getting going with it and seeing how your team take to it and use it is key.

The post title is taken from Trellisaze by Slowdive from their Pygmalion LP.

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