Gamification Expert &

Behavioral Designer

Trello vs Pivotal Tracker: How Potential Use Cases Attracts Users

This article was written by Contributing Writer Erik van Mechelen with input from Jun Loayza and Yu-kai Chou

A Wide versus Narrow Lens

Talk to anyone you know who uses a non-phone camera. She’ll likely talk about what she’s trying to accomplish first, then explain the type of camera, the lens, and other features helping her accomplish the goal.

The camera metaphor was useful in examining my own use of Trello and Pivotal Tracker. (A broader metaphor could be the decision between using Instagram and Snapchat to share a story with friends and customers.)

Pivotal Tracker can be used for anything–I use it to track progress on my novel writing–but Trello is arguably better for a wider set of use cases and has more users (over 16 million). In this post, we’ll discover why I chose Pivotal Tracker over Trello to push myself to novel completion.

As always, I’ll use the Core Drives of Octalysis throughout the analysis. Both Trello and Pivotal Tracker do well in Core Drive 2: Development & Accomplishment and Core Drive 3: Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback.

Trello: Productivity, Collaboration, Communication

I’ll take Trello and Pivotal Tracker one by one, then compare.

Trello feels light and fun and has a wolf mascot named Taco. This makes it approachable during Onboarding. Through Scaffolding and Endgame, Trello gives individuals and teams a sense of progress and achievement (Core Drive 2: Development & Accomplishment) and the flexibility and customization leading to long-term productivity (Core Drive 3: Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback). I’ve used Trello to break down movies like Moneyball and dissect interesting novel plots like Cloud Atlas’s.

Here’s my first shot at the Octalysis tool for Trello:


The adjustments I’d add are these:

  1. Keyboard shortcuts should fall under CD2 (thanks Jun!)
  2. Team member ownership of tasks (CD4 and CD5)

What would you add? Let me know in the comments! Let’s continue, focusing on Core Drives 2 and 3.

(Trello) Core Drive 2: Development & Accomplishment

Cards are powerful productivity engines. They enable collaboration toward goals in workflows. Trello has consistently improved these one-view snapshots of a particular task/story/project.


Notice the checklist feature and associated progress bar. By subscribing, a team member can attain updates from this specific Card.

If we draw back to a view of columns of Cards, we see titled columns, custom labels, Card membership, and deadlines. At a glance, a manager or team member involved in multiple pieces of a project or company can see it all.


At one step higher, we see Collections and filters, each of which reward a user for logically curating his work and team and projects. Organizing this view with collections and custom labels makes the user feel smart, a reward which repays itself because of the efficiency gains achieved.


(Trello) Core Drive 3: Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback

Trello enables the freedom to design workflows for many scenarios.

Design-wise, Trello offers Power-Ups (integrations) to wherever an individual or company is likely to actually do some of their work. Again, notice how Trello allows for teams, say, with technical and non-technical teams to exist in the same ecosystem (the software teams can work in GitHub while the sales team may live in Salesforce).

Power-Ups is a great name for integrations. It feels slightly better “powering up” versus “integrating”. The word power-up is associated for any gamer with leveling up. Once your team levels up, it also gains the Milestone Unlock (the ability to do better things once unlocking something new).

Templates are another useful way to double-down on successful Cards or Workflows.

You can even clone the entire boards, or you can only copy lists. You can even get as granular as copying “checklists” within cards. For more info, please check this guide on how to use Trello.


Pivotal Tracker: Standard in Agile Software Development

Pivotal Tracker is built for agile development and isn’t shy about it. To an extent it has grown to something of an industry standard, though it far from monopolized this space.

Here’s my first go at the Octalysis tool for Pivotal Tracker.


The adjustments I’d add are these:

  1. Analytics for story/epic velocity (CD2) — the user or manager sees progress over time
  2. Removal of choice (early wins) (CD2) — the opening (Onboarding) state is fixed, so users are encouraged to begin their first project

What would you add? Let me know in the comments!

(Pivotal Tracker) Core Drive 2: Development & Accomplishment

Pivotal Tracker is most often used for agile software development. But I use it for tracking my novel writing progress. I like assigning points (effort) to stories arranged in Epics. Every story (or chore or bug) is organized or prioritized in the Icebox, Backlog, or Current work.

Here’s I am opening a new story/task (see image below). In the third column (an epic name “Armis”), I’m creating a story/task about a flashback scene. As of this screenshot, I haven’t estimated the Points/effort for the task, but I have started to provide a description of the task:


If we step back, I can see what I’m currently working on, in yellow highlight:


And stepping back further, I can review progress over time:


(Pivotal Tracker) Core Drive 3: Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback

Pivotal Tracker doesn’t allow for too much grand scale creativity, but as most competitors to it and Trello (there are many, just search Trello competitor), it functionally provides a place for individual and team project development and completion with a specific focus on agile software development.

It does, however, give feedback through progress analytics:


Since I spend about half my time writing, and half reading, a 22-point velocity (every point requires between 1 and 1.5 hours of attention/effort), I’m satisfied with my writing/editing output and trend in the last four weeks, kicked off by some writing-heavy weeks to end July and start August.

Wide or Narrow Lens?

Why did I choose Pivotal Tracker to track my novel?

I think it came down to this: I knew I wanted to complete my novel, and I simply needed an easy way to do that with a calibration for effort and prioritization (I can show my analytics to a friend who can see which parts of the book I’m working on).

Keen readers and makers and developers might object that estimation is inherently tricky and even counter-productive, but the ability to set point/effort on my work helps understand what I want to accomplish in a three- or four-hour writing session. Of course, if something takes longer, I can alter the effort input after the fact.

Trello, though, seems to offer a better Endgame for more use cases. Here’s just a few I’ve made:

Moneyball scene by scene:


While watching Moneyball, I used the Trello iPhone app to create the scene-by-scene analysis with comments. I reviewed again after completing the film, adding comments where needed.

Cloud Atlas analysis:


Cloud Atlas is a novel with an intricate structure. I used Trello to keep notes and plan for a podcast on the novel’s structure.

And more:


I’ve used Trello for reunions, story ideas, podcasts, and reading lists.

Your Story:

Are you using Trello and/or Pivotal Tracker and/or a competitor? Why? Let me know in the comments. Let’s try to understand our behavior and aim for global maximums!

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One response to “Trello vs Pivotal Tracker: How Potential Use Cases Attracts Users”

  1. Having used both, I would say that it really depends on what you are attempting to do. If you are actually building complex software with a larger team than 3 or 4 people, neither is very good for that and few larger organizations would use either. Jira is actually the industry standard nowadays, and what I use daily. Jira is much more robust, has extensive APIs for customization, better dashboards, 1000’s of plugins, and of course, excels at allowing bugs and stories to be entered quickly and tracked. Trello is definitely easier to pick up and just start using, especially for people with no experience with project tracking software. For most people and small teams with only one or two projects, the free version is just fine. Although, coming from the enterprise world where we paid IBM a small fortune for tools like ClearQuest and ClearCase (really $1000s per user) I always laugh when I see people saying Jira is expensive ($10/month) compared to Trello (free).

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