Project Management & Planning Articles

A Recent History of Time-Tracking Tools

by John Reeve
Published on 24 September 2014

best time-tracking tools

Since the dawn of the modern agency, people around the world have been tracking their time. And for good reason. Time tracking is a valuable discipline that equips agencies to bill clients accurately and calculate profitability. Unfortunately, the only time tracking tool was the paper timesheets - a necessary, but tedious and time-consuming, practice.

Then came the personal computer and everything changed. Analog was out. Digital was in. Time-tracking tools began evolving, each iteration more accurate and easier-to-use than its predecessor. In my 15 years of agency experience, I've used every form of time tracking tool, beginning with the lowly paper timesheet. These are my observations on where time tracking tools began, how they've evolved, and where they are headed next.

Paper Timesheets

paper-timesheets-time-tracking

There are many different incarnations of the paper timesheet. Some simply jot down hours on a scratchpad. Others design or download a template to make the process more consistent. Paper timesheets have been around the longest, but their days are numbered.

The good? Nothing beats the tactile quality of pencil on paper, and it's portable.

The bad? Paper timesheets are encumbering if you work on more than a few projects a week. And, you can't run any reports because the data is nearly impossible to tabulate. The data is useless beyond billing clients. And did I mention the environment?

Excel Spreadsheets

Excel put database-like functionality into the hands of every computer user. Not surprisingly, many agencies started using Excel to track their time. The data is more accessible and easier to input, but tracking time this way is still far from ideal.

excel-spreadsheets-time-tracking

The good? The data is digital and can easily be copied and backed up. Plus, you can run basic reports.

The bad? Entering all that data into Excel takes time. And more advanced reporting requires you to be an Excel power user.

Desktop Software

As the Internet continued to expand, with the cloud still in its infancy, agencies began adopting desktop time-tracking software. There were several options available, most of which could be downloaded from the Internet. The software was much easier to use than Excel, because it was tailored for time tracking.

desktop-time-tracking-software

The good? The learning curve is much lower because the software is specialized. And the reporting is much more advanced than the do-it-yourself Excel options.

The bad? The software is anchored to one device per person, with no way to sync the data from one device to another. If you are not at your primary desktop or laptop, you're back at pads of paper.

Web-based Time-Tracking Apps (SaaS)

The Web came into existence 20 years ago, but agencies at large did not embrace web-based applications until a few years ago. We have seen an explosion of time-tracking tools as their adoption becomes more mainstream. Today, everyone is using the cloud, and online time tracking provides unprecedented flexibility and centralization.

web-based-time-tracking-software

The good? The prevalence and accessibility of tools has made for more accurate time tracking and reporting. Instead of entering days of time at once, the software enables you to track each individual time entry, resulting in much more detailed reports. And, being in the cloud frees you from your desktop, making your data available on any device from any location.

The bad? There are too many apps to choose from, making it difficult to find a good fit. And, trust is now a top priority as your data is stored by a third-party vendor in the cloud. Finding an app that can be trusted and will be around next year can be overwhelming.

What's Next?

The next iteration of time tracking tools will have to focus on being easier to use. The biggest barrier at present is the human using the tool. Time tracking is a learned discipline, one that has discouraged many and even led some to swear off it forever. These tools need to become both transparent and pervasive at the same time, to the point where tracking time is an afterthought.

The more successful time tracking tools will be those that learn your data and interpret it in a way that is meaningful and relevant to your business and industry. Current time tracking tools will quickly tabulate and display your data, but you have to draw your own conclusions. The next iteration will provide more context and assist more in a business' decision-making process.

No time tracking application will ever be perfect. These tools can, and should, continue to improve. Our own time tracking tool, Intervals, is no exception. We are constantly exploring new ideas and committed to leading the charge into whatever territory lies ahead on the time tracking front.


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