Easily manage software projects with Lighthouse

Need to get a handle on a software development project? Justin James suggests considering Artifact Software's Lighthouse product.

Artifact Software's Lighthouse is a comprehensive tool that makes it easier to manage software projects.
I recently had the chance to discuss Lighthouse with CEO Mark Wesker; I was also fortunate to get my hands on the product.
I have seen a number of products designed for use by developers, architects, and other technical people, but I have not seen a tool that makes it possible (let alone easy) for less technical people to get a handle on software development projects. Lighthouse is just that product, and I think it deserves serious consideration by IT pros trying to keep their projects in order.
Over the years, I've seen people use products in the Microsoft Office Suite (or other applications) to perform tasks that the software was never designed to do. One such task is managing software projects.
Sure, requirements documents can be written in Word, and it is possible to track bug reports in Excel. But I think most people involved in these projects need and want something more tailored to managing a development project, not balancing a budget.
Project managers employ Microsoft Project to track tasks and overall project status, but that is just one piece of the overall whole that needs to be addressed.
Lighthouse addresses this exact niche. It is not designed to replace the technical team's bug trackers or version control systems; nor is it meant to be a complex integration point between various tools. Instead, Lighthouse is a pragmatic system that you can easily customize to fit your needs, and it requires little effort to learn or use.
Lighthouse is a Web-based application. In some ways, Lighthouse reminds me of some of the more popular Web 2.0 style applications (in a good way) because users can tweak it to meet their needs.
All throughout the application, you'll see a link that says Customize This Page, which takes you to a system that allows you to add/edit fields to the various entities throughout Lighthouse (Figure A). It is quite easy to perform a search (or a "filter") and save it for future use. This means that it is possible to use filters as workflow management tools.
Figure A
Figure A
Figure A--Editing entities. (Click image to enlarge).

Lighthouse allows you to combine pieces of data from its various functions in many useful ways. For example, you can "subscribe" to updates to various pieces of data, much like Facebook allows you to easily track the changes your friends make (Figure B).
Lighthouse also has some very nice reporting and dashboard tools. While I have never been a super huge fan of the "gas gauge and thermometer" dashboard styles that were so popular a few years ago, Lighthouse makes it pretty simple to get a dashboard view of your project(s) in a way that makes the most sense to you, whether the style is a "gas gauge and thermometer" or a "tables and numbers".
Figure B
Figure B
Figure B--Selecting events to which you want to subscribe.

Lighthouse is designed for rapid drilldowns to quickly get you from a general oversight view to a detailed view. Likewise, you can create tasks that can be tied to a project plan. These project plans are what we usually think of when we think about project management: Gantt charts and critical paths. These tasks can stand on their own, separate from a project plan if desired.
Speaking of Gantt charts and project plans, Lighthouse is able to import and export Microsoft Project files. The application lets you work your own way and does not enforce any particular management style or technique. Also related to project management, Lighthouse includes simple facilities for tracking issues, defects, and change requests, managing release information, and gathering feedback.
The time management tools are quite smart. The tools tie into databases of local holidays, so that you do not accidentally expect a task to be worked on during national holidays. Like the rest of the application, you can edit and customize these databases. For example, if your team in Mexico gets U.S. holidays off, it is easy enough to do. And the time management tools tie back into the rest of the application, particularly the project planning tools.
Unlike many other Web-based applications though, you have the ability to purchase it for use on site (as a virtual appliance), and therefore you are not required to use it as a SaaS application. This is a welcome thing for organizations that have concerns about keeping its data outside of the firewall or using online services in general for business purposes.
The hosted plans are reasonably priced, and there is a free version as well. You can try a 30-day demo, and try the advanced features; after the 30 days, the demo will revert to being a standard free account.
There are a few minor items in Lighthouse that I am not 100 percent happy with, but they are easily remedied. First, the fonts were a touch too small to easily read in some places. In addition, the application spread itself across my screen and ended up with too much white space between elements, making it a bit easy to get lost on a page sometimes. I think this is preferable to the alternative, which is having an application screen so "busy" that you don't know what is happening. With regards to the functionality, I was quite happy with it, and I do not feel like there was anything obviously missing or broken.
Overall, I was pleased with my experience of trying Lighthouse and with the walkthough of the application. I think that Lighthouse hits all of the right notes. Is there room for improvement? Sure. But talking to Mr. Wesker, I think that Artifact Software has an excellent grasp of the challenges that management faces when dealing with software projects.
I also like the company's willingness to allow customer feedback to drive its development plans. I feel that this application will only get better with time. Artifact Software has hit the mark when it comes to providing an application that allows a project to be managed with a tool, without needing to concede control of the project to the tool.
Disclosure of Justin's industry affiliations: Justin James has a working arrangement with Microsoft to write an article for MSDN Magazine. He also has a contract with Spiceworks to write product buying guides.