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Mark Embling

Task Lists and Issue Trackers - Thoughts

Recently at work, my colleague Jeremy and I made the switch from using the task list in Outlook to Redmine for handling our list of tasks and features to be added to our internal software projects. At the outset, this seemed like a great idea and quite a step forward - I mean, Outlook? Its hardly designed with our job in mind is it. The list of personal annoyances associated with Outlook is quite extensive, but suffice it to say I find it clunky and restrictive and it gets in the way. Imaging running a marathon and having to open a door every 6 minutes in order to continue. That's what using Outlook feels like to me. Because of this, I spent the best part of a day sorting out a nice VM, installing Windows, then Ubuntu and configuring Apache, Passenger and Ruby all to get Redmine running, and was quite pleased with myself and our shiny new issue tracker by the end of it all.

It has now been a while using it instead of Outlook and while it has solved several of the problems I have with Outlook (not to mention it looks better and has a more intuitive UI in most places), it did not solve the problem as efficiently as we would have liked.

Much of this comes down to our workflow. Most tasks (bugs and feature/change requests) come in via email. This makes the tight integration between Outlook's task list and email features desirable. Whether or not tasks are anything to do with email is possibly a point we might not all agree on, but this integration does speed things up. Its trivial to create a task from an email and flag it for following up by whatever timeframe is appropriate. It can then be forgotten and whatever was being worked on at that time can once again have full attention. Whilst moving to a web-based issue tracker has helped in some ways, it does break this integration and cause the addition of a task to be a job in itself. First, the appropriate project must be located in Redmine. Then a new issue must be created, and the contents of the email pasted in. Then assign it if necessary, set a completion date if applicable, then click Save. Whew. What was I doing again?

Earlier today we bit the bullet and moved back to using the Outlook task list. Its a shame really - I liked our little issue tracker instance. However it is more important to remain productive and stopping to deal with another separate system was hurting productivity. It has given me some ideas which I'd love to implement in an issue tracker in the future - a big aim would be to reduce the number of clicks and keep it as simple as possible. The UI must not get in the way and put up barriers, especially for an interaction as short as adding a task for later.

I still think Outlook is a sub-optimal solution, but hope some modifications to the Outlook task view itself and the way I interact with it and use it will help in this regard. We shall see, but like I said before - the grass always looks greener on the other side doesn't it.

Just as a closing note, I'd like to point out that this post is just my thoughts having reflected over our experiences with tasks and issue tracking and it is most certainly not meant as a dig at Redmine or any of the authors and contributors. It is simply the fact that our needs don't quite align with the way it solves the problem.