A story about two task-keeping-applications.
2017-03-18 17:22 s2tka [permalink]
Let me tell you a story of two task-keeping-applications. Once there was a team that was struggling to keep track of the work it was doing, had done, and still had to do. It was frustrating to work on the team, hard to schedule things, almost impossible to estimate when things where going to get done. And since clients are what they are, changing requirements and additional requests would cause much more disruption than expected of a team that calmly and firmly is determined to deliver the best of market solution.
An internal brainstorming-session about what to do about it, ended in two opposing visions about what decent issue-tracking should be about, and how a system that (co-!)operates with the team members should be structured internally, should behave, and which duties it should perform either by itself, or by effect of using its rules and restrictions correctly as designed.
In an attempt to get to the best solution, two teams were formed to develop each a project based on one of the two views. An evaluation would follow determining a winner, or if would it be possible to synergize the best parts of both into a single system.
A side note: from a managerial point of view this is a very tough decision. Allocating a lot of resources to work on internal structure, takes resources away of the work that brings in revenue, and such undertakings typically risk getting frivolous or spinning out of control. But I guess it's normal that all stop rowing to help keep the boat from sinking. So, apart from being intrinsically aware of the exceptionality of this opportunity, coordinators were given instructions to keep to a strict schedule in these projects and a determined focus on delivering a workable proof-of-concept quick. Sounds like a good work-ethic to apply generally, if you ask me.
A few weeks later progress was made, and the prototypes were already being used to keep track of the issues of these new task-keeping-applications and other projects. The main difference between design visions became apparent soon enough.
One application centered around the list of work items. Care was taken the entry form was extensive enough to have fields for all of the details about a work item, its categorization, its relation to the project, an outline of the projected outcome. An overview would show the current list, possibly filtered for those items assigned to you.
The other application was centered around getting information out of the system, especially structure and relation between items. Users would enter small specific reports, and add them to the best suitable node in a tree-structure, optionally marking relations with other items over branches. The overview showed an expandable structure starting at the root items. It also could have a filter applied, but would potentially show you an entirely different structure of the same data, when using a different relation type.
Having two working prototypes, attention gradually reverted back to the serious work and some of the frustrations of before were abated. After a few months an evaluation was undertaken.
One application had rendered itself useless. The first weeks of usage, a lot of entry happened, but without consensus about categorization, the list was enormous without a clear way of grouping relevant items. Duplicate entries and ambiguous task-descriptions were unresolved, causing confusion.
The other application was doing better. It needed work, but offered a good view of what had to get done.
Enough about the story. Reality, of course, is much more bleak. As no sane manager would make such a shift in resources of a troubled organization, the 'two teams' actually stand for the existing team using an off-the-shelf something badly administered on one side, and on the other side, well, just me, toiling on something potentially better, in my off-time.
I started — like many — with a plain text-file, then a spreadsheet. Then I took the step to design a database for it, but wanted something to do entry and retrieval with roughly the same ease-of-use that a spreadsheet would offer. Working with tree-structures for some other projects, I wanted a single structure to serve as the basis to store data in. Specifically with projects and tasks — as projects tend to have sub-projects, and tasks split into sub-tasks — using branches of a tree would enable to keep this distinction conveniently vague. If you add representation for entities like users and clients into this tree-structure, and relation between nodes over branches, you've got a richness to model much more of the world, and keep track of its changes, past and future.
From there it grew slowly, over years, into what it is now: tx. First versions suffered a notoriously bad interface, but I hope that has improved. For long I was its only user, but some cooperation features have been added since. What's left for me is to keep improving tx where possible, and demonstrating it to people what it's about.
Though entry and structure is important, where a task-keeping-system can really shine is helping to keep an overview. A cleverly designed filter can limit your view to exactly these items that are relevant to you, but in tx you get the additional option of having these items display with exactly those sections of the tree-structure they have in common. Also, I personally feel the most important items on any list, as long as it may be, should be on top. So when tx displays a list of items, they get ordered using their weight, determined by a combination of factors such as task-type and current status. As a task progresses from an active state to a final state, it may move down the list or even fade from view into an archival state.
And there's much, much more I could talk about, but it's all created out of necessity and designed adhering closely to a central vision of what a task-keeping-system should be and what it should be doing for you in order to be able to depend on it.
In conclusion, and for those people that — like me — skip long stories to the last paragraph, it's so very important that information systems succeed at keeping an up-to-date model of reality, and offer you the freedom and easy to update it's view of the world. Especially so with task-keeping software you depend on to keep track of the progress you make with projects, and to help stay on top of what's important. All of that served as the basis for developing tx.