How to rescue your inbox from bugmail overload

by David Shepherd, August 20th, 2009
Applies to: Tasktop Pro, Eclipse Mylyn
Supported Connectors: ClearQuest, ScrumWorks, JIRA, Rally, CollabNet, Bugzilla
Summary: Learn how to keep up-to-date on your projects’ bug activity without overloading your email inbox.

As telecommuting and globally distributed teams become the status quo, face-to-face meetings are no longer the sole source of project updates. For many programmers, the issue tracker has become the most important source of information for their projects, yet monitoring an issue tracker can quickly become overwhelming. Gavin Sharp, a member of the Firefox team, reported receiving over 1800 email updates from his issue tracker in one day!


Gavin Sharp's Bugmail Over Time

Gavin Sharp’s Bugmail Over Time: Gavin went as far as tracking his amount of overload vs time. Tasktop can save you from a similar fate.

While Gavin is likely an outlier, most developers can still receive dozens to hundreds of email updates per day. Without tool support for processing these updates, developers are overwhelmed by the volume of bugmail and hampered by their email client’s inability to present task updates in a structured manner. The Tasktop rich client eases this situation by reducing the number of updates, presenting recent changes in an easy-to-interpret manner, and focusing the user on important tasks.

Processing your initial incomings with Tasktop

When starting with Tasktop you’ll first need to connect to your issue tracker to enable you to access bugs or issues directly on your desktop. Given the myriad names for issues, bugs, etc., we use the term task to refer to an item of interest in your issue tracker and we use Task Repository to refer to the issue tracker itself. In a previous article (see: Tracking Tasks) we described how to set up Tasktop to track all tasks assigned to you and that you are interested in. Once you configure Tasktop you can begin systematically processing your incomings updates.

When you first connect to a Task Repository all your tracked tasks will be decorated in the Task List with a “new incoming” arrow (as on task #76 below), which means that you have not yet viewed it in Tasktop.

incomingwithheaderfaded

This icon and others, such as the “incoming” and “outgoing” arrows, allow you to quickly scan your Task List and determine which changes you should review immediately and which are less pressing (see UI Legend for a complete legend). This ability leads to Time Savings #1, illustrated below.

Time Savings #1 – Processing tasks in a Task List is faster than processing tasks in an email inbox

Task List Email Notifications

Which task would you view if you only had time to monitor one task? With the Task List, it’s easy to devote your attention to the most important issues because they’re categorized and prioritized. In the Task List above Task #3 has the highest priority, thus it is presented at the top of the list and the high priority icon is placed beside it. When all task updates appear as unreads in your inbox it is impossible to tell which update is most important.

As you work with Tasktop and see incomings you’ll notice that there are two ways of reviewing incoming updates. Some tasks you can review directly in the Task List using the tooltip preview. By hovering over a task with incomings you can view a summary of the changes to the task. For instance, the priority has changed from P2 to P1 on Task #10 below.

updatedtooltip

However, for other tasks, especially those tasks that you own, you’ll usually want to view the detailed changes, which is convenient in Tasktop. Click on the task in the Task List to open the Task Editor, which shows all of the task information and highlights the changed fields in light blue. Tasktop’s easy-to-scan UI leads to Time Savings #2, illustrated below.

Time Savings #2 – Interpreting changes is faster when using the Task Editor

Bugmail

Task updates in email form are often difficult to parse. Furthermore, many task repositories email only the updated attributes and so to refresh their knowledge of the task users often must open the task web UI as well. Worse yet, task repositories send an update for each separate change. If your team in another part of the world changes the priority, adds a comment, and changes the due date for a task overnight you’ll have three emails waiting for you in the morning.

Task Editor Attributes

Unlike when using bugmail, the Task List indicates one or many updates for a task as a single incoming arrow in the Task List. Aggregating changes in this way reduces the noise when tracking tasks. When opening a changed task Tasktop’s Task Editor shows changed attributes by highlighting them in blue. Because changes are presented in the Task Editor all other task information is easily accessible.

Daily Processing with Tasktop

Once you’ve processed your Task List for the first time all future processing times will become much faster. Here are the top four tips for speeding up your processing time.

  greenbullet_icon Review Only the Blue – Many changes can be reviewed directly in the Task List, which is faster, but large updates require a detailed view. Double-click on a task to open the Task Editor for that task and review the changes, which are highlighted in blue. It does not take long to open the Task Editor (less than 200ms in almost all cases!) so do not hesitate to drill down on a task.
  greenbullet_icon Use the Tooltips – Hover over a task to see a summary of changes in a tooltip and avoid opening tasks where the incoming changes can be completely reviewed in the tooltip (e.g., a change in priority). If tooltip popup isn’t quick enough click on a task in the Task List and use the up and down arrows to scroll through the list with the popups showing.
  greenbullet_icon Mark as Read – Mark a task as “read” (i.e., removing the incoming arrow) by right clicking on it in the Task List and selecting “Mark as Read” or pressing Alt+Shft+R.
  greenbullet_icon Respond, Submit, Continue – If an incoming requires your response, open the Task Editor, update the task as necessary (e.g., add a comment), and submit. Then immediately continue processing your Task List. The Task Editor will inform you if the submit fails and you can continue to make progress during the submission.
  greenbullet_icon Reduce the noise – If you’re still getting too many incomings consider reducing the scope of your queries. A good rule of thumb is that if you don’t open the Task Editor for any tasks in a query during the course of several days then this query is not appropriate for day-to-day monitoring. Consider using working sets to hide these queries if you still want to monitor the tasks occasionally.

Tip number two, possible because Tasktop is a rich client, is an important time savings compared with many web UIs or email inbox and web UI combinations. Tasktop’s integrated approach which provides both a task view and the Task List in one window leads to Time Savings #3.

Time Savings #3 – Avoiding the app-switching cycle

Avoid the Cycle

If you are not using Tasktop to process your incoming task updates you will likely have to cycle between several applications to support your workflow. Developers often spend their programming time using an IDE, like Eclipse. However, when they want to check on their incomings they will switch to their mail client to view their bug mail, and even switch again to the web UI to view the details of the task and update it. Tasktop, on the other hand, brings your entire task workflow into the IDE.

If you’re currently tracking your projects using email or even using your issue tracker’s web interface it is difficult (but not impossible) to follow a systematic workflow when processing tasks. Tasktop eliminates a lot of the accidental complexity of processing incomings and guides (without forcing) the user to become more systematic. We’ve found that systematic processing allows programmers to retain a better grasp on the state of his projects while at the same time reducing the time he spends tracking those projects. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the volume of your project’s tasks and your task repository is already supported, check out the 60 day free trial of Tasktop and give us your feedback. If your repository is not yet supported make sure to vote.

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About David Shepherd

David Shepherd was a Software Developer and Evangelist at Tasktop between 2008 and 2011. He is currently working at ABB Corporate Research in Raleigh, NC.

5 Responses to “How to rescue your inbox from bugmail overload”

  1. Integration Plan (part 1) « Victor Palau's Blog Says:

    [...] you can see from the picture, Mylyn makes it really simple for anyone to keep an eye on the [...]

  2. Eugene Kuleshov Says:

    The FogBugs and few other issue tracking systems addressed this issue differently. Eg. instead of going to the web UI, they allow commenter simply rend a reply-to email and it is automatically added into the comments. Such approach could be also used to send commands to the issue tracking system and it also allows to sort these emails using server-side or client-side email filters and conveniently forward issues to other people for commenting.

  3. Eugene Kuleshov Says:

    Forgot to mention that a current approach for configuring one’s “inbox” in Mylyn is rather obscure and troublesome. I am not sure if tasktom makes it any easier, but if it supposed to be a commonly used flow, if really need to be made much easier to setup (ideally, it should not require any setup).

  4. David Shepherd Says:

    Yes, the approach that FogBugz takes with supporting replying from within the email client reduces one of the application switches and it’s good to see FogBugz recognizing this problem. However, the user will still have to switch between his IDE and email client. What’s worse, is that the email client is not the best vehicle for presenting task updates because that’s not what it was designed for. So we’re happy to see that a Mylyn connector for FogBugz is available for those that want to eliminate bugmail from their inbox.

    While I could argue that it’s way more simple than the alternative (setting up email filters, scripts and other conventions), we do recognize that setting up your Task List as an inbox still involves too many steps. We’ve already devoted development time towards simplifying setup, especially query setup, and we plan to release these updates in an upcoming release.

  5. Twitter Trackbacks for Tasktop Blog » Blog Archive » How to rescue your inbox from bugmail overload [tasktop.com] on Topsy.com Says:

    [...] Tasktop Blog » Blog Archive » How to rescue your inbox from bugmail overload tasktop.com/blog/mylyn/rescue-inbox-from-bugs – view page – cached Summary: Learn how to keep up-to-date on your projects’ bug activity without overloading your email inbox. — From the page [...]

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