Asana – killer issue tracker

I recently discovered Asana through @larsfronius. I have had a rocky history with issue trackers and productivity tools in general. Whether it is Jira, Trac, Bugzilla, Trello, the Github, Bitbucket, and Gitlab issue trackers, text files, excel sheets, or post its. It just doesn’t work for me; it gets in the way and stuff just starts happening outside it. I’ve devolved to the point where I can’t read my own handwriting so anything involving paper, pens, crayons and what not is a complete non starter for me. Besides it doesn’t work if you have people working remotely. The combination of too much bureaucracy, bad UX, and a constant avalanche of things landing in my lap means I have a tendency to mostly not document what I’m doing, have done, or am planning to do. This is bad; I know.

Fundamentally I don’t plan my working weeks waterfall style in terms of tickets which I then pick up and do. In many ways, writing a ticket is often half doing the work since it triggers my reflex to solve any problem in near sight. It’s what engineers do. If you have ever tried to have a conversation with an engineer you know what I am talking about. You talk challenges; they talk solutions. Why don’t you just do X or Y? What about Z? It’s hard to separate planning from the execution. So, there’s a bit of history with me starting to create a ticket for something and realizing half way that actually just solving the problem takes less time, is more fun, and probably, a better use of my time and then doing that instead.

I work in a startup company where I’ve more or less labeled myself as chief plumber. This means I’m dealing with a wide variety of topics, all the time. That means I’m often dealing with three things already and somebody comes along with a fourth and a fifth. All of them urgent. All of them unplanned. We’ve tried dealing with it the traditional ways of imposing process, tools, bureaucracy, etc. But it always boils down to answering this question: what is the single most productive thing I can do that moves us forward and acknowledging that this is not a fixed thing that we set in stone for whatever sprint length is fashionable at the time but subject to change. Me hopping from task to task continuously means I don’t get anything done. Me only doing what seems nice, means I get the wrong things done. In a nutshell, this doesn’t scale and I need a decent issue tracking tool to solve it properly.

Since my memory is flaky and tends to hold only a handful of things, I tend to write down things that seem important but not urgent so that I can focus on what I was doing and then come back to it later. This process is highly fluid. Something comes along; I write it down. Then later I look at what I’ve written and edit a bit and once in a while I actually get around to doing stuff that I wrote down but mostly the list just grows and I pick off things that seem the most urgent. The best tool for this process is necessarily something brutally simple. The main goal is to be minimally disruptive to the actually productive thing I was doing when I got interrupted while still getting the job of taking note whatever I was interrupted for so that I don’t forget about it. So, for a long time a simple text editor was my tool of choice here. Alt tab, type, edit,type, ctrl+s, alt tab back to whatever I was doing. This is minimally intrusive. My planning process consists of moving lines around inside the file and editing them. This sounds as primitive as it is and it has many drawbacks; especially in teams. But it beats having to deal with Jira’s convoluted UI or hunting for the right button in a web ui to find stuff across the dozen or so Github and Gitlab projects I work on. However, using a text editor doesn’t scale and I need a decent issue tracking tool to solve it properly.

Enter Asana. As you can probably imagine, I came to this tool with healthy bias of basically all previous tools that I’ve tried over the past decades not coming close to my preferred but imperfect tool: the text file. My first impression of this tool was wrong. The design and my bias lead me to believe that this was another convoluted, over-engineered issue tracker. It took me five minutes of using it before I got how wrong I was.

The biggest hurdle was actually migrating the hundred or so issues I was tracking. Or so I thought. I was not looking forward to clicking new, edit, ok etc. a hundred times, which I assumed would be the case because that is how basically all issue trackers I’ve worked with so far work. So, I had been putting off that job. It turns out Asana does not work that way: copy 100 lines of text, paste, job done. So, one minute into using it I had already migrated everything I had in my text editor. I was impressed by that.

Asana is a list of stuff where you can do all the things that you would expect to do in a decent UI for that. You can paste lines of text and each line becomes an issue. You can drag lines around to change the order. Organize them using sections, tags, and projects. You can multi select lines using similar mouse and keyboard commands to what you would use in say a spreadsheet and manipulate issues that way. Unlike every other issue tracker, the check box in the UI actually is there to allow you to mark things as done and not for selecting stuff. Instead CMD+a, SHIFT+click, or CMD+click selects issues and then clicking e.g. the tag field does what you’d expect. Typing @ triggers the autocomplete and you can easily refer things (people, issues, projects, etc.) by name. There are no ticket numbers in the UI but each line has a unique url of course. Editing the line updates all the @ references to that issue. There are no modal dialogues or editing screens that hijack the screen. Instead Asana has a list and a detail pane that sit side by side. Click any line and the pane updates and you do your edits there. Multi select some lines and anything you do in the pane happens to the selected issues. There are no save, OK, submit, or other buttons that add unnecessary levels of indirection. Just clicking in the field and typing is enough.

Asana is the first actually usable issue tracker that I’ve come across. I’ve had multiple occasions where I found that Asana actually works as I would want it to. As in, I wonder what happens if I press CMD+z. It actually undid what I just did. I wonder what happens if I do that again. WTF, that works as well! Multi level undo; in a web app. OK, lets paste CMD+X and CMD+C some issues between asana projects. Boom, 100 issues just moved. Of course you can also CMD+A and drag selected issues to another asana project. I wonder if I can assign them to multiple projects. Yes you can, just hit the big + button. This thing just completely fixed the UX around issue tracking for me. All the advantages of a text file combined with all the advantages of a proper issue tracker. Creating multiple issues is as simple as type, enter, type another one, enter, etc. Organizing them is a breeze. It’s like a text editor but backed by a proper issue tracker. This UI wipes out 20 years of forms based web UX madness and it is refreshing. We’ve been using it for nearly two months at Inbot and are loving it.

So, if you are stuck using something more primitive and are are hating it: give Asana a try and you might like it as well.

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