Demystifying Bug Triage

I adapted this post from an internal guide I made for one of our teams. My goal was to demystify bug triage, lay out the basic hows and whys, and get buy-in from the team. I wanted everyone to feel comfortable triaging the issues reported in the team’s GitHub repositories (or other bug trackers).

The term “triage” comes from medicine, where it’s the process of determining the order in which patients will receive treatment based on the severity and urgency of their medical condition. At Automattic we apply the term “triage” to the processes we use to determine the severity and urgency of bug reports (and the potential positive impact of enhancement requests) so we can prioritize open issues. In other words, it’s how we keep our GitHub repos organized and make sure we can identify the next most important thing to work on.

How to Triage

What processes do we use for triage? Triage is primarily the initial review and prioritization of all new issues as they are opened in GitHub:

  • Add a label identifying the topic, feature, or epic related to the issue.
  • Add a label identifying the type of issue (e.g. bug or enhancement).
  • Add a label identifying the priority, if it’s clearly a high or low priority issue.
  • Check the issue to see if it’s missing any critical information, such as steps to reproduce or the device or app version where the bug occurs.
  • Add the issue to relevant projects or milestones for followup. If it’s a critical/blocking bug, escalate the issue in other ways, such as a direct ping to a team member.
  • Especially important when someone outside the team opened the issue: leave a comment to acknowledge the contribution and set expectations for followup.

I also use the term “triage” as an umbrella term for all the processes we use to review issues, and this includes reviewing all open GitHub issues on a regular basis:

  • Make sure that open issues are still valid and complete.
  • Look for trends, e.g. a group of issues related to a specific feature or component.
  • Re-prioritize issues when team goals and priorities change, or in response to trends you identified.

The exact timing for triaging new issues and reviewing existing issues depends on the team and project. If you’re just getting started, I’d suggest triaging new issues at least once per week and reviewing existing issues at least once per quarter (or whenever there’s a larger conversation about what to work on next).

Why to Triage

Why do these processes matter? They make it easier to:

  • Identify related issues that can be fixed at the same time, that show a potential weakness in a particular part of the app, or that point to a potential longer-term project.
  • Gauge the health of the app, in terms of number of issues and their severity.
  • Prioritize issues for regular maintenance.
  • Respond to all reports, especially from external contributors and reporters, to make sure nothing falls through the cracks.

Get Started

If you’re new to triage, here are some next steps you can take to get yourself and your team started:

  1. Agree on a consistent set of labels and what they’ll be used for. If you’re using GitHub, there is a set of default labels you can start with — but most important is to think of what’s useful for your team and how you work.
  2. Set up any projects or milestones you have or are planning to use to organize your work.
  3. Review all open issues (add labels, assign priority, check for completeness, etc.).
  4. Practice labeling new issues with appropriate topic, type, and priority labels. Hold yourself and your team accountable for doing this on all new issues you open.
  5. Identify a triage DRI (“Directly Responsible Individual”) and set a cadence for triaging new issues and reviewing existing issues going forward.

As with any work, be prepared to reflect and iterate on your processes. So far this approach has worked well for me and the teams I work with, but you may need to add or subtract steps to make it fit the way you work.

What do you think? Are your teams already doing this kind of triage? Are there any other steps or processes that you use to keep open issues organized and prioritized?