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?

Find the best time for different kinds of work

I was recently listening to the Inquiring Minds podcast as they interviewed Daniel Pink about his work on the science of perfect timing. One point that really stood out to me is that you are good at different kinds of work at different times of day.

Previously, I’d thought of my work in two ways: busy/mindless work that I do when my brain isn’t functioning at its best and deep work that I do when my brain is firing on all cylinders. But Pink shared that deep work isn’t all alike — specifically, we are good at creative or insightful work and analytical work at different times of day. The exact time of day depends on your chronotype (I’m a night owl) but, regardless, the type of work aligns with whether you’re in what he calls a trough, peak, or recovery period.

Your trough is the time when you’re sluggish or not so quick — for me that’s first thing in the morning — and is best for busy work like checking email or filing expenses. Your peak is when you’re fully mentally engaged (high mental acuity), and that’s when you’re best at analytical work. But your peak isn’t when you’re best at deeply creative or insightful work — that’s best done during your recovery period, where your mood (but not your mental acuity) improves and you have a little more mental space for thinking laterally or having those “aha!” moments.

I’ve been thinking lately about how I’ve optimized my schedule for smaller chunks of analytical work that I push through at my peak times, but how I have more trouble getting into a flow state with more insightful work. Using Pink’s model, I can try to block out those times when I’m mostly likely to do that work well — for me that should be in the middle of my day, before or after lunch (after I get over my “uhhhh what’s happening?” time but before I hit my “I can do all the things!” burst of mental energy late in the afternoon). I’d really like to build sustainable habits that take into account the creative and insightful work that I find myself doing more of these days.

How about you? Does this model make sense for your work? Any tips or habits that work well for you when you have to switch between these types of work?

Support Driven Expo Europe

I’m happy to share that I’ll be giving a workshop at Support Driven Expo Europe in April! I’ll be sharing about mental models and how you can use them to better support and troubleshoot a product.

Sound familiar? I wrote about mental models a while back and used them to give a round of internal workshops in the Automattic support division. I got great feedback about those workshops and am excited to share them with a wider audience.

I truly believe that great communication between support and product teams is a key piece of product quality, and solid troubleshooting skills (and all that those skills entail) help facilitate those conversations!

Wrangling Excellence

Today marked a big change for me at work.

For the past 4+ years, I worked as a Happiness Engineer supporting WordPress.com and the WordPress apps. I spent roughly the first two years working in the WordPress.com Support Forums, and I found that I loved providing public support and troubleshooting the incredible range of issues that arose there. I spent the past two years supporting the WordPress apps, and over time I got more and more involved in testing them as well.

As I spent time developing on my own manual testing approach, working with beta testing communities, exploring the support/development feedback loop, and encouraging my coworkers’ troubleshooting skills, I also kept an eye on a team being formed at Automattic around automated testing and bug prioritization. I worked with and learned from them as more discussions arose around testing and quality within our fast-paced, distributed environment. And although I enjoyed helping people use WordPress, I discovered that my favorite work was helping development teams understand our customers’ needs and identify what issues most needed their attention.

Earlier this year, I finally decided to build on my existing coding skills to try my hand at automated testing. With some guidance, I developed the first suite of UI tests for a new editor (codenamed “Aztec”) for the WordPress for iOS app. Later I added a suite of UI tests for the same editor for WordPress for Android. I also worked with a coworker to automate screenshots of the WordPress.com signup flow in multiple languages, to help our internationalization team review those localized flows. Some of this work was part of a trial, as I applied internally to change roles.

That work and study paid off, and today I started my first day as an Excellence Wrangler. I’ll be automating tests, doing manual testing, triaging bugs reports, and generally helping our support and development teams communicate and prioritize to create the best experience possible for our customers.

And if that excitement wasn’t enough, I also had a delivery that I’ve been waiting on since I hit my four-year anniversary at Automattic — a new laptop with the WordPress logo:

2017-08-07 21.00.15.jpg