What is Issue Tracking?

As any team supporting a product knows, issues will be encountered during its development and once it ships, requiring the ability to manage issues throughout the lifecycle of a project and throughout the life of the resulting product. 

It doesn’t matter if the team is building and providing a car, an item of clothing, a computing product or software release, getting the launching the product and then managing customer needs and improvements is a critical aspect of long-term product management and customer satisfaction. 

Once a product is shipped, not only planned improvements need to be managed, but issues customers report when using the product also need to be considered. Issue tracking systems make it possible to track and manage issues that arise throughout a product’s lifecycle, from its initial design and implementation project through iterative releases, particularly important to organizations using agile processes to build and maintain products.  

Issue tracking systems help teams record reported issues, their due dates for resolution and their assignment to individuals, making issue management far easier to incorporate into overall project management. Typical features found in issue tracking systems include:

Issue tracking systems provide a system of record for all issues, enabling teams to investigate the issue; provide initial support to a customer; determine if the issue is known, global and whether it can be duplicated. As part of this process, they also enable the provider to respond to the customer once investigation (and possibly mitigation) is planned or completed.  

By having all issues logged into a single system of record, issue tracking systems:

Issue tracking systems can be embedded into a project or release management system or a stand-alone, desk product. When the issue tracking system is embedded into the project management process and with project and/or release management tools, they provide a highly effective way to manage issues related to defects as part of the release management process by embedding the work alongside requirements, other defects and enhancement and slated into releases based on their priority. Embedding issue tracking systems in agile project management tools enables release planning to be responsive to customers by including their issues for resolution and managing them along with general release features. 

Issue Tracking System vs Bug Tracking System

While an issue might ultimately be caused by a defect or bug, issue tracking systems focus on recording and resolving customer-reported issues along with issues reported by team members. These will not always be defect-related. Typical non-defect related issues could include:

All issues are important, and while simple customer-facing issues like the ones listed are to be expected, they provide the ability to trend issues by their nature leading to improvements in documentation, on-line knowledge and training videos, and product design. 

In addition to issues not being the same as defects, another core difference between issue tracking systems and defect management systems is thus a customer-facing aspect of issue management vs. defect management:  there could be multiple reports of an issue ultimately linked to a single defect or fix. 

The following points summarize some of the differences between issue tracking systems and defect tracking:

Issue Tracking System:
Bug Tracking System:

With these differences in mind, the tools used to manage them will be designed to fulfill different outcomes. Issue tracking systems are focused on enabling teams to properly support customers first, resolving as many issues during the initial contact as possible. Every issue will be logged, managed through completion. Those that are caused by known defects can be resolved using an instruction set provided to customer service agents. Once an issue is identified as a defect, it can be logged in the defect tracking tool and managed through the defect management process used by the project team. 

When the issue tracking system is part of a product line that includes an agile project management tool, the ability to relate a number of issues to a single defect and easily manage them is enhanced through easy integration, as inclusion of a defect in a release, completion of the release and other release-related activities can provide updates to the original issues and help teams manage these issues.

The difference in focus is a key area that impacts how issue tracking systems are used vs. defect management systems. Issue tracking systems are designed to support customer service activities, so issues will frequently be resolved by providing user support (answering questions, providing instructions) or by providing a workaround for an issue they are experiencing. These workarounds are part of known-error management: a defect is known and slated for resolution, but until it is resolved there are a few steps that mitigate its impact. Effective organizations will document these, enabling many issues to be resolved immediately, even though a defect is still open for the defect or bug that is causing the issue. Issue tracking systems will also be used to trend issues and identify defects and other causes of repetitive calls. 

The most important aspect of issue tracking systems remains this customer focus, rather than the technical focus of defect/bug tracking tools.

The Value of Issue Tracking Systems to an organization

Spreadsheets and post-it notes are an ineffective way to manage issues. In any customer-focused organization, the number of issues associated with a project or a product becomes difficult to manage via spreadsheets, which require intensive manual effort to use for this purpose. They are not collaborative in nature, they don’t enable the people assigned to work an issue to integrate them into other activities, allowing issues to “fall through the cracks,” and negatively impacting customer service. A robust issue tracking system that is integrated into service management and/or agile release management tool provides automated assignment, a single place to view all tasks across all types of work performed, and the use of planning or Kanban boards to stay organized and collaborate with others.

Issue tracking systems provide teams with the ability to:

At the end of the day, since issues are reported by customers or product consumers (even for internally used products) issue tracking systems ensure the right focus is placed on resolution and that customer satisfaction remains a focus of the project team, throughout the lifecycle of a particular project or product. 

The ability to trend issues documented over time is an added benefit of issue tracking systems. Trend reporting can be used to create opportunities for improving the product, whether the issue is a defect or how a product is used. This capability enables teams to communicate effectively with customers about the issue and to improve documentation and training materials in addition to continually improving the product itself.

Evaluating Issue Tracking Systems

When selecting an issue tracking system, it’s important to start with key features that are typically provided:

Evaluating issue tracking systems should always be done with needs in mind. Organizations should look at the scale of the project/release management efforts underway and the number of people involved in them. Where a basic product may work for smaller organizations, mid-to-large and large organizations or organizations that focus on development for external organizations (especially SaaS providers) will want all of the capabilities described.

The type of development organization (agile vs. waterfall) may also be a factor to consider, although even those organizations that use traditional project management methodologies will find some of the agile-based features available in many issue tracking systems to be to their benefit. The added visibility and collaboration capabilities of planning boards support all methodologies equally well, not just agile.

When evaluating tools, organizations should compile a list of their needs or high-level requirements and rank issue tracking system features against this list, making a shortlist of products to consider in their evaluation. Once a shortlist is available, a deeper dive can be performed that allows team members to evaluate each feature set in detail, looking at any gaps that they will encounter between their requirement and the way the issue tracking system will address it. Often the gap analysis becomes a deciding factor as it will indicate workarounds and process deviation the organization would need to address to use that issue tracking system effectively, making it an important part of the process.

Best Issue Tracking System

The best issue tracking system for any organization will be the one that most closely matches their processes. Agile organizations will prefer those products that provide a planning-board or Kanban approach to visualizing and collaborating on issues. Collaboration on reported issues is an important step enabling developers to own the results of their work: viewing issues together with project managers and customer support personnel enables faster identification of defects and improved opportunity to integrate issue resolution into a maintenance release and get it to market more quickly.

The ability of the issue tracking system to help organizations get a fix or improvement to market more quickly is one of the key benefits an issue tracking system provides and the better-designed products that enable visualization and collaboration to support faster identification and resolution of defects or other issues are the best options for any organization.

As organizations determine the best issue tracking system for them, several of the features mentioned become key differentiators:

The best issue tracking system will be strong in these areas, but also have solid capabilities for managing the customer-facing side of each interaction, ensuring increased satisfaction for both the provider and their consumers.