JIRA is everywhere. Everyone talks about it, everybody wants it, but not everybody can have it – why is that? In my first article, I announced that a series of articles will follow in which Scrum tools will be reviewed. This blog entry is the first of many in which I will evaluate currently available Scrum tools that are able to represent a taskboard.
JIRA is a well-known issue tracking software developed and maintained by a company called Atlassian, that has a rich product portfolio in the field of software development, tracking and collaboration. Next to JIRA, Atlassian is also famous for its wiki software called Confluence. The following sections will focus on JIRA, especially on a plugin for JIRA called GreenHopper.
JIRA is an issue tracking software tool and that is its greatest power. It has countless features and it can be stated without hesitation, that JIRA might be THE issue tracking software tool currently available on the market. While issue tracking is certainly a must have, one aspect that makes JIRA interesting especially for Scrum and Kanban teams is its plugin architecture. Currently, 400+ plugins are available. The one that catches our attention (and the most popular plugin right now) is called GreenHopper, that adds an Agile layer on top of the JIRA architecture. With GreenHopper, Scrum and Kanban teams can migrate their product backlog, their taskboard, their burndown charts and other Scrum artifacts to JIRA and create their electronic counterparts. Until recently, the functionality of GreenHopper was comparable to that of many other Scrum tools.
Since version 5.8, GreenHopper goes beyond that by introducing what they call a rapid board. A rapid board is a new approach to guide Scrum and Kanban teams through their corresponding processes. Therefore, two standard presets are available and a third one, which is called DIY where teams can alter processes in a manner that suit them best. In my case, I have chosen the Scrum preset. Before you can start creating your backlog, you have to link your new rapid board to an existing JIRA project – not very intuitive but understandable since JIRA itself is not Agile. After having done so, GreenHopper will present you an empty product backlog (what they call the plan mode), that wants to get filled with user stories. Lets fire up our keyboard and add some stories! By the way, GreenHopper offers you a choice out of five types (blocker, critical, major, minor, trivial) which you can assign to your stories / tasks. I will explain later on why that might be handy.
Did you enter enough stories to keep your team busy for the next sprint? Great, call them in, because right now, the stories needs to get estimated by clicking on each story and filling in the story points. As soon as all story points are entered, the team can choose an amount of stories to commit by simply dragging a sprint marker until they think it is enough. The sprint marker will then automatically show the total amount of committed story points and we can start the sprint by just clicking on the “Start Sprint” button; GreenHopper will automatically redirect us to our well-loved taskboard.
The work view (the taskboard) gives us a basic taskboard design, featuring the obligatory set of „To Do – In Progress – Done“ columns. Interestingly, the stories dont get an own column. Instead, they are placed in the „To Do“ column, with their corresponding tasks just beneath them. Wait – did I say tasks before we actually created them? Yep, and the reason for this is linked to a positive and at the same time negative aspect of JIRA: its flexibility. JIRA is highly flexible, you can alter it in each possible way that suits you best. But that flexibility comes at a cost: the interface is often not very intuitive – I will cover that aspect in one of the following sections. Back to creating a task: We have to click on the generated ID of JIRA (EVAPRO-8 if you look at my provided screenshot), followed by a click on „More Actions“ and then you are finally able to choose „Create Sub-Task“. After finding that somewhat hidden button, the process of creating tasks is much better, mainly due to the ability to leave the create task window open – very time saving when entering multiple tasks. Even more time saving is the ability to perform nearly all the commands by using keyboard shortcuts – your team will love it!
Yet another powerful feature of JIRA is its very own (SQL like) querying language called JQL, with which you are able to perform any search request you can think of. But there is more than just that – team members can customize their dashboard by using JQL so that they see what they want to see. Your team will love you even more!
Back to the columns of the taskboard. You might already have guessed it; it is also flexible and can be altered according to your needs, e.g. by adding a committed column which means that the PO can test the functionality and move the story/task to complete when it satisfies him or her.
JIRA can be used for multi project setups. In fact, you can use multiple projects as input for one rapid board. Interestingly, JIRA does not offer any more hierarchies beyond epic level (and it is rumored that even epics are just relabeled tasks). A plugin called „structure“ helps to create infinite levels of hierarchies, but it is third party and not perfectly embedded within JIRA and GreenHopper.
Still, JIRA is a feature monster: interfaces to other tools? Check. Archival / export functionality? Check. User access control? Check. Event-based notification? Check. Time registration? Check. Support for adding bug stories/tasks? Check. Assign tasks to people? Check. Undo functionality? Uncheck – no undo available, due to use of AJAX (see below).
When it comes to using JIRA with GreenHopper, the overall impression is twofold. On the one hand using JIRA without a mouse introduces a massive speed up of daily actions the team has to perform. On the other hand you get the feeling that GreenHopper, especially the rapid boards, did not leave beta status yet (which is clearly indicated by Atlassian. Rapid Boards are only available if you enable the „GreenHopper Labs“). Still, I would currently recommend enabling rapid boards, as they make the whole Scrum process more enjoyable.
Atlassian should also try to be more consistent when it comes to naming functionality. When you start the normal planning board, GreenHopper will present you a „New Card“ button. For me as a user it is immediately clear that I can add new user stories by clicking on that button, as user stories are normally written on cards. When using a rapid board, this button is not available anymore. Instead, a much smaller and more hidden „Create issue“ link is presented. Even more confusing, in planning mode the „New Card“ *and* the „Create Issue“ links are available, both offering a completely different interface experience. Where „New Card“ is the much simpler, Scrum-related one, „Create issue“ is the JIRA standard interface, that is much more complex. In the end, it does not matter which interface I use to add a new story – but it is confusing.
Briefly touched in the previous section, it is also not very intuitive that one has to create a JIRA project before using GreenHopper. The same is true for adding a task to a story, which requires way too many clicks. Of course, you can change that interface to make the „Create Sub-Task“ link more visible, but that involves lots of unnecessary work for a feature that should be available by default.
Performance-wise there is not much to say, JIRA performs quite well. Ok, to be more elaborate: JIRA works much smoother than other tools if the bandwidth available is low. In fact, I have tested JIRA and GreenHopper by setting up my smartphone as a hotspot and the experience is great. One of the reasons for that experience is, that especially GreenHopper (JIRA itself much less) make extensive use of AJAX functionality (where AJAX simplified means that the browser does not have to refresh the whole page when changing an option or clicking a button). As testing platform I have used Atlassians very own cloud service, and I never experienced any downtime nor hiccup. Does this mean that the cloud can be classified as highly-available? Of course not, but exploring that is outside the scope of this article.
GreenHopper does not require a client software to be installed on each of the team‘s machines since it runs within a web browser, which is standard nowadays. Atlassian claims that JIRA and GreenHopper work on each browser as long as you browser version is high enough. From my point of view, those versions are not cutting edge, so chances are high that it works within your company’s IT landscape. Screen wise, XGA resolution is required (1024 x 768 pixels) – any moderately modern screen should fulfill that. However, there is one barrier that might come at a cost. The current GreenHopper Version (5.9.X) requires atleast JIRA version 5.X – a JIRA version most of the companies will not have running right now. Although GreenHopper (til 5.8.X) does work with JIRA 4.4.X, the much praised rapid Boards were introduced in this very version – chances are high that those boards might be buggy when using GreenHopper 5.8.X.
Some aspects were already mentioned, nevertheless the interface is much better as one might expect after reading the usability section. First of all, the rapid entry of new stories and task is a big plus, thanks to the large amount of keyboard shortcuts and the possibility to leave the „New Task/Story“ window open after adding a task or a story. Another great aspect is the highly flexible and sophisticated user dashboard. Each team member can change the content he or she wants to see on his dashboard by arranging the available components or by adding a new component, using JQL.
One of these available components is the so-called Activity stream which offers a similar experience as Facebook‘s News-Feed. New Stories/Tasks but also changed states of issues are displayed, each of those items offer the possibility to leave a comment or to add it to the users watch list if he or she wants to track any upcoming changes. Next to its dashboard, the user can also configure the taskboard in such a way as it pleases him or her. For example, he or she can choose to show only recently updated tasks, tasks of high importance or self-assigned tasks. By doing so, GreenHopper allows the user to create an interface that suits his or her needs.
Again, the possibilities of GreenHopper do not stop here. A fullscreen mode is also supported, the same is true for high contrast figures (using the wallboard plugin). Drag & drop is of course also available for moving tasks or stories and last but not least, the website is designed in such a minimal way that its layout does not waste space horizontally or vertically. Although the design looks simple, it is created in a way that enables the use all that flexibility JIRA and its plugins provides.
Motivation is and was always the trump card of paper-based taskboards. Only they were able to provide a certain haptic feeling. A feeling, software is not able to give. Unsurprisingly, this is also true for JIRA with GreenHopper. However, Atlassian comes quite close by offering numerous high contrast figures, using the aforementioned wallboard plugin. Recently, a Minecraft Plugin has emerged which offers gamers an innovative new way of solving JIRA issues.
JIRA and GreenHopper are available as download for installing it on your company‘s dedicated hardware and as on-demand, which basically means that Atlassian hosts JIRA including GreenHopper for you on their server farm. Which option you choose is of course up to you, although most of the companies will favor the first option due to security policies. The minimum fee is 10$ – either as a one time purchase when you want to deploy it on your own server (10 users, the money will be donated to charity(!)) or 10$ a month, if you want to run it on-demand (again 10 users). According to Forrester, JIRA is by far the cheapest option of the Top 10 vendors of Agile Software – twice as cheap than the second cheapest vendor and just 18 times cheaper than the most expensive vendor. That is quite a number. And if one compares the offered functionality with other vendors it becomes clear why JIRA rightfully claims being a rising star.
- Own query language
- Beta-feeling of rapid boards
The curtain falls
This was the first article that evaluates JIRA’s abilities to represent a taskboard. Next time I will evaluate ThoughtWorks Studios Mingle.
West, D., Hammond, J.S., The Forrester Wave: Agile Development Management Tools, Q2 2010, Forrester Research Inc.