Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

07 Apr 2017, 15:36 p.m.

Inclusive-Or: Hospitality in Bug Tracking

Lindsey Kuper asked:

I’m interested in hearing about [open source software] projects that have successfully adopted an "only insiders use the issue tracker" approach. For instance, a project might have a mailing list where users discuss bugs in an unstructured way, and project insiders distill those discussions into bug reports to be entered into the issue tracker. Where does this approach succeed, and where does it fail? How can projects that operate this way effectively communicate their expectations to non-insider users, especially those users who might be more accustomed to using issue trackers directly?
More recently, Jillian C. York wrote:

...sick of "just file a bug with us through github!" You realize that's offputting to your average users, right?

If you want actual, average users to submit bugs, you know what you have to do: You have to use email. Sorry, but it's true.

Oh, and that goes especially for high-risk users. Give them easy ways to talk to you. You know who you are, devs.

Both Kuper and York get at: How do we open source maintainers get the bug reports we need, in a way that works for us and for our users?

My short answer is that open source projects should have centralized bug trackers that are as easy as possible to work in as an expert user, and that they should find automated ways to accept bug reports from less structured and less expert sources. I'll discuss some examples and then some general principles.

Dreamwidth logo Dreamwidth: Dreamwidth takes support questions via a customer support interface. The volunteers and paid staff answering those questions sometimes find that a support request reveals a bug, and then file it in GitHub on the customer's behalf, then tell her when it's fixed. (Each support request has a private section that only Support can see, which makes it easier to track the connection between Support requests and GitHub issues, and Support regulars tend to have enough ambient awareness of both Support and GitHub traffic to speak up when relevant issues crop up or get closed.) Dreamwidth users and developers who are comfortable using the GitHub issue tracker are welcomed if they want to file bugs there directly instead.

Dreamwidth also has a non-GitHub interface for feature suggestions: the suggestions form is the preferred interface for people to suggest new features for Dreamwidth. Users post their suggestions into a queue and a maintainer chooses whether to turn that suggestion into a post for open discussion in the dw-suggestions community, or whether to bounce it straight into GitHub (e.g., for an uncontroversial request to whitelist a new site for media embedding or add a new site for easy cross-site user linking, or at the maintainer's prerogative). Once a maintainer has turned a suggestion into a post, other users use an interface familiar to them (Dreamwidth itself) to discuss whether they want the feature. Then, if they and the maintainer come to consensus and approve it, the maintainer adds a ticket for it to GitHub. That moderation step has been a bottleneck in the past, and the process of moving a suggestion into GitHub also hasn't yet been automated.

Since discussion about site changes needs to include users who aren't developers, Dreamwidth maintainers prefer that people use the suggestions form; experienced developers sometimes start conversations in GitHub, but the norm (at least the official norm) is to use dw-suggestions; I think the occasional GitHub comment suffices for redirecting these discussions.

Zulip logo Zulip: We use GitHub issues. The Zulip installations hosted by Kandra Labs (the for-profit company that stewards the open source project) also have a "Send feedback" button in one of the upper corners of the Zulip web user interface. Clicking this opens a private message conversation with feedback-at-zulip.com, which users used more heavily when the product was younger. (We also used to have a nice setup where we could actually send you replies in-Zulip, and may bring that back in the future.)

I often see Tim Abbott and other maintainers noticing problems that new users/customers are having and, while helping them (via the zulip-devel mailing list, via the Zuliping-about-Zulip chat at chat.zulip.org, or in person), opening GitHub issues about the issue, as the next step towards a long-term fix. But -- as with the Dreamwidth example -- it is also fine for people who are used to filing bug reports or feature requests directly to go ahead and file them in GitHub. And if Tim et alia know that the person they're helping has that skill and probably has the time to write up a quick issue, then the maintainers will likely say, "hey would you mind filing that in GitHub?"

We sometimes hold live office hours at chat.zulip.org. At yesterday's office hour, Tim set up a discussion topic named "warts" and said,

I think another good topic is to just have folks list the things that feel like they're some of our uglier/messier parts of the UI that should be getting attention. We can use this topic to collect them :).

Several people spoke up about little irritations, and we ended up filing and fixing multiple issues. One of Zulip's lead developers, Steve Howell, reflected: "As many bug reports as we get normally, asking for 'warts' seems to empower customers to report stuff that might not be considered bugs, or just empower them to speak up more." I'd also point out that some people feel more comfortable responding to an invitation in a synchronous conversation than initiating an asynchronous one -- plus, there's the power of personal invitation to consider.

As user uptake goes up, I hope we'll also have more of a presence on Twitter, IRC, and Stack Overflow in order to engage people who are asking questions there and help them there, and get proto-bug reports from those platforms to transform into GitHub issues. We already use our Twitter integration to help -- if someone mentions Zulip in a public Tweet, a bot tells us about it in our developers' livechat, so we can log into our Twitter account and reply to them.

MediaWiki logo 1MediaWiki and Wikimedia: Wikipedia editors and other contributors have a lot of places they communicate about the sites themselves, such as the technical-issues subforum of English Wikipedia's "Village Pump", and similar community-conversation pages within other Wikipedias, Wikivoyages, etc. Under my leadership, the team within Wikimedia Foundation's engineering department that liaised with the larger Wikimedia community grew more systematic about working with those Wikimedia spaces where users were saying things that were proto-bug reports. We got more systematic about listening for those complaints, filing them as bugs in the public bug tracker, and keeping in touch with those reporters as bugs progressed -- and building a kind of ambassador community to further that kind of information dissemination. (I don't know how well that worked out; I think we built a better social infrastructure for people who were already doing that kind of volunteer work ad hoc, but I don't know whether we succeeded in recruiting more people to do it, and I haven't kept a close eye on how that's gone in the years since I left.)

We also worked to make it easy for people to report bugs into the main bug tracker. The Bugzilla installation we had for most of the time that I was at Wikimedia had two bug reporting forms: a "simple" submission form that we pointed most people to, with far fewer fields, and an "advanced" form that Wikimedia-experienced developers used. They've moved to Phabricator now, and I don't know whether they've replicated that kind of two-lane approach.

A closed-source example: FogBugz. When I was at Fog Creek Software doing sales and customer support, we used FogBugz as our internal bug tracker (to manage TODOs for our products,* and as our customer relationship manager). Emails into the relevant email addresses landed in FogBugz, so it was easy for me to reply directly to help requests that I could fix myself, and easy for me to note "this customer support request demonstrates a bug we need to fix" and turn it into a bug report, or open a related issue for that bug report. If I recall correctly, I could even set the visibility of the issue so the customer could see it and its progress (unusual, since almost all our issue-tracking was private and visible only within the company).

Debian logo An interface example: Debian. Debian lets you report bugs via email and via the command-line reportbug program. As the "how to use BTS" guide says,

some spam messages managed to send mails to -done addresses. Those are usually easily caught, and given that everything can get reverted easily it's not that troublesome. The package maintainers usually notice those and react to them, as do the BTS admins regularly.

The BTS admins also have the possibility to block some senders from working on the bug tracking system in case they deliberately do malicious things.

But being open and inviting everyone to work on bugs totally outweighs the troubles that sometimes pop up because of misuse of the control bot.

And that leads us to:

General guidelines: Dreamwidth, Zulip, MediaWiki, and Debian don't discourage people from filing bug reports in the official central bug tracker. Even someone quite new to a particular codebase/project can file a very helpful and clear bug report, after all, as long as they know the general skill of filing a good bug report. Rather, I think the philosophy is what you might find in hospitable activism in general: meet people where they are, and provide a means for them to conveniently start the conversation in a time, place, and manner that's more comfortable for them. For a lot of people, that means email, or the product itself.

Failure modes can include:

  • a disconnect among the different "places" such that the central bug tracker is a black hole and nothing gets reported back to the more accessible place or the original reporter
  • a feeling of elitism where only special important people are allowed to even comment in the main bug tracker
  • bottlenecks such that it seems like there's a non-bug-tracker way to report a question or suggestion but that process has creaked to a halt and is silently blocking momentum
  • bottlenecks in bug triage
  • brusque reaction at the stage where the bug report gets to the central bug tracker (e.g., "oh that's a duplicate; CLOSE" without explanation or thanks), which jars the user (who's expecting more explicit friendliness) and which the user perceives as hostile

Whether or not you choose to increase the number of interfaces you enable for bug reporting, it's worth improving the user experience for people reporting bugs into your main bug tracker. Tedious, lots-of-fields issue tracker templates and UIs decrease throughput, even for skilled bug reporters who simply aren't used to the particular codebase/project they're currently trying to file an issue about. So we should make that easier. You can provide an easy web form, as Wikimedia did via the simplified Bugzilla form, or an email or in-application route, as Debian does.

And FLOSS projects oughta do what the Accumulo folks did for Kuper, too, saying, "I can file that bug for you." We can be inclusive-or rather than exclusive-or about it, you know? That's how I figure it.


* Those products were CityDesk, Copilot, and FogBugz -- this was before Kiln, Stack Overflow, Trello, and Glitch.

Thanks to Lindsey Kuper and Jillian C. York for sparking this post, and thanks to azurelunatic for making sure I got Dreamwidth details right.

Comments

Sumana Harihareswara
https://changeset.nyc
07 Apr 2017, 15:44 p.m.

I know there are many other open source projects working on this issue, e.g., Mozilla (see https://emceeaich.dreamwidth.org/195314.html ), but I didn't want to write, like, a doorstopper of a book about this. I'd welcome comments that talk about other projects' efforts.