TicketDesk – Design Philosophies Explained

It has been just over a year since I introduced TicketDesk over at CodePlex. While it hasn’t taken the world by storm or anything, it did generate a lot more interest than I would have expected. There are several companies using TicketDesk in production environments, and there have been a few thousand downloads from other people that may be using it too.

While TicketDesk isn’t generating the kind of download numbers that I’d want to base a software startup on, for an open source project it is what you might call “wildly successful”.

If there was a major failure on my part with bringing TicketDesk to the public, it would be that I didn’t do a good job explaining the ideas behind the overall design. So let me take a stab at explaining the philosophy behind TicketDesk.

The general idea behind TicketDesk was to take my 15 years or so of experience, much of it spent being frustrated by help desk issue trackers, and use that experience to design a different kind of help desk system; one that avoids those problems.

And believe me, I have a very long list of complaints with help desk systems!

I suppose the best way to explain it is to discuss the fundamental design ideas, then illustrate how TicketDesk implements them.

TicketDesk is an issue tracker for help desks… and that is all:

The help desk at most organizations will have many considerations aside from issue tracking. There are internal rank structures, chains of command, political issues, business practices, and financial considerations of all kinds. Unfortunately, the help desk is deeply involved in all of these things.

The mission of TicketDesk is to allow the help desk keep track of issues, and that is all it does.

  • TicketDesk does not attempt to understand your org chart.
  • It doesn’t recognize user rank, status, or departmental affiliations.
  • It doesn’t act as a time tracker.
  • It doesn’t do billing.
  • It doesn’t do project management.
  • It doesn’t manage your inventory.
  • It doesn’t handle your business process.
  • It doesn’t do inner-departmental accounting.
  • And it absolutely does NOT care about your internal politics.

TicketDesk is made for internal help desks:

TicketDesk was designed exclusively for use by help desks supporting users within the same organization. It assumes there is a high level of trust between all participants.

TicketDesk can be used in other environments, and there are plans for future versions to better enable external user scenarios.

You should carefully evaluate TicketDesk’s features before attempting to use it in a customer-facing capacity. Also, you may find the features insufficient for organizations that provide contracted support to users external to their own organization.

Have as few data fields as possible for any given ticket:

This the most basic design idea behind TicketDesk.

In most help desk systems there are just too many fields, and few of them turn out to be useful. During planning, management is hyped-up about the advantages all those fields will bring, but it doesn’t take long for the staff to learn that the free-text description field is the only reliable source of information (and even that is a dubious assumption).

So I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the various fields common to similar systems.

There are many reasons why different fields fail, but it boils down to just three overall trends:

  1. The fields may not relate to the user’s specific problem. For example, Questions like “what OS are you using” aren’t useful when the user is reporting a problem with a printer or phone.
  2. The end user is incapable of answering some questions. It isn’t their fault, they just aren’t IT professionals. They just don’t know the answers, especially to the more technical questions like “what is the printer model number?”.
  3. The end user is not qualified to answer some questions. This isn’t a lack of skill, but just a lack of sufficient information. The classic example here is the priority field, to which end users cannot provide a meaningful answer. They don’t know how their problem stacks up in relation to other issues; so only IT can provide a useful answer here.

After exploring the problems I came to the conclusion that they just cannot be solved by software. It is also unlikely that training, threat, or corporate policy would help much either. The only viable solution is for the system to expect poor input from users, embrace that fact, then just concentrate on helping the humans work around the limitations on a case by case basis.

TicketDesk follows a couple of important philosophies:

  1. Avoid asking any question where the user cannot be expected to answer with 100% accuracy no matter what kind of problem they are reporting.
  2. Avoid asking questions that don’t apply to nearly every possible situation that could be reported.

Thus, TicketDesk asks as little from the user as possible. It expects that the only useful field will be the free-text details field. Other fields exist, but are general in nature, optional, or expected to be answered by the staff rather than the end-user.

Tickets should evolve as a natural conversation between the help desk and the end-user:

As discussed above, TicketDesk does not attempt gather a lot of detailed and quantifiable information up front. Instead it expects that help desk staff will have to ask for additional information.

Tickets are designed to be an ongoing two-way conversation with the users by borrowing heavily from web 2.0 and social networking concepts.

The activity area of tickets acts as a forum-style discussion board combined with an activity and history log. Every action that can be performed with a ticket solicits additional comments that also become part of the ongoing conversation.

The notifications system ensures that both staff and users remain informed as the ticket progresses toward completion. And TicketDesk makes it very simple to perform actions and add comments, which should encourages the staff to actually make frequent updates to the ticket as they work through the issues.

The result should be a constant stream of information flowing between the user who submitted the ticket and the help desk staffer assigned to deal with it. Either party, as well as interested 3rd parties, can jump in at any time to add to the conversation.

Avoid Workflow & Routing Hell:

This is one of the more controversial of TicketDesk’s design philosophies.

Most help desk systems have customizable and dynamic workflows and rule-based routing. This allows for a lot of control over how a ticket moves through the system.

There is no inherent “problem” with this kind of system in my experience. I have had the misfortune of working with system where the workflow customizations were insanely over-engineered to create horridly inefficient routes with many unnecessary steps. But when used wisely, workflow features don’t necessarily present a problem.

Avoiding advanced workflow and routing is a design philosophy based mostly on technical considerations. Workflow and routing are nightmares to code and maintain, especially for a small development team with limited resources. But on the other hand, the advantages to having workflow and routing features is very small. Other than making managers happy by having the system act as a policy-cop, there isn’t much added value to the system by including custom workflows.

Additionally, TicketDesk is designed to collect a very minimal set of fields, and doesn’t expect end users to necessarily fill them in with useful information, so in TicketDesk there just aren’t many fields that could participate in automated routing and advanced workflows.

Instead I designed TicketDesk to use a basic state-based workflow that should be simple and valid in just about any organization. While simple, it is also unobtrusive and frictionless for the most part.

There have been some requests for workflow options that require only simple workflow customization options or a limited set of pre-defined optional rules. I plan to explore those ideas for inclusion in future versions of TicketDesk, but I have no plans to introduce a full-featured workflow customization or rule-based routing engine.

Allow organic categorization:

Most issue tracker systems provide the end user with several cascading category lists, with context sensitive sub-categories. The options in sub-cats adjust according to previous selections to produce a granular categorization system. As described before though, this just doesn’t work that well in actual practice. Users don’t get these selections right very often, and over time the list of selections themselves tend to become outdated, and are always incomplete.

By omitting detailed categorization in TicketDesk, the searchability of tickets is slightly degraded, and it can be more difficult to locate related tickets.

To give TicketDesk decent searchability without reproducing all the problems of traditional over-categorization; TicketDesk includes a web 2.0 style tagging mechanism. This allows users and staff to organically add keywords to tickets as they desire.

Anyone can tag, but it is only really successful as a substitute for categorization if the help desk staff take it on themselves to ensure that tickets are tagged well before being resolved. This takes some discipline and effort, but the up-side is that it produces a degree of searchability that can far exceed traditional categorization mechanisms. And best of all, there isn’t a lot of administrative overhead to tagging since the system evolves and adapts all by itself over time.

Tagging is optional though, and many shops (mine included) choose not to make much use of it. That’s OK since TicketDesk doesn’t rely on tagging for any core functionality, and a lack of tagging doesn’t degrade the system’s ability to perform the primary mission.

Email Notifications should not spam users:

This is a major problem in a lot of different software systems. There is a need to keep users informed of changes in a timely manner, but if you send notifications too frequently the system will overwhelm users.

When this happens people tend to just ignore all the notifications, and so important messages start to get lost in the noise.

To combat this problem, TicketDesk puts an enormous amount of effort into reducing the number of notifications sent to ensure that the notification that are sent always contain useful new information.

Here are the basic rules behind the email system:

  • Do not notify users about changes that they have made themselves. You know what you just did right?
  • Wait a few minutes before sending a notification to see if additional events involving the same ticket happen. If so, wait until changes slow down a bit, then consolidate the events into a single message.
  • Convey all of the information about the ticket in the message so users do not have to log in to see what is going on.
  • Attempt to guarantee delivery by supporting an intelligent re-try mechanism.

Depsite the fact that this system took a while to get implemented, it has proven good at keeping down the number of messages sent as well as eliminating unnecessary notifications.

The actual format of the notification message is still a little rough around the edges, but that will be worked out in future releases.

TicketDesk will not provide performance reporting:

This is also a controversial philosophy, but one that is absolutely essential to the success of the system.

TicketDesk will not implement any reports or data collection features to assist management in measuring employee performance, or that could be used in this way.

Anytime the issue tracker becomes a tool by which management measures employee performance, the system ceases to have value. Instead it becomes an enemy of the users. Users will then manipulate the data in the system to protect themselves and inflate their performance numbers. Anything that would make them “look bad” will be deliberately obscured or omitted from the system.

Researchers call this “measurement dysfunction”, and it is a well established and thoroughly vetted reality. Despite that though, managers around the world still insist on attempting to automate the measurement of employee performance… which is ironic. If they were successful, then what would be the point in having managers?

Your help desk is probably staffed by very smart people. People that love figuring things out, and whose job is to be very good at solving puzzles. How long will take them to learn how to game the system?

Even if you have some honest staffers that don’t manipulate the system… measuring performance will only punish the few honest users, while rewarding users that manipulate data to their advantage.

The purpose of TicketDesk is to facilitate honest and open communication between users and help desk. If the system is used to gather performance metrics then it cannot provide honesty nor openness, and the result is a system filled with meaningless information that is of little use to anyone.

I first learned about this issue from Joel Spolsky, creator of the popular FogBugz bug tracking system, but have witnessed this same phenomenon in nearly every help desk environment I’ve ever worked with. .

You can read Joel’s take on the issue yourself if you wish; he explains it better than I can.

Now… there are ways to do useful reporting in a way that doesn’t lead to management dysfunction. But it takes very careful design where you deliberately create reports that cannot be used to show individual or group performance metrics. That is a slippery slope, and I have not yet had time to do the design for such reports yet.

I do have plans to add some reporting in the future, but the reporting will be carefully designed to prevent such abuses.