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How to use Gmail as an Issue tracker

Posted on Monday, October 8, 2012 in User

If you are working on any project  (technical or otherwise), it is often necessary to have an issue tracker or “to-do” list which pending issues are tracked. There are many services which have been developed to fulfill this need, like Trac, Redmine, ChiliProject which offer self-hosted solutions, as well as others like GitHub issues and Trello which offer hosted solutions for tracking tasks and issues. And then comes the work of triaging and prioritizing…

Often times, issues are raised through email and you respond and have to track that issue to completion in your email. This is especially relevant in user support where help is requested through email. One such system which is built around email is IssueBurner. IssueBurner allows you to forward your emails to a specially assigned email and then be able to track them as issues.

As an alternative to the above solutions, I have been able to realize an issue tracker system using only the free Gmail service. Two Gmail features come in very handy in this regard: superstars and inbox sections. Gmail superstars is a feature which enables you to star messages not just with the yellow star, but also with a red bang, green tick, blue star and much more.

Superstars can be enabled and arranged under Settings -> General. For my issue tracker, I use 3 stars – a red bang, green tick and yellow star – in that order. But you could add more if you wanted to indicate more intermediate states.

Next step is to go to Settings -> Inbox and arrange your inbox sections so that you have the sections “Unread, Starred, Everything else” in that order. Also, under ‘Options’, set the Unread section to “Hide section when empty”.

Now you are all set, whenever you get new email, you always see the unread mails at the top. When you read and star a message, it moves to the starred section and has the red bang. When the issue is complete, you can click on the star again to give it a green tick. Combine this with conversation view and you have a fully functional issue tracking/user support system based only on email. The end result should look something like this:

When there are no unread emails, only the ‘Starred’ and ‘Everything else’ sections are displayed. Now you have a complete issue tracker which lets you keep track of issues in progress. If you are sharing the support email with others, you could use another star to indicate when an issue has been assigned to someone. Go forth now and track all the things!!

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Bring on the comments

  1. Jeff says:

    Well, this is quite a different usecase. The whole point of bug trackers is for them to be shared with others and be publicly accessible – not to mention that by using GMail, you are using a proprietary service. While it is free, you are at Google’s mercy. But you know all that already, and I suppose that’s not the point of this blog post :)

    • Ngewi Fet says:

      You are right, this is not the point of this post. :) Open source vs. proprietary is a whole different discussion.

      While trackers are meant to be shared, sometimes , you need a way of keeping track of stuff for yourself only. A bug tracker in such a case is overkill.
      Most of email I receive is actionable so it helps me to keep track of what has been done and what is to be done without having to leave all the email as Unread (which a lot of people do)

  2. Avi Hayun says:

    This isn’t a very good bug tracking solution.

    But this is a very good way to replace the state where I have a bunch of unread messages, now instead of leaving all not-yet-solved emails as unread, I can just star them like you did.

    I like!

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