For years we at CodeProject have fought over which task tracking system to use
and the arguments all came down to "which system sucked the least". There are some
fantastic task tracking systems out there that almost work for us, but they are
either too complicated, too slow, don't work on tablets, or force you to do something
you don't want to do.
Our goal with ::Tasks was to create a system that was fairly dumb in that it
didn't know what you wanted to do, it just provided a consistent and extensible
framework in which you could do it. The fundamental goals of Tasks were:
- Create a task tracking system better than Notepad or an Excel spreadsheet
- Create an application that focused on the user's data, not the application
There is a constant temptation among software developers to make the application
the main feature instead of making the user's data within that application the main
feature. The software behind a great video game is invisible to a user; you completely
forget you're using a software application. Business applications, to race to the
other end of the spectrum, often go the other way and make the application the focus.
Our weekly meetings were 50% about how to use the tools we were using and 50% about
how we could write a better one. And 50% about what we were meant to be talking
about. Software is meant to make like easier, not merely be an end unto itself.
::Tasks is our first application written on our Workspaces platform that provides support for our Article system. Each article on CodeProject has a "Bugs and Suggestions" tab that provides a ::Tasks instance for that article. If you want to use ::Tasks for your own projects just open a new workspace at Workspaces - it's free.
Workspaces is written primarily in CoffeeScript
as a single-page application using the Ember.js framework
with a Node.js backend and a
MongoDB persistence layer. ::Tasks uses the
same stack except for the addition of a little
Ruby On Rails, though we are shifting from Ruby to pure node.js. The whole thing
is hosted on Amazon Web Services using Capistrano and Chef for management and deployment. There's
a little Go sprinkled in there for grins
but it's merely a little dabbling on the side.
The specific goals of ::Tasks are
- Organise and manage task lists
- Be fast
- Be simple
- Work on a desktop and a tablet
- Be extensible
Further (implied) goals were that ::Tasks should
- live on the ::Workspaces platform
- Be geared towards simultaneous multiple users
- Ensure alerts, updated and user communication was baked in
The core of the ::Tasks UI is the grid. We tried many, many commercial and open
source grids and none suited. Many were close, but in the end the effort involved
in reworking the grid (and working around the grids) to suit our needs meant it
was more efficient to simply write our own.
columns, sortable, drag and drop and in-place editing.
The grid was (understandably) 90% of the UI work and the focus of most of the
optimisation. To gain speed we've optimised data serialisation, worked with pre-rendering
the HTML on first load, added partial and on-demand grid population and spent weeks
trimming milliseconds here and there to ensure the application is as fast as possible
during interaction. We still have a number of tricks we're planning on implementing
so the work continues. As Ember.js evolves, it also opens door for new speedups over time.
The goal was to ensure the system was as simple to use as Notepad or Excel, so
the focus is on simple lists that are in-place editable and can be arranged using
simple drag and drop.
In the default layout you see your tasks listed one after the other. To make
a task a child of another task simply drag one task on top of another. To create a new task just choose the "Add New" menu dropdown which allows you to add a new task a the end of the list, a new sibling to the currently selected task or a new child of the current task. Hint: use the keyboard shortcuts Ctrl+Enter / Shift+Enter to save time.
Once you've added a new item it's simply a matter of filling in the details:
Title, type, a description (using
and whatever other fields you are using.
Hit Enter and the task is created and a new, blank task is then also created ready
for you to add your next item. The goal is "better than notepad" and in notepad
you type, hit enter, type, hit enter. That's the pattern we've used in ::Tasks.
Organising and managing Your Tasks
A core feature of ::Tasks is "Organise and manage task lists" but there are,
fundamentally, two ways of organising tasks:
- Hierarchically by Project. Organising items based on where they fit in the
- A flat list: eg By priority, by assignee or just a "What's on the list for
The default Tree layout allows you to organise your lists as a hierarchical
tree. You enter tasks then drag and drop them to produce a tree of tasks.
There is another layout called List Layout that allows you to organise
your items in a flat list based on different ordering criteria than the Tree list.
Initially the items will be ordered as you enter them, but when in List layout
you can drag and drop items to rearrange them (but not add parent/child relations
- that's for Tree layout only). The order you place items will be maintained as
you switch between List and Tree layout.
Key point: ::Tasks has two modes of viewing items: One as a project-oriented hierarchy of tasks, and the other as a flat, ordered list of tasks. Same items, different layouts and ordering.
Filtering and Grouping
You don't always want to see all of the tasks all of the time so ::Tasks allows
you to filter and group your tasks.
To filter, click the "funnel" icon at the top of the column whose values you
want to filter and then select the items you wish to include in the filter. In the
example below I've chosen to only view items with a Status of New, Open, In Progress,
On Hold, Needs Help and Resolved. I'm not going to show the items that are Closed,
Rejected or Completed.
Hit apply and you have your filter. Do this on as many columns as you wish to
fine tune your filter. Your final set of filters can be viewed and adjusted using
the Filter dropdown
Grouping is done by selecting the column by which to group items in the Group
Defining and Saving Views of your Tasks
Having the ability to view tasks as a project tree or as a flat list of TODO
items is nice, but you need a way to define different views of the items you're
managing. Doing this is silly simple in ::Tasks.
- Choose your layout: List or Tree
- Apply any filters you need
- Group the items if necessary
- Adjust the column sizes if necessary
- Go to the Views dropdown and at the bottom enter the title of the view you
wish to save and hit Add.
Once a view is created you then share the view so others can use your view, set
it as your main (default) view, or (if you've shared the view) set it as the main
view for everyone, not just yourself.
Viewing and Editing items
The small window we provide for entering the item description isn't always enough,
and nor does the main grid view of tasks provide the full description. Clicking
the title of any task opens up the Detail pane that shows an expanded and editable
version of a task.
Click the description to edit the description, or click on any of the properties
to present a dropdown (or other control) to edit their settings. Further, attachments
can be added by dragging and dropping and, if you're using a sensible modern browser,
images can be pasted directly into descriptions. Be aware that descriptions are
formatting using Markdown, but remember that Markdown also supports straight HTML.
The best of both worlds.
Of course, when you have multiple people working on a project there's going to
be some back-and-forth among them so each item has a comment area attached at the
bottom. Again, everything's formatted in Markdown.
The final piece is the notification system. At the end of the Detail pane are
two controls: A "Notify" checkbox that allows you to enable notifications on an
item (assignee will always get notifications if they have that option set globally)
and another dropdown that allows you to have others be notified. This is incredibly
handy when you need to assign an item to one person but have another person be notified
of a change of status.
So far I've touched on the basics of using ::Tasks. Adding, managing, viewing
and modifying items has been designed to be as simple as possible and to provide
the means to organise and present items in different manners depending on different
::Tasks is simple and is not meant to replace full blown project management systems
with Gantt charts and burn down graphs. It's meant to allow you to organise your
tasks, your TODOs and your thoughts, yet it also offers significant configuration possibilities..
In my next article I'll dive into the customisations
and extensions that are possible as well as some of the UI hacks we've opened up.