Creating a free issue tracker using Google Docs & Spreadsheets

I recently launched a WordPress-based microsite for a project that is a partnership between my workplace and two other charities. As the digital project manager, I had to manage queries both the internal and external stakeholders, all of whom were keen that the inevitable snags were dealt with as rapidly as possible by myself or the developers as appropriate.

It’s very easy to drown under a weight of emails with different requests, of varying priority and ability to fix. I needed a quick way of letting people input their issues into a central store, without needing to login or navigate anything that looked remotely scary. It had to replace sending an email to me.

Here comes the Twitter bit…

I put out a call for a free bug tracker on Twitter and got a number of useful suggestions (Trac, Uservoice, Getsatisfaction) but none of them quite fit what I wanted to do. I also ran a Google search and got a couple of solutions, that required a bit of sign-up and configuration. Thinking further, I realised that a Google product that I had almost never used was actually the answer.

Creating the issue tracker

Google Docs & Spreadsheets logoGoogle Spreadsheets is a free online spreadsheet system that is designed for collaboration from the ground-up. Using your inevitable Google Account, you can quickly create and publish spreadsheets to either an invite-only audience or to everyone who has the link.

Within minutes, and with Dave Mee‘s advice, I’d set up a basic spreadsheet that covered off all the key things you’d want to know if you were tracking bugs. Using the ‘Share’ button, I can create a link like the one above and let anyone look at it, or even edit it, without signing-in. For the purposes of demo, you won’t be able to edit the sample tracker, but please click ‘File / Create a Copy’ for your own version.

Keeping it simple (stupid)

Unfortunately, sending users to a spreadsheet isn’t the most friendly interface to provide them with. Remember, I needed this to replace email so that means users need a simple, easy-to-understand method to put data in there, without logging in.

Well, the great thing about Google Spreadsheets is that it can act as a basic data-collection platform. This is key, because you don’t need to share the spreadsheet and all the data stored in it in order to get data into it, nor do you need users to login to yet another system.

From the spreadsheet above, the obvious ‘Form’ menu option, I was able to quickly create a simple form that automatically updated fields relevant to the end user. For example, I wanted users to tell me the problem (Issue detail…) but I would be setting the priority level and assigning it to the right people for resolution. During the creation of the form I was easily able to edit how all the fields are displayed and whether they’re required – and delete the fields that users don’t need to see.

That form can now be emailed around to anyone relevant or embedded within another webpage, say a feedback form on a beta/testing site or even on an organisation’s intranet. It’s trivial to further configure the spreadsheet options to email you whenever anyone then adds an entry to it via the form.

Love and spreadsheets are free

Total cost of this endeavour? Zero, apart from my time which was approximately 30-45 minutes, allowing for my fiddling around. Now that all requests for fixes are routed through one place, they can be managed much more easily and transparently, saving time and with users being able (if you wish) to monitor the fix status of any issue!

Found this useful? Am I missing out on a better way to capture these issues? Leave a comment below…