Information Density and Project Tracking

One complaint that I hear from people who don’t like a given project tracking tool is that there is actually too much information on the screen at once. They find it distracting and it makes it hard to find the really relevant information. In response, usually I nod my head sagely, mumble something obscure, and move on.

But when I give my talk on the pros and cons of using physical vs. electronic project tracking tools I neglect to mention this difference. If I stop for a minute and take a good hard look at the task board our team is using right now, it doesn’t say a whole lot compared to the electronic tools we use. For one thing, the team and I keep a pretty sloppy task board. Stuff gets crossed out, notes are written in the margins, extra stickies are tacked on top of other stickies. We know what it all means, mostly, but I’m not sure that anyone else could easily parse it all out. There’s a lot written between the lines in both a literal and metaphorical sense.

On the other hand if I use my electronic tools, they pretty much force me into a much more orderly state. There is a lot of explicit information displayed – it takes a while to setup. But it’s neat and orderly. If I need to make notes, then I can put something in the “notes” field. Unfortunately the notes field is not normally displayed. I have to “open” a story to view the notes. Information is cleverly hidden. Like I said, it’s neat, it’s tidy, there is lots of information, but some parts are hidden.

Hmmm…Of course there is hidden information in my physical task board too. I have a confession to make: As a team, we’re pretty lazy – and proud of it. We’re firm believers in helping our environment by practicing the conservation of syllables. Why use two words when one will do? Mike Cohn said it best, The user story is a placeholder for a conversation. Amen brother! It’s remarkable how much we can read into so few words!

So both types of tools have their own forms of information density. And they both have different types of data that is “hidden”. Of course, I have more control over the physical taskboard than the electronic one. I’m pretty much forced to display certain data using electronic tools – even if it isn’t necessarily relevant to me. That’s probably where the information density argument comes in. I don’t mind information density if it is exactly the information that I want to see. However, if it’s not relevant to me, then it only serves as a visual impediment.

Something to keep in mind the next time you are tool shopping.

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