We’re trying to decide if FogBUGZ 3.0 should support custom fields. Historically, I am opposed to custom fields in principle, because they get abused. People add so many fields to their bug databases to capture everything they think might be important that entering a bug is like applying to Harvard. End result: people don’t enter bugs, which is much, much worse than not capturing all that information. You can always “page fault” to get the information if the original report forgot it. Rather than having a field in every bug where you enter the version numbers of every DLL on your machine (this is an actual customer request), information which is likely to be relevant only for a tiny percentage of bugs, why not just have the programmer-assignee look at the bug first, and if they think it might be dll-version-related, only then bounce the bug back to the originator asking for the DLL info? Similarly, it’s always tempting to add a field in which you ask for the OS version in which the bug occurred. This sounds logical, but trust me: adding fields like this is guaranteed to do one thing and one thing only: reduce the number of bug reports that get into the system in the first place. Only a small percentage of bugs are really OS dependant and you can always include that info in the text description of the bug if it happens to be relevant. (But then how do you search for, say, all bugs which only happen on Windows 98SE? Aha! You can’t. Ever. Even with the custom field. Because not every bug has been regressed on every version of every operating system, so this search doesn’t make sense in the first place. The info wasn’t captured. Do a full text search for 98SE and you’ll find some of them. Life is imperfect.)

Life would be more perfect if every bug report included megabytes of information — a complete dump of every byte on the hard drive and in RAM on the computer in question and while you’re at it, a photograph of the tester’s workspace. But the goal of a bug tracking database is to keep track of bugs, which, all else being equal, takes priority over making it easy to find them. I have heard countless stories of development teams where the bug tracking package was so high-ceremony that people were afraid to enter bugs in the system, because they didn’t know what all those fields were. The real bug-“tracking” happened in email, post-its, and hallway conversations. Great.

A pretty common question we get on the customer service line is, “does FogBUGZ support custom fields?” Rather than giving our usual answer (“no. on purpose.”) over the last few weeks I’ve been saying, “can you please tell me what fields you would need? We’re trying to decide whether to implement that feature in 3.0 and we want to know why people need it.” The interesting thing is, almost all of the fields people ask for are already in FogBUGZ, and the other ones, in my educated opinion, shouldn’t be fields. And in fact, our existing customers are certainly happy without custom fields. One of our biggest site licenses was sold to a semiconductor company, and I myself wanted to add a custom field for them to keep track of versions of the circuit design, but I didn’t, and they never needed it (even though they had been keeping track of it with the old bug tracking package which had custom fields), and they are happy and keep buying more site licenses.

But the dilemma for us is that many customers are evaluating bug tracking software and they consider the lack of custom fields to be a major weakness in our product. “Gosh, even Filemaker has custom fields.” Righto. It’s true. And who am I to tell my customers they are wrong? One person who I was talking to yesterday would have used a custom field for something that we already have a built-in field for. This would have made their database confusing and inconsistent and would have definitely caused more problems than it solved. But it’s still rude of me to tell customers that we don’t have that feature for their own good, even though it usually is, and we’re losing some sales because of it.

Sigh. I guess we could have a custom fields feature but hide it and make it so hard to use that people don’t use it. At least we won’t lose any sales 🙂

About the author.

I'm Joel Spolsky, co-founder of Trello and Fog Creek Software, and CEO of Stack Overflow. More about me.