Jira Agile Boards: Why and How to Create Swimlanes

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My wife overheard me talking about ‘swimlanes’ yesterday, which led her to excitedly expect that we were going to the leisure center at the weekend. 

We have a tendency as a species to reuse and reapportion the meaning of words into new and fancy things. Back in the annals of time, the word ‘nice’ meant ‘silly , foolish, simple’ and the word ‘silly’ meant ‘worthy’ or ‘blessed’. 

Luckily for us and our Jira musings, swimlanes in Jira are actually pretty similar to what most of us understand swimlanes to be.

This article explains what they are, what they’re used for, and how to create them.

What are swimlanes in Jira?

Swimlanes are normally used to separate your project to-do lists into ordered, actionable, and easily identifiable ‘faster/more important’ sections for individual users or project areas. They are a clever, query-driven way of producing dynamic lists with a logical workflow and, significantly, a visual way of seeing the health of a project and any outstanding blockages that need addressing.  In most definitions this is a ‘view’ of a Kanban board and not dissimilar to physical board forms used throughout many agile organisations in the world. There are advantages and disadvantages of using virtual boards with swimlanes over physical boards but that is for another time.

If you’re interested in using swimlanes for a project on a Kanban board, there are a number of key decisions that the project manager needs to make before creating them. (Our Visualizing Work with Jira Kanban Boards has more detail.)

Get your Jira workflow right

It may sound obvious, but without an appropriate workflow, swimlanes are not very powerful and possibly even unusable.

When you set up a project, there are a number of basic workflows out of the box which you could choose. However, it is often better to draw your own workflow on a piece of paper before mapping it into Jira . Many times have I scribbled down and changed what I was trying to do in meetings and I can’t tell you how much time it’s saved me in the long run. The ‘measure twice, cut once’ still applies in tech!

Most workflows have similar concepts such as a starting state, an end state, and one or multiple loops in the middle. However, it is key for you to choose what is right for you based on what statuses you plan on reporting on or are wanting to see.

… that includes state transformations

Frequently I’ve been called to look at a Jira Kanban board with cards that cannot be moved on screen because they are not ‘in the right state’.

TIP:  Before you start to create your swimlanes, ensure that each item can be dragged freely from one status to another within your on-screen/project modelling.

Workflow statuses

The simplest workflow might have a simple three-part model with a beginning, middle, and end, but this would be rare. It is more common to have many more statuses that you could group on a singular board.

Jira provides the opportunity to merge multiple workflow statuses into the same columns and relabel columns in any way that suits you. That way you can set up useful boards quickly, e.g. putting ‘test’ and ‘retest’ in the same column on the board is useful because it reduces space.

What type of Jira swimlanes should you use?

Jira comes with six distinct options for swimlanes, each with differing purposes and uses.

Base Jira Swimlanes on Queries, Stories, Assignees, Epics, or Jira Projects

Story or Epic swimlanes

Creating Story or Epic swimlanes will simply present the stories or epics in the project and what status they are currently in. There will be other information on the cards but it is a standard view of the state of a project and looks very much like a traditional Kanban board.

Jira Issue Assignee swimlanes

Selecting this option shows a person-by-person view of what work is assigned to them. This might be useful for a quick view of the workload at scrum master level or to see what reliance a project has on an individual, e.g. if they were ill/unable to work for a period of time.

“For smaller teams, we actually prefer to do quick filters for each assignee.
On the kanban for our waterfall teams who are executing a project plan, I see a lot of value in using swimlane by query to dedicate a swimlane to ‘critical path’ and another to ‘behind target’.”

Patty Land, Project Management Consultant, PwC

Jira project swimlanes

If reporting on multiple projects (or sub-sections of projects), then this option will allow you a global view of the status of each – perfect for the big-picture megalomaniacs out there!

None

This option applies no filtering to a board. It is not something I would often use but is probably useful at getting to grips with vanilla Jira Kanban boards.

Jira Query

Here’s the thing… I use query-driven swimlanes almost all the time. You have full control, you can easily adjust what’s on screen, and you can add new queries at any time. With the query-based approach, you can create swimlanes for each of the other types described by simply writing appropriate Jira Query Language (JQL). I tend to write query-based swimlanes for each member or team in the project(s). I also like to have a priority-driven view, i.e. highest at the top. This can be defined with the appropriate JQL, then by dragging the ‘name’ column into the relevant order on screen.

Reorder Jira Swimlane Priority

TIP:  Swimlanes can use any valid JQL. So different lanes shown on the same report don’t even need to relate to each other; they simply show a grid view of how a query models against a workflow.

The configuration options and uses are endless here. If, for example, your boss suddenly determines that an issue you deemed insignificant has to be fixed for a big demo coming up, you could utilize a label and add a new swimlane at the top of your settings. Then this and other tagged issues would become be the prime focus of the next catch-up meeting and can be dealt with accordingly.

JQL Jira Swimlanes Sort by Priority
Jira Board Best Practice Swimlanes

TIP:  Jira allows as many boards as you want, so you don’t ever have to stick with one view. Why not have a swimlane board dedicated to priorities and one dedicated to individual workload?

Conclusion

Jira swimlanes are a fantastic way of presenting information for individuals and teams. With minimal JQL knowledge, you can create agile project boards within Jira, displaying a desired set of items in a desired order and hiding items that aren’t relevant. These boards update dynamically in real time and can be used to drive an agenda for any meeting. Jira swimlanes can also be used in conjunction with quick filters, card layout and details, and other board features, to present a perfect view of your project for your audience.

Chris Cooke CEO Old Street Solutions

Chris founded three successful startups in Thailand: one was a Scuba Diving School/ Eco-Tourism company dedicated to saving turtles. Once he’d saved enough turtles, he moved back to the UK to pursue his dreams in software.

It was while working for the Atlassian Platinum Solution Partner Clearvision that Chris met Jacek. The two decided there was a gap in the market for easier-to-use Atlassian tools for Jira and Confluence users who don’t have a clue how to code (of which there are many).

“If we’re not making mistakes, we’re not trying hard enough.”