Does the clutter on your Jira board make your eyes glaze over? Does it take more work than it should to find the issues you’re looking for? Could your project board use some light (or not so light) renovation?
If so, it might be time to build your board some swimlanes. Swimlanes strategically restructure your board layout and make relevant information easier to find. In this way, they act as your first line of defense against Jira board chaos. Choose the most helpful swimlanes for your team, then customize filters and card settings to support them.
Use Whiteboards to meet with your team and develop your Jira board renovation plan. Add your ideas to virtual sticky notes on the whiteboard. Explore the options together and design a board that works better for the whole team. The Whiteboards app integrates deeply with Jira so you can import, create, and manage Jira issues on the whiteboard. Your custom Jira configurations also sync in Whiteboards for seamless integration.
Sign up for Whiteboards to take advantage of intuitive diagramming tools, 100+ flexible templates, and robust Jira integration. Read on to learn Jira swimlane basics and get tips for creating a user-friendly Jira board with your team.
What are swimlanes?
Swimlanes in project management
In project management, swimlanes refer to a horizontal layer of categorization that refines the columns on a project board or template. Swimlanes divide column data into useful groupings to make that data easier to see and understand.
Swimlanes are a powerful organizational tool that appear in many business contexts. The Personal To-Do List template in Whiteboards is a good example. It resembles a personal Jira board and it’s meant for managing your personal tasks. You could simply use a list categorized by “To Do,” “Doing,” and “Done.” But the list is more useful at a glance if the tasks are prioritized by swimlanes.
Swimlanes in Jira
In Jira, swimlanes are an optional feature you can add to your Jira Scrum or Kanban board. Jira swimlanes break up the vertical columns of your board, pulling the issues in each column into their designated lanes.
These horizontal groupings organize the board by assignee, issue, project, epic, or any custom category you create. Swimlanes allow you to break down your active sprints or projects in whatever way is most helpful to the team. They establish a customized view of the overall workflow for your team or company.
Working with swimlanes in Jira
How do I add swimlanes to my project board?
Only the Jira administrator or board administrator can configure a board’s swimlanes. For company-managed projects, the Jira administrator configures board swimlanes for the entire company. For team-managed projects, board administrators choose swimlanes for a team or department.
The admin’s swimlane settings govern the board view for everyone accessing the board. Whatever swimlane settings the admin chooses should remain consistent over time. This way, users are always interacting with a familiar interface. If you’re a board administrator, consult with your team about their preferred swimlane setup.
To add swimlanes to a Jira board, navigate to that board and choose “Board” > “Configure.” Click on “Swimlanes” in the sidebar. Choose from Jira’s standard options, or select “Queries” to build custom swimlanes.
Types of Jira swimlanes
Here are the six choices you’ll see in the Jira swimlanes drop-down menu:
- Assignees: View your Jira board according to which team members are working on which issues. This board view makes it easy to monitor the relative workloads of different team members. Everyone can quickly see what everyone else is working on and spot any potential bottlenecks. You also have an instant picture of all tasks awaiting assignment.
- Epics: Get the biggest picture overview by organizing swimlanes according to epics. This option is geared towards company-level board administration. Project and product managers can track multiple epics and all their departmental workflows.
- Projects: Sort your workload by project name to see the status and dependencies of each project at a glance. This can be a helpful configuration for any department or team regularly juggling several projects.
- Stories: Break your Jira board down into its individual user stories to monitor the status of each story’s associated tasks. This is a good swimlane option for development teams managing a number of work items.
- Queries: Create a set of custom swimlanes using JQL search criteria. Name your first swimlane and enter your query specifications. Then add additional swimlanes with complementary queries. (We’ll explore this swimlane option more in the next section.)
- None: Turn swimlanes off to view your board in its default Jira configuration.
Active issues that don’t fit the selected swimlane criteria appear in a catch-all swimlane. For instance, if you sort your swimlanes by assignee, unassigned issues gather in the default “Unassigned Issues” swimlane. If you choose the “Epic” swimlane option, issues not attached to an epic appear in a swimlane called “Issues Without Epics.”
Which swimlane option should you use? There’s no right or wrong way to choose swimlanes. Try out different swimlanes on an active Scrum or Kanban board. See which setup might best support your project management. Present the most promising options to team members who will be using the board. Then decide together what will work best for the team or department.
How do I use query-based swimlanes?
Jira’s standard swimlanes create a straightforward visual breakdown of your board issues. But what if you have an alternate swimlane vision for your Jira board? Fortunately, the “Queries” option lets you configure swimlanes according to any JQL search criteria.
One popular swimlane choice is to sort issues by priority level. For a priority-ranked board, add a new swimlane, then type, for example, “priority=blocker” into the query field. Name the swimlane “Blockers” and enter a brief description, if you like. You might add a second swimlane called “High Priority,” with the query “priority=critical.” You can leave your swimlanes there, or continue to rank your issues further. Issues that don’t fit any query criteria will appear in the default swimlane “Everything Else” at the bottom of your board.
Query swimlanes display on your board in the order they appear in your swimlane configuration settings. Reorder them in settings by dragging and dropping. Your query swimlane settings are automatically saved until you manually move, edit, or delete them.
Also note that if you use the “Queries” option and some swimlanes don’t appear on your Jira board, there’s a good reason for this. Jira boards only display swimlanes that currently have issues associated with them. Your query-based swimlanes will appear on the board once there is at least one issue that fits their criteria.
Coordinating swimlanes with other Jira features
Add swimlanes to give your board a useful structure. Then add features that further enhance the visual organization and searchability of the issues on your board.
While the board administrator can move between different swimlane views, they should select one consistent board view for the team. You may be conflicted between two useful swimlane options. Or you may simply want better ways to refine the one you chose. Quick filters are one of your best tools to address this.
Like swimlanes, quick filters must be configured by the Jira administrator or board administrator. Unlike swimlanes, once these filters are created, they become powerful private user tools. Any Jira user can apply filters to their own board view without affecting any other user’s board view. Additionally, while swimlanes keep all issues on the board, filters show only issues that meet the filter criteria. Users can flip between filters, or stack filters to refine their search further.
To configure quick filters as an admin, go to board settings and choose “Quick Filters” from the sidebar. You’ll see two default filters: “Only My Issues” and “Recently Updated.” Determine which additional filters would be helpful to your team, then create these by entering queries.
Here are a few custom quick filter examples and their JQL criteria:
- Issues due soon (“due <= 48h”)
- Unassigned issues (“assignee is empty”)
- Critical issues (“priority=critical”)
- Bugs (“type=bug”)
- Issues by project (“project=(projectname)”)
By now you’ve probably noticed there’s a lot of functional overlap between swimlanes and quick filters. For instance, you can set your board swimlanes to “Assignee.” But individual users can also view their tasks with the “Only My Issues” filter. Likewise, you can assign swimlanes by project, and create a filter to see only issues from a given project.
These overlaps allow you to arrange your board in creative ways. Swimlanes govern your board structure, while filters provide complementary refinement options. For instance, if your board uses assignee swimlanes, a filter for unassigned issues is less important. These issues already appear in your “Unassigned Issues” swimlane. But this might be an important filter if your board swimlanes are sorted by project or user story.
Admins can also assign card colors to bring more visual clarity to the project board. From your Jira board, choose “Configure” > “Card Layout.” Color-code the board’s cards according to issue types, priorities, assignees, or a custom query. The color appears as a vertical stripe on the left edge of the card.
Card colors can provide a shortcut past a search or quick filter. Let’s say a board is arranged into assignee swimlanes, and card colors represent the issue’s priority level. A given assignee doesn’t have to search for their high priority items. They can just glance at their own swimlane and see that bright red stripe on the card.
The reverse is also true. Arrange swimlanes by priority level and card colors by assignee. Users can quickly spot their assigned color in the “High Priority” swimlane.
You can accomplish a lot with the features already mentioned. To dive deeper into organizing your issues, consider components. Components further categorize issues inside a project, filling key classification gaps. Components enhance user search capabilities by allowing admins to group issues in strategic ways.
A set of components should be created with a specific use case in mind. Let’s say a marketing team is managing a number of outreach channels. Various work items on the marketing board are relevant to one or more of these channels. The team gives their components names such as Website, Blog, Email, and Social, to mark which issues correlate to which sites. The blog manager or social media team can then search by component to see just the issues that affect their work.
Any Jira user can add one or more components to an issue card. Admins can also attach a default assignee to any component. Whenever a user adds that component to an issue, it’s automatically assigned to the designated person.
To configure components as a board admin, go to “Project Settings” > “Components” > “Create Component.” Name and describe the component clearly, then make sure relevant team members understand the component use strategy.
With intelligent swimlanes, filters, colors, and components, your board should be in good shape. If you still find holes to plug, labels might help. Labels are essentially searchable issue tags. In contrast with the other features, they are flexible and informal. Any Jira user can type a new or existing label right into an issue card.
While components are project specific, labels are company wide and can be used across projects. For example, in a company-managed project, the development team might add the label “Highlight” to certain new features. This label alerts the marketing team which features to highlight for their monthly customer email update.
Use labels to do odd jobs not covered by other Jira features, but use them carefully. Overlapping, unclear, or redundant labels become workflow liabilities. Only create labels that do specific, helpful work for your team. Be sure the whole team understands their purpose so they are used appropriately.
Jira swimlanes and Whiteboards
Now you have an overview of swimlanes and some strategies for combining them with other features. Bring together relevant stakeholders and decide how you’ll optimize your Jira board. Meet on Whiteboards and add your customizable Jira features to virtual sticky notes. Line these up horizontally on the whiteboard. Using different colored sticky notes, add the configuration options below each feature.
Choose swimlanes, quick filters, and card colors that speed up your work. Discuss components and labels to see if these can fill any gaps in your project management. Review good practices for components and labels and agree to these as a team.
Try out your new setup and see how it went at your next retrospective. Keep tweaking your Jira settings until you’ve found the balance that suits your team best.
Whatever board you land on, the Whiteboards app supports your Jira work. Whiteboards’ flexible tools and templates integrate seamlessly with Jira. Plot out your next team project using the User Story Mapping template, where swimlanes help you prioritize your upcoming product releases. Align multiple teams to a unified product plan using customizable swimlanes in the Product Roadmap template. Convert your Whiteboards sticky notes to Jira issues, or import and edit Jira issues on the whiteboard. All updates sync automatically in Jira (and vice versa) to keep things running smoothly.
Watch our short demo to see Whiteboards-Jira integration in action, and try Whiteboards out for free to test it with your team.