Open Help: Jorge Castro. Solving the Q+A conundrum with StackExchange

I’m at the Open Help Conference in Cincinnatti. Following Andrew Spittle’s excellent work at Write the Docs, I’ll post all of my notes right here.

Jorge Castro is the guy at Ubuntu on the ground for support people. He’s always curious about the ways that support and help are organised for users.

The talk provides an overview of Stack Overflow, which has been successful in providing technical support for Ubuntu – “hacking into your brain to force you to help other people.”

The interesting thing about support products is that they’re not always technology driven but people driven.

It started in 2009 – Jorge was at a dev conference, when the manager for the kernel team said that he needed his help. He said “Hey Jorge, can we delete the Ubuntu forums.”

The problem: When someone googles “how can I get this wireless card to work with Ubuntu?” they end up with a post from 2004. Users shouldn’t have to care about when a post was written.

A bunch of bad things that they didn’t want people to use came up at the top of search results in Google. Your presence in Google results makes or breaks how successful some businesses are. Their solution was to delete the entire thing.

Tell Google not to index certain parts of the forums.

How do we help people get the right information with the minimum amount of friction?

To find out the experience that people are having, search for user issues in Google to see what users are getting.

Things get out of date. So even excellent blog posts on how to do something eventually goes out of date. What if we could have the editing of wikipedia but the buzz that you get on a forum?

When it comes to user support, the ability to edit something, not just by the original author, becomes a critical part of it.

On technical forums and mailing lists there can begin with something wrong and on a later page, in there somewhere, there is the correct answer. The user has had to read through all that garbage just to get the answer.

Forums and mailing lists suck for technical support (but they don’t suck for discussions). Here’s why:

  • software designed for discussion has been co-opted for user support. When you look at forum software today a lot of the support elements have been tacked on.
  •  discussions diverge from the original topic
  •  72 pages of stuff and the thing that you need is on page 34
  •  no peer review of technical content.
  •  the megathread: Firefox megathread in Ubuntu forums – 400 pages of everything you need to know about Firefox
  • signatures and meta garbage intermixed with content
  • [SOLVED] – original user gets yelled at for not going back and marking a thread as [Solved]
  • BUMP! – people post problems with no technical information. They get asked for technical information and they reply with “BUMP” to send it to the top
  • social media is killing the internet forum anyway. Article from the New York Times. Can open a group on Facebook and build a community. From a free software perspective, our watercooler is increasingly being run on platforms that aren’t our own platforms. We don’t own our own data. “It doesn’t feel like home.”
  • Forum software innovation is nearly non-existent

Stack Overflow

  • high signal, low noise. Discourage discussion and make comments second-class citizens. All about the question and the answer.
  • the anti-forum, all business. People on stack overflow edit out the “hi” and the “thank you”
  • it’s all about peer reviewed editing and correctness, not discussion.
  • strongly opinionated design. They have really strong opinions about what Q&A is supposed to be. The software is designed to meet their opinions
  • quality above all else
How Stack Overflow works:
  • Community currency is reputation. Ranges from 1 to whatever huge number
  • People post a question and if others think it’s a good question they can upvote it. This separates the wheat from the chaff in terms of content
  • People start posting answers. The community votes on the best answer. Answers that are researched and have code get upvoted well.
  • If the post gets upvoted the answerer gets reputation points.
  • The poster can decide which answer is the best. Often they rely the community to sort the answers. When you accept an answer the answerer gets another 15 points and the asker gets 2
  • The number is a reflection of how much the community trusts you.
  • When a user searches they will see the original question and see the top answer.
  • It costs you a point to minus someone
  • If there is bad information or something is wrong, the answer can be edited or deleted.
  • Once you get to 3,000 you can edit any answer on the site. If a question was right a year ago and then becomes wrong, you can go in and update it
  • there is a hover that lets you improve the answer. High reputation users can see the queue and approve them
  • tagging helps with navigability
  • there’s a lot of gamification that encourages you to level up.
  • badges are unlocked for special achievements
  • they give badges for things people hate to do. There’s a badge for making your first down vote. There’s a badge for your very first edit, you get a Strunk and White badge if you’re a prolific editor.
  • moderators can hide poor comments to make sure that users don’t have to filter through all of the useless answers
  • Stack Overflow is set up so that users can constantly improve the website.

“If you give people the proper tools they will make awesome stuff.”

Stack Overflow: Part forum, part blog, part wiki, part Digg/reddit

Things that are wrong in the community mindset

  • “Our old out of date docs are our knowledge base.” People think keeping out of date docs is a good thing. Jorge doesn’t think so. The hard thing is keeping your docs up-to-date. Having out of date docs isn’t better than having no docs at all
  • “Someone spent time on this, it would be bad to get rid of it.” Don’t let thinking like this hurt your users.

Can your community?

  • Review and edit. Jorge insists that the ability for your community to improve your content is essential
  • Can you handle incoming edits from new users
  • Can bad content easily be removed and with extreme prejudice
  • Handle duplication of work. If someone types in a question is recommends other questions.
  • Not suck at SEO.

Getting the right things in the right place

  • Wiki page: what is flubber and how do I use it?
  • Stack Exchange: how do I use flubber to mow my lawn
  • Mailing list: how can I contribute to flubber
  • Forum: Flubber sucks/rules, opinions?
  • Bug tracker: flubber is broken when I mow my lawn with it
  • IRC: Anyone around to talk about Flubber?
  • Book: the layman’s guide to flubber

A tool that you can use to get laser sharp focus on support.

Challenges
  • Users don’t know.care about forums/mailing list/SE
  • Powershift away from mods and admins to the community. Powering down is a weird thing to tell people. Moderators are now-exception handlers. The community manages things together. “When you give a community the power to edit their own comments they do an overwhelmingly good job.”
  • Unfriendly.
  • Not everyone can have a StackExchange site
  • SaaS isn’t for everyone. All of the code and content is available through Creative Commons but the project doesn’t control the site. Some projects want to run their own infrastructure
  • Localisation isn’t very good
Conclusions
  •  Technical users overwhelmingly lover high quality and low signal
  • Right now that is StackExchange, overwhelmingly
  • Your Free Software Project needs to have a presence on SE
  • 7mil uniques a month on Ask Ubuntu in less than 3 years

Using Stack Exchange shouldn’t result in this: “I don’t even know why I should was time documenting my projects when I have Stack Overflow.”

Use the site to a ramp to your existing documentation. Every answer you have should link to docs and bug reports.

5 Responses to “Open Help: Jorge Castro. Solving the Q+A conundrum with StackExchange”

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