WordCamp Europe Demographics and Selection Process

Some people have expressed interest in the overall demographics of the speakers at WordCamp Europe. Since all of the speakers are now confirmed it’s a great opportunity to share some of them with you. I’ve been coordinating the speaker submissions and selection process. I’ve also had a number of questions about the process which I’m happy to detail. Continue reading →

Found Photographs and a Homage to Chris Marker

Six years ago I bought D a box of photographs on ebay. It wasn’t a very good time in our life – lots of things were turning to shit and stayed that way for a long time. However, D got really into found photographs and so I bought him a job lot on ebay to cheer him up. I remember it arriving – a blue archive folder with the word “Clinical” written on the side. We tipped the hundreds of photographs onto the floor of our living room in Coventry and started to go through them.

Found photographs come imbued with a sense of nostalgia and loss, you can’t help but wonder who the people in the photographs are, feel the loss of a life lived and been and gone. As we went through them we realised that many of the photographs were from the same family, in Germany, during the Nazi period, the war, and afterwards. The same man appeared again and again – he is so distinctive, blonde hair with black-rimmed glasses and an ironic smile. We found so many photos of him that a story started to emerge from the photographs. There was a story to be told, even if it wasn’t the story of these actual people.

D decided to make a film with the photographs. It was to be a photo-roman, like Chris Marker’s La Jetéebut unlike Marker’s film the photographs aren’t staged. He worked on the final project in collaboration with Ben Rowley. I worked on the script (will save that post for another time). Here it is (best watched in a dark room on a big screen with the volume up loud:

Open Help: Janet Swisher: Docs Sprints, Book Sprints, & Liberathons

Janet Swisher works on developer documentation at Mozilla.

What is a docs sprint?

A short period of time that people come together to work on documentation. Book sprints are focused on creating a book. Doc sprints are a natural extension of code sprints, hackathons, hack fests. Book sprints were originally for accelerating the book writing process, but have been used successfully for entire books. See FLOSS manuals. Continue reading →

Open Help: Michael Verdi – How Mozilla supports users all over the world

Michael Verdi works for Mozilla on the SUMO project. Slides are here.

  • Does support for all of Mozilla’s products, like Firefox, Firefox for Android, and coming soon Firefox OS.
  • 450 million people in 80 languages.
  • How? with superheroes.
  • Community photo from 2010 has 600 people. At any given people about half of the people working on support.
  • Support team has grown from 2 people to 14.

Continue reading →

2013-06-15 10.28.09

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.

  • 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
  •  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.


Suspense and Avoiding the Inevitable

Everyone has been talking about Game of Thrones. Something big happened. I have read the books but since I’m blessed/cursed with a useless memory I can’t remember what it is (I did read them ten years ago). I’m trying to avoid the shock and the horror of my online peers so that I can experience it myself as if for the first time.

I have, however, stalled watching the first season two episodes from the end. D bought me the box set for Christmas and I watched the first episodes over the space of about two days. It’s now June and I haven’t finished the series. I’ve still got those two episodes waiting. I can’t bear it, because I do know what happens at the end of series one and I don’t want it to happen, so I did what I always do and switch off. Still, the box set is sitting on my shelf, and I know that in the back of my mind I need to get back to it, that it’s only television and it’s already happened anyway.

This isn’t the first time that I’ve done this with a TV series that I was enjoying. In season 4 of The Wire there’s a storyline in which Bubbles creates a hot shot of heroin and sodium cyanide for someone who is bullying him. Of course it all goes wrong, and the viewer knows it’s going to go wrong. That sort of tension is too much for me. I feel it in my whole body, the fear of something horribly inevitable. I switched The Wire off half way through an episode in series 4 and didn’t return to for eight months.

This is how suspense works. The audience knows something that the characters on screen (or on the page, or stage) don’t know. It causes a visceral response in the audience who know what is going to happen, whose imaginations are fired up by the expectation of what is to come. For me, it’s too much. I get paralysed by inevitability. I know what will happen to Ned Stark, and I don’t want it to. With the luxury of DVDs I can just stop watching. Yes, I am totally lame. I will return to GoT soon, I promise!

Here’s Alfred Hitchcock, “Master of Suspense”, talking about creating tension: