Tech-Ed Notes on the MSDN Forums
These are the raw notes, quotes, and my thoughts, I wrote down from people on the MSDN Forums at Tech-Ed. I subscribe to the philosophy of trying to just capture what people say during my interviews rather than trying to find the meaning of their quotes on the spot.
I’d like to thank everyone that took time out of their busy Tech-ed schedule to give me feedback. If you are reading my blog now it would be great to know what quotes resonate most with you and why???
- “I only have web access at work and I like this better than the newsgroup web UI you have.”
- “I’ve enjoyed it” “I really liked the experience”
- “Forums fill a much needed void in community tools from Microsoft.”
- “Offering the community tools to communicate is one thing, but how quickly can you make sure the moderation and maintenance is turned over to the community members?”
- “I tend to find a lot of stuff already even though they are really new”
- “pick forums or newsgroups and make it official to help direct customers.”
- “Is there an escalation path to CSS from the forums if I can’t get an answer?”
- “All the sources (NG, Blogs, Forums, Chats, etc) cause an information diffusion that makes google our best friend”
Overall I was pleased with the positive reaction the forums received. By far the biggest gripe was around the lack of a good offline story for reading the forums. I’ll hit on that below.
On the Question and Answer Tagging
- “Helps me get to the meat in the threads”
- “The Q/A tagging makes it really easy to filter out the signal from the noise in a thread.”
- “What happens when an answer is split across three or more replies in a thread and none of the three each really answer the question, but they all do when put together?”
- “How do you prevent thread hijacking?”
- “How can you make it easy for FAQ authors to enter in high quality FAQ and pull out the best Q/A”
- “Why is the default a question, but the radio button is on the right hand side?”
- “Ranking FAQ by views is only as unbiased as your search engine… it doesn’t measure usefulness of the answers… only a person could really do that”
- “how do we cherry pick and present the best threads editorially”
I believe the question and answer tagging was seen as a big advantage to the forums over the newsgroups because it allowed them to easily ignore some of the irrelevant posts in a thread or focus on threads that have answer tags rather than looking at threads that don’t have answers.
Another indication that this was a positive is that there was a lot of great discussion around how we could use this information beyond what we do today to bubble up faqs, cherry pick the best answers, or improve the search results.
If this is a big strength then I’m convinced we should put more effort in this space to make it more obvious to users how to tag answers so we can do better than the 70% answer rates we see today.
On Showing Forums on Developer Centers
- “The top discussions views on the developer centers are useless because its just the most active flame wars.” Ex: “Longhorn Price” is the top discussion on the longhorn dev center
- “Top discussions (as done today with newsgroups) only measure the best gossip.”
- “Better to have new topics to get attention to them on the dev centers”
We didn’t really have anything to show users here, but there was a discussion on how showing popular threads or most viewed threads on developer centers becomes self fulfilling. It seemed unanimous that the “popular threads” from newsgroups we use today on dev centers doesn’t offer any real value. The sweet spot seems to be mixing the popular with the recent so we can get new information, new answers, and new questions in front of users on the developer centers and broaden the participation.
Why Answer Questions?
- “I feel compelled to when I see questions I know when I’m browsing for my own answers”
- “I play the mentor role in developer communities and it probably comes from that.”
- “I don’t go there specifically to answer questions, but if I see a question I know the answer to while I’m looking for something else, I’ll jump in and answer.”
- “top answers” should restrict time period to N weeks?”
One discussion I didn’t have any good quotes on was the ranking and attribution of experts. Post count, as shown today, seems pretty meaningless and also is discouraging to budding experts since it’s an “all time” view. We should do something to both reward all time contributors, but make it easier for new “experts” to break into the game. I was surprised to find people that had read the “top answerers” post I made to the forums.
Cutting off Dupes
- “Lurk before you leap is dead”
- “Why not have a few weeks where a large number of people can be moderators. You provide them air cover and they remove irrelevant content and merge dupes… Some wiki sites have done this to clean up the site”
- “What about tagging duplicate questions/answers as an alternative to merging threads”
- “Let people propose merges or other moderation activity to the group of moderators”
- “Make people pause to see results before asking a question”
I heard “the lurk before you leap is dead” quote from several people. Some of which believed that its what has led to the death of usefulness in the public newsgroups since there are just too many dupes posted by newsbies who don’t read or search existing threads. The more we can do to proactively encourage searching before posting in a non-invasive/blocking way the better community we’ll have.
On New Post UI with FAQ + Search Results
I’ll spare my blog readers of my bad PM art for now, but imagine if you combine search results dynamically generated on the new question UI with the help of the trendy Ajax stuff.
- “The first innovative thing I’ve seen from Microsoft here”
- “I like the concept”
- “Could you put in more search results if you remove the extra stuff and maybe even a hover over for more text”
- “Idea: hover over search results and show a (rich) tooltip.”
- “What about a post confirmation page which allows users, if they find the result in searches, to undo a post?”
I didn’t capture all the feedback here, but users really liked the concept UI we showed them. I personally believe (and I’m biased since it was my idea) that this will be one of the most exciting things about the MSDN forum community when/if we get this coded up.
Users kept thinking about ways to make my screenshot better and had some great ideas about showing users rich tooltips when hovering over the dynamic search results and making sure we showed more of the post text in the results.
On Post Formatting Options
- “You have too many formatting options”
- “I only need Bold and Italics”
- “even underline gets people confused with links”
- “Color and font selection is probably not needed”
- “simplify the post formatting”
- “I don’t mind the smilies if it’s a small subset and they don’t get in the way of code”
- “There is no need for image smillies”
- “heaven help you if you want to post some XML snippets into the forums”
- “Make sure cut and paste to and from the IDE and MS word works flawlessly”
- “make sure you preserve the formatting from VS in the posting UI.
Our current posting UI takes too long to load and contains too many options that just don’t get used (table formatting, strikethrough, etc) or make reading the forums annoying (smillies, large font, etc).
I took away that we needed to drastically simplify the posting UI but also work hard to ensure that rich text cut/paste from VS and Word works better than it does today.
- “I dislike it when you make my reply or new post wait for moderation”
- “Since you are integrated into the tool you need to make sure there are a lot of trained moderators”
- “need to be able to send private notes or mails through the system to users to give them reminders of forum code of conduct”
Most users didn’t like moderation that delays there posts, but did agree that we have a huge moderation burdon ahead of us. The more we can spread the load with more moderators and encouraging users to use the reporting link to focus the moderators the better.
I really liked the “spring cleaning” idea that one user proposed where we have time periods where full moderation is opened up to a much larger set of people to allow them to help us manage the crusty answers, merge dupes, etc.
- “how can you make the search (on the web site) more inclusive of other articles, samples, newsgroup posts, etc”
- “only the very well educated people use google groups and they don’t even have the best search results”
- “I can see why google doesn’t integrate their group search into their main search results” (Because you can’t control the content in the public newsgroups like you can with forums)
- “What about mixing forum results with other sources, but color coding the results instead so it is visually obvious?”
- “Almost all the time I can find answers via searching”
- “I spend much more time reading than answering.”
- “I do more taking than giving… not as much responses as searching”
I took two things away from the search feedback. The first is that we need to make sure we have a good search on the web that also shows other MSDN results like samples, articles, etc that may answer users questions. The second is that we need to do what we can to make sure the forum search results show up well in MSN and google searches. There may be some work to be done with the URL structure to make sure the rankings are good on individual answers.
- “Wouldn’t it be nice if I could consume Newsgroups in Outlook?” Use search folders, etc.”
- “I can’t keep up with all the posts in busy newsgroups like .NET”
- “I’d want all the extra metadata” (e.g. “the answer”, etc.)
- ““when can we get it?!!??”” (outlook forum support)
- “Please give us an RSS feed for threads we’ve participated in”
- “I wish I could access this data with a news reader that I already have set up.”
- “Page refreshing on the web site is frustrating. I leave a thread up and if I lose my connection I have to find the thread again because its refreshed to a dead page”
- “RSS enables me to do a lot of reading and filtering”
- “make sure RSS has a way to get the whole threads”
- “Focus on efficiency of reading. Posting/replying is not as important/”
- “Reading is much more important than replying”
- “Read thousands of threads, but may only reply to 100 or less”
- “Use outlook to enable use of the search folders”
- “I want a program that lets to set search folders across the messages in all the forums I subscribe to”
- “I’d like the posts on my machine to be updated when moderation occurs”
- “I’d like the local updates to be configurable to make sure I could keep all original posts if I wanted to”
- “Could you offer a view of what was changed?”
- “Consuming NNTP and forums in the same client would enable people to transition to the new forums easier because they would like the quality and extra information more”
- “What about a summary mail of weekly activity?”
- “If I participate in a lot of threads I don’t want notifications on all of them, but I might want them on some threads”
I was surprised to hear that posting was really seen as secondary to a good reading experience to the group of users we had that I would classify as much more likely to reply to threads than our average developer in the community. One person went so far as to say that if all we had was an excellent offline reading experience they could batch up replies in Word documents to be posted through the web UI when they got a good connection. This is not to say that posting from an offline client is not important, but that we need to make sure the offline reading is top notch first.
There was a good debate about, if there was a dedicated client for forums, how moderation should be represented. People were split and ranged from “just replace my local content” to “don’t bother with modifying content after I’ve downloaded it.”
I think the answer is in the middle. From my experience most of the moderation/tagging of a post happens within a week or so of it being posted. If we stop tracking changes of local items older than a month we’ll probably be safe.