What does Stack Overflow’s success mean for traditional User Assistance?

Last night, I saw Joel Spolsky speak at a London Enterprise Technology Meetup, held at the London School of Economics. Joel is one of the founders of Stack Overflow, a hugely popular question-and-answer website on the topic of computer programming. He also claimed in a blog post back in April 2000, no-one reads manuals (see our article If no-one reads the manual, then why bother?).

So I asked him about his thoughts on the relationship between question-and-answer sites like Stack Overflow and traditional user documentation.

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The secret to user generated and crowd sourced content

Mozilla’s Janet Swisher had a number of useful tips at Technical Communications UK 2012 on how to encourage user generated and community based content:

  • People contribute because they want to learn something and for personal growth. You need to recognise this work.
  • Crowds aren’t smart, communities of peers are.
  • Create a community about the topic of interest, not solely about your product. For example, create a community on camping, not on your brand or your camping products. Solve common problems, rather than niche ones.
  • Community based content is where contributors share a common goal. User generated content is often “all about me”.
  • You can review contributions before they go live on the site, or review them after they have been published. You need to choose the approach that works for you.

Having a forum where customers can express their views can be deeply uncomfortable for organisations. Organisations tend to encourage what Leon Benjamin called a “red zone/green zone mentality”. The green zone is safe and trustworthy and within the organisation. The “red zone” is anything outside of the organisation – and can be seen as risky, dangerous and untrustworthy. Yet the reality is that most people get information from outside the organisation (from the red zone).

Users will express opinions and publish contributions on other sites, if you don’t create your own forum. If you create the community, then you will be more able to control the accuracy, authority and accessibility of and to this information.

Having said that, sometimes you need to publish to areas outside of your control. For example, issuing your manuals via Amazon Kindle might expose you to user reviews. They could say they hate it or that they love it. That public feedback can be daunting, but remember we all have our filters to assess the information.