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.
He said he still believes no-one reads the manual, and the reason for this is because programming has got so much bigger. It’s unreasonable to expect people to read the sheer amount of information on programming. There’s too much, and the content contained in manuals often doesn’t contain the information they are looking for.
So, he continued, users don’t read manuals. Instead, they start to write code and ask questions as they go along. They ask their colleagues, they ask Google, and they ask the members of Stack Overflow.
He said programmers mostly want to know what has gone wrong with their code, and the manuals don’t really answer those types of questions.
So what does Stack Overflow’s success mean for traditional User Assistance?
Stack Overflow has 1.7 million users and contains 500,000 questions, so it’s clear that it’s hugely popular. Joel has developed other question-and-answer sites beyond programming questions (see Stack Exchange), as he believes this is a model that works for other subjects as well.
So there’s a danger that many software developers who have experienced Stack Overflow might conclude they should provide a question-and-answer forum instead of user documentation.
I’ve had a few thoughts overnight about this issue, which I’ve outlined below.
User documentation doesn’t have to be in manuals
A great deal of technical documentation is no longer in manuals – it’s published as Web pages (“Web-based Help”). Joel mentioned he’d wanted to find out how to write a particular command in Python, and he’d searched on Google for the answer. I don’t know which page he landed on, but it may have been an online user guide that provided him with the answer.
Is it really true that programmers don’t read user documentation?
There’s been studies (by Leah Guren) that show power users actually do read user documentation, and Web analytics often show the technical, enabling content is the most popular content on a website.
StackOverflow itself has a user manual, The Stack Overflow Help Center, which has replaced their FAQ:
— Marco Cecconi (@sklivvz) June 6, 2013
Also, the success of the O’Reilly books on programming suggests there’s still a demand for for more than Q&A information out there.
Stack Overflow is meeting a need for higher level learning
We’ve mentioned in previous blog a trend towards users wanting to know how to master a topic – to be more than just functionally capable. It seems likely that Stack Overflow is providing a place to meet those higher level, mastery questions.
Not all users are like programmers
According to ReadWriteWeb:
It’s generally acknowledged that the Stack Exchange vision of white labeling for anyone didn’t work. Spolsky says that very few communities really picked up enough steam and the licensing fee meant that a community had to be lead by someone who was both capable of managing the community and of monetizing it, two criteria that whittled down the number of candidates quickly.
Not all users are willing to dive right in – they are not confident or capable enough. It could also be the case that programmers tend to use software that doesn’t come with a support plan and access to a helpline. It might also be something to do with many programmers having studied programming as part of their degree, and perhaps attending more training courses that other staff (this is conjecture).
Stack Overflow began with a huge user base that few others have
Joel also said Stack Overflow’s success was also due to the huge following Joel and his business partner had on their respective blogs. They were able to promote the site to a large audience, and, as a result, build up a large user base very quickly.
Questions and Answer functionality is likely to become part of the User Assistance mix
It seems likely that user documentation and question-and-answer platforms are going to co-exist, for the reasons mentioned above. Technical communicators will probably need to include this type of functionality into their solutions. The Help Authoring Tool vendors are moving in that direction. For example: Confluence, MadCap Pulse and Adobe AirHelp.
What do you think?
What do you think Stack Overflow’s success mean for traditional User Assistance? Use the comment box below.