Meeting users where they are

With both a two-day conference and a three-day sprint, the Open Help Conference made for a busy week, but I must say that it was a success. We had people there from Gnome, Mozilla, OpenStack, Red Hat, BSD, as well as people who were interested in learning about open-source help. Everyone had something to share.

Some of our discussions may bubble-up as other blog posts, but a couple of the presentations and discussions made me think more about engaging users where they are. They made me think of how we can do more to extended help to people who use our software in the places that they go, rather than just requiring them to seek-out help from our help platform.

Twitter as a support tool

For example, one topic that we discussed was using Twitter as a support platform. Jennifer Zickerman demonstrated Mozilla’s Twitter-based "Army of Awesome" as a facilitator for user-to-user support. It’s pretty cool that Mozilla opens up their support channels in this way — users help other users directly, and you only need a Twitter account to help out. Although you can’t always solve a problem in 140 characters, it’s easy to point someone to a support article or to suggest other help resources. In a less formal way, I’ve also seen members of the Mozilla documentation team use Twitter to request a technical review of new help articles, or to remind people about documentation-related events (e.g., reminders for Mozilla’s Wiki Wednesday events).

Stack Exchange sites: Likes and dislikes

Another approach that we talked about were the various Stack Exchange sites. In talking about this, we liked how good answers rise to the top (as opposed to regular user forums where you may need to scroll through rows of posts to find a solution to a problem) and the gamefulness of the sites. We also liked that user questions and responses are available for download in XML format under a CC-by-SA license (albeit with fairly stringent attribution requirements). In particular, the XML downloads of user questions will allow documentation contributors to see what questions users are really asking, and what questions are occur frequently.

This being an open help conference, some of us did note that the back-end for any Stack Exchange site is proprietary, and discussed the network-effect of how using closed-source tools encourages more people to use to closed-source tools. Yes, Stack Exchange sites are "free-as-in-beer" to the people who use them, but we discussed both OSQA (GPL-licensed) and Shapado (AGPLv3-licensed) as open-source alternatives that would be worth considering for similar help-site deployments. Someone also mentioned that Reddit (which isn’t necessarily a help platform, but is open-source software) is a popular area where people can post questions or comments that are related specifically to Gnome or Ubuntu.

Using blogs and planets to recruit writers

Aside from Twitter-based tools and Stack Exchange sites, some other ways of seeking out users are less centralized. Two items I took away from Anne Gentle’s talk were that she is not shy about asking bloggers to repurpose their blog posts for use in the official documentation, and she also recruits people who post to the OpenStack Planet to help write documentation. These approaches seem especially helpful when writing documentation for very technical and complex projects. In some areas, the help author may not have the deep domain expertise needed to write docs for bleeding-edge software.

Other possibilities, and the remaining need for good docs

One project that I’m curious to know more about is the Mozilla Sumo project. I wish that members of their team had been able to join us. Sumo seems like a well-rounded platform for gathering user contributions to official documentation, while still allowing for editorial review and for document translations.

Even with all of this in mind, though, I still see strong, centralized documentation as very important. After all, it can save a lot of time if a user can find good docs in one central spot, and even Google isn’t helpful if no one has documented a well-researched solution to a problem. These discussions reminded me that it’s also important to interact with users where they are, though. If you have ideas for other ways to interact with users where they are, or know of something that has worked well for you, feel free to share any suggestions in the comments.