MVP Summit Views and Issues with Threaded Discussions

During the MVP summit I made it my mission to seek out as much feedback from anyone who would talk to me about newsgroups, web forums, and the general scenarios around the people who answer a lot of questions and the people who need to find or ask for answers to their questions. This is a list of ideas taken from those notes that we can use to create an ideal solution. 


I’ve been thinking through this because I was asked to look the user experience around the Ask a Question feature we are working to include in the Whidbey timeframe. 


The reason I’m posting this here is that one piece of feedback I heard consistently was that if we are building “community” features we should go out of our way to involve the community in their design.  I’ll also point out that this is my take on the feedback. Others, which are also involved in the choices ahead, may have different opinions.  When I was taking the raw notes that led to this I tried to follow this approach from Rick as best I could.


Volume Kills Community

High post volume makes a community impossible to keep up with (ensuring answers), hard to moderate, hard to find answers, and almost impossible to create an identity for the community. One example cited was the microsoft.public.dotnet.languages.vb  newsgroup that receives over 250 posts per day.  Some or all of the following mitigations are needed in an ideal solution:

1.       Encourage users strongly to search the community before asking duplicate questions.

2.       Enable auto bubbling of useful FAQ posts. 

3.       Create and direct people to sub communities as needed such as microsoft.public.dotnet.languages.vb.winforms.dataccess.

4.       Give users the ability to create search views over one or multiple groups.  This enables area experts to be notified when there are new questions that relate to their specialties and doesn’t force them to search for posts to answer. 

5.       Allow people to easily filter threads that they have read and aren’t interested in keeping track of. 


Working Offline Needs to be Enabled

Offline working needs to be enabled for people who travel, people with low bandwidth, and those who will only accept the performance only possible with information cached locally.  This is one reason why NNTP use continues to used by a lot of people.  The following ideas were suggested. 

1.       Expose an NNTP service from any forums created.

2.       RSS everything to preserve client choice and local information storage.

3.       Create a good RSS client for the forums that supported authenticated posting and the ability to cache messages to be sent and locally store good information as a reference

4.       Expose any forums created as listserves that people can subscribe to with their e-mail clients and also reply VIA the list serve.  


NNTP Collaboration is Important

Last year there were over 11,000 people who posted in microsoft.public.dotnet.languages.csharp.  Several of the top posters where MVPs or otherwise had reply rates as high as MVPs.  We should not release a solution that does not at least have a good transitional story for the people who currently participate and enjoy this community. 


Microsoft Needs to Play Nice

No one said that we shouldn’t build these communities, but we should also do what we can to expose the knowledge we are building to communities such as the codewise partners.  We could do this by exposing web services that allow partner sites to query for:

1.       Unanswered questions for smaller communities to subscribe to, create answers, and submit back to the central community. 

2.       Highly rated content that is targeted towards their users. 


Notification and Bookmarking is Needed

Several users explained their love of the google groups interface because it allows them to bookmark and find their way back to NNTP threads of value, threads they were interested in, or questions that they asked.  Ideally we should provide both a new message notification once a users post is answered and a way for users to easily store their bookmarks to useful information.


The Community Needs Moderation

Any solution needs to have a scalable moderation system that allows moderators to edit, move, and delete posts.  Users should also be able to report posts and users to moderators that need attention to ease the job of the moderators.  The ability to ban users is important. Feedback suggested that moderation is what is missing in the public newsgroups and the lack of moderation gives people a bad taste to the community because they are exposed to spam and flame wars that people start behind the curtain of anonymity. 



The interface must allow for individuals to maintain identity and reputation as well as allowing the individual communities to have their own sense of identity. 


History and Groups.Google

Post history must be maintained indefinitely.  This is a key for search and avoiding duplicate posts.  Several MVPs explained the important of Groups.Google to their information searches.  Exposing NNTP will continue to enable search. 


On consistency

There were several requests for us not to have several different experiences across Microsoft.  Current examples of this include the Gotdotnet forums, forums, xbox forums, and then all the Microsoft.public newsgroups.   There should be one enjoyable experience that is transferable across different Microsoft communities. 


In Closing

So this is the summary of all the notes I took about this issue.  Feel free to agree or disagree here.  Tomorrow I’m hoping to post a couple proposed solutions that address the concerns I heard.   

Comments (14)

  1. KC Lemson says:

    Looking forward to seeing your ideas. One of the ones I struggle with regularly is your last one, consistency… I agree that’s an ideal, but doing it in a way that makes most of the people happy most of the time (since all/all is of course, un-possible ;-). Each technology has its strengths and weaknesses, and eventually I’m sure they will all merge together into one big happy family, but for now I see a need for several.

  2. Well, on consistency, I don’t really mind if my experience is different when I’m doing C# work, as compared to playing on the Xbox. Actually, I hope they’d be quite different! 🙂

    Google Groups needs to be in bold. GG is the resource I use almost exclusively to find content. The few times I hit another site (like CodeProject), it’s through Google Groups (someone mentioning an article there). I think the Whidbey "Ask a question" feature should run a GG search on the title of the message before posting.

    I look forward to seeing your solution ideas.

  3. I think the reason why some root level communities like *.vb are more popular than *.vb.Data is due to 2 reasons

    1) People see a lot of traffic on *.vb so assume its the faster way to get their answers solved. So in a way if there is high traffic new users find it more appealing. I think this is the No#1 reason why people want to post in the same *.vb newsgroups.

    2) Most problems span multiple topics and its difficult for the user to judge where the problem lies. For example: the data from the database does not show up in a grid. The grid code could be wrong or the data access code. The user asking the question is generally going to find it hard to pick a special * or *.vb.grid group to post his question.

  4. AT says:

    ;o)) I dunno how this can be usefull – but here is some notes on search from me:

    1. Exposing Questions to Google search is bad. You must expose Answers and Answered Questions instead. Why ? Currently in case if I’m searching most likely I will find the same question, instead of answer.

    2. "Encourage users to search " ?? Never expect them do so. FAQ – is a Frequently Asked Questions not a Frequently Answered Questions ;o)

    Current data mining technique allow to group related postings. The simplest way is to find rare words in current posting and search for similar one. Have ever looked on Microsoft "Ask Maxwell" ? Why it’s gone and not used currently ?

    I like idea of automated question answering machine with failback to new posting. This way there will be no needs for MVP for infinite time, once answered – their answer will be used for all others questions.

    3. Any ideas why Microsoft Knowleage Base must be separated from forums ? The same questions (from PSS calls most likely). The same answers.

    The same company.

  5. jledgard says:

    Micheal: I agree, the Xbox experience should probably be a little different, but they could at least have some similarities. The more important bit though is that related technologies are similar. So discussions about Asp.Net, for example, are not too alien to people discussing Windows Server 2003.

  6. jledgard says:

    Saurabh: This is where the ability for moderators to move posts comes in handy. Also, it hurts that the NG is exposed at a level below the general location. I would encourage a design to expose the general location last. But I do agree that higher volume tends to make people think. "I’ll just ask there".

    You do make a good point about problems that span.

  7. jledgard says:

    AT: No I just want NG to continue to be exposed as is regardless of the Q or A. google groups doesn’t have the ability to filter and know when a question has been answered.

    No I’ve never looked at "ask maxwell".

    3. PSS integration is something we are looking at as well.

  8. josh ledgard says:

    KC: i just posted some of my proposals. I too, see a need for some seperation, but there are still some stratigic things we can do to help move things along.

  9. Take Outs for 15/16 April 2004