Forums Threads – Just One More Question…


This morning I had the opportunity to present to a group of community leads for the Windows Server some of the things we’re doing over in Developer Division around community. Of course, I spent a bit of time talking about forums and how they’ve been working for us. It’s incredible—we’re now hovering right around 4,000 questions per week, and although the overall two-day answer rate is still around 40%, we’ve seen some major strides being taken by groups inside of DevDiv (congrats to the Visual Basic team, who has the largest forums and is hitting a 75% 2 day answer rate!) The Windows Server folks, via their new TechNet forums (http://forums.microsoft.com/technet), are just starting to get their feet in the water with forums, so it was great to share a bit of DevDiv’s success.

Of course, whenever I talk forums, I end up having a conversation with somebody that suggests something cool that would make the forums even better. This time, it’s thinking about what to do with follow-up questions in a thread. Currently, somebody asks a question to start a thread. Usually, there’s a bit of back and forth that goes on before a reply is made that is marked as an answer. Up until this point on the forums, that answer marking closed the thread. Moderators move on. I notch one win for the good guys. You get the picture.

The problem is that that answer can sometimes spur a follow-up question which needs more discussion. The answer marking tag essentially keeps some of our best experts from looking at a thread again, so that follow-up question will just sit there, unnoticed.

Now, I love the answer marking, and one of the reasons I like it so much is the closure that it provides. I like the fact that we know when a thread is “done”. But what do to for the follow-up questions?

A simple proposal I have is to allow a user to attribute a reply to a thread either as a “response” (default), or an “additional question”. The thread will still be considered “answered”, but a moderator or another forum user would be able to look at threads that had “unanswered follow-up questions”. Once a reply posted after the follow-up question is marked as an answer, the thread would be removed from that list.

My fear is that this is too complicated—it’s adding the complexity of threaded conversations without the elegance. The other option is to continue to build a culture where the best place to ask a new question is always a new thread. What do you think?

Comments (6)

  1. Mike Wachal [MSFT] says:

    Another way to address this issue would be to extend the View By attributes in the Forum. Most basic news readers allow you to view only threads that have new posts; this feature is not available in the forums. Certainly there is a graphic representation to indicate whether you’ve read a thread or not, but you always see the "noise" of the posts that have no activity since you last read the forum.

    This would be particularly useful for very active forums, or for people who do not visit the forums daily (or hourly for very active forums). I wouldn’t mind seeing a "Watch" flag available too, which is different that My Threads.

    It’s tough to manage follow-up posts, and at the end of the day, any solution that requires the post to make a series of decisions about how to mark a post is probaly not the best. It’s better to give everyone the flexibility to read the forum the way that best suits thier needs.

    For now, I recomend that follow-up questions go into a new thread. Some times it can break the flow, but I’m more concerned about ensuring that each question gets the best chance of being answered by ensuring more people see it.

    Mike – SQL Express forum

  2. Peter Ritchie says:

    I like the idea of the degree-if-answer rating, where the author of the question can rate an answer.

    Threads with a lower rating for answers would then be "less closed" then threads with those with higher-rated answers.  This would allow the "answers" to still find interest in a thread.

  3. Sven De Bont says:

    If you fear things might get to complex, maybe a simple option can be provided to start a new thread from an answered one. The new thread would link back to the old one for reference (or if possible, the post of the old thread will be shown in the new thread), and the new one will not be marked as an answer.

  4. Another scenario that is quite difficult to handle is follow up questions made by another user than the original poster.

    It happens that a thread gets a question by someone with a similar problem. This will put the thread high up in the forums/unanswered questions and we start trying to help. This will make the thread have more states than unanswered/answered.

    It is unknown if the original poster/question is actually answered

    The follow-up poster can not mark replies as answer.

    It is also difficult to split them as any previous discussion has value to the thread.

    I would prefer that follow up question would be a new thread and it would provide a link to its parent. This would fit into the current flow in the forums and give the related thread for more info.

    Split threads would optionally also link to its parent thread.