Sounding Off: Feedback from the Forum Moderators

Last Edited:  4/6/2007  [I'll be amending the lists in this post based on the comments and continual feedback that comes in.  Thanks for hanging with me here.]

We've recently released a service pack for the forums that have changed some functionality in the forums.  It's the first batch of noticeable, user-facing changes in the forums in over a year, so it's not surprising that some of the changes have caused some problems.  These problems, however annoying, have also spurred some very interesting threads in the MSDN Moderators Forum, a private forum that's the "coffee lounge" for our community moderators to hang out and discuss issues in the forums.

I thought it might be interesting to summarize some of the discussion here and see if we can spur some more constructive input.  I'm going to summarize what I've been hearing into three sections.  For the "bad" and "ideas" categories, I'm going to try and break them out into individual blog entries.

The Good

  • Code Snippet Blocks - I'm glad that there's something in the forums now that will protect my code from being "emoticon-ized"...woohoo!

  • Graphs/Stats of Forums Progress - Josh shared some internal information about forums on his blog's information that I see everyday, but the community doesn't get to.  I got the feedback that we should share it more often.

  • ???

The Bad

  • Transparency about Support - We've recently started having a new product support team answering questions on the forums, with the goal of getting the answer rates up to "healthy" levels.  We really haven't been good at communicating this to any of the moderators in the forums.  As a result, there's a huge amount of confusion as to the role of the support people compared to the role of the moderators in the forums.  It's a problem, especially because the support technicians aren't aware of the culture and process that the moderators have painstakingly created over the past two years.

  • Can't Find the Answer Box - This one has actually been brought up both internally and by the community.  The "Can't Find the Answer?" box that's next to a forum isn't time scoped.  Because these questions are essentially the most viewed questions in the forum, they are old and outdated.  The easy resolution--only display questions asked in the past three months here.  Of course, there are posts that are older than three months that could still be very useful to people.  What's the best solution for the most people?

  • Top Answerer List - The "Top Answerer" list on the forums doesn't measure quality.  (I blogged a bit about this yesterday.)  It drives people to answer too quickly, and people can inflate their stats easily by just doing housekeeping stuff--not by answering difficult questions.  If reputation is important to a community, then this is not the right solution.

  • Code Snippet Quirkiness - The code snippet handling just isn't where it should be in a technical support forum.  Emoticons render still in one-liner snippets that aren't in a code snippet boxes.  The general quote here would be:  "C'mon Microsoft!  These are developer forums...get it together!"

  • No Permalinking to Individual Posts in a Thread - There's no way to link to an individual post in a thread--it makes it hard to link to a particular answer.  (Note:  there are indexes available on the page that can be used.)

  • RSS Feeds Keep Sticky Posts at the Top of the Feed - And they don't currently include replies.  These should both be fixed in "SP4", which should be released at some point in April.

The Ideas

  • Mark as Resolved with a Reason - Instead of the "Mark as Answer" button, why not make it "Mark as Resolved" and then offer a list of reasons that a user could pick from.  "Mark as Answer" is being used even when the question isn't truly answered...just to drive up answer rates or get the "Top Answerer" credit.  (Personally, I love this idea.)

  • Label the Moderators - Who is a moderator on the forums?  Right now, I'm not sure.  Almost all forum platforms have moderator labeling, but ours doesn't.  Let's label the moderators.

  • Rewards?  Recognition? - We really haven't done much beyond the "Top Answerers" list in the forums for recognition or reputation.  We need to start moving in that  (And yes, I've been pushing for this for over a year now.  Want proof?  Check out my blog category about reputation.)

  • Are the Metrics Right? - Once again...I blogged about this yesterday.  The answer rate metrics are great...they are measurable, and in general, a high answer rate really does mean that people are getting answers to their questions in that forum.  But is that really the *best* way to measure things?

  • Volume *Might* Cause Problems - I was recently very happy to see the 1,000,000th post in the forums.  Of course, I also have the theory that more eyeballs = more posts = more answers, and everything scales very well.  This isn't necessarily so.  The moderators are starting to get overwhelmed with the number of questions coming in...we should be careful on how quickly we drive more and more traffic to the forums.

Let's talk and make a list.  What's good/bad/or just a good idea?

Comments (5)
  1. orcmid says:

    I like your list.

    I don’t have many concerns as a moderator.  Although there is some heavy-handed moving around of posts and loss of discussion threads as the result of deletions, this doesn’t seem to happen too often.  (Moderator wars are a bad thing, of course, but it seems to be pretty low volume stuff.)  [Until I was a moderator I was oblivious to this and just thought ehe Forum was flakey.]

    As a contributor what gets me is the repetition of questions and most of all no permalinking at the comment/reply level.  This makes it pretty useless to direct someone to an existing response, since I can’t even bookmark the good ones.  For that reason I mostly have to link to my own, even though buried deep in some thread, because I know about those, I wrote them.  

    But it makes me work too hard as a contributor to people’s questions, and I simply get tired to see the same ones over and over again and have to work too hard to answer each one.  So I find myself increasingly cranky and I just pass them by.  Also, the RSS feeds keep coughing up the same post because they can only link to the top article.  This is bloody awful.  The Alerts work a little better, but the lag is distracting.

    There needs to be a FAQ and/or more sticky posts that deal with common hurdles (I am thinking specifically of the VC++ Express Edition forum) that beginners and people who try too much at once can get referred to.

    A deeper problem is the off-topic stuff.  I don’t mean bashing, but people who are desparate for an answer and ask their questions wherever they happen to end up.  (The questions on the ISV Empower forum are rarely about that but people seeking help on some problem.)  On the language forums, people keep asking subject-matter questions about Windows subsystems and third-party applications (especially 3rd-party crashes) that are simply not language and IDE problems.  

    (Have you hunted down and TP’d the house of the individual who created the message that has it look like an uncaught exception shutdown is caused by the CRT as opposed to detected by the CRT?)

  2. SandyK says:

    This is a great dialog to have–thanks for starting it, Joe.

    Thankfully (or perhaps sadly), little of the feedback is a surprise to me.  To say we  (the team) are working on it is a little too cliche and I feel like we’ve been saying it for a while, but I guess we’ll let the next couple of months be the test on whether we’re focused on the right issues. 🙂

    One of the interesting requests was around the "Can’t Find the Answer" feature.  The time scoping idea is one that I have mixed feelings about.  After all, there are some posts that truly stand the test of time, but don’t necessarily qualify for FAQ status (though I don’t disagree with Dennis’ suggestion about more FAQs & sticky posts). I know I fixed an obscure (or at least I think it was obscure) Outlook issue I was having a couple of months ago by finding a nearly two-year old post that still applied.  Three months sounds like a short timeframe.  That said, I suppose an answer for SQL 7.0 doesn’t do much or guides someone towards outdated tactics.  Here’s a thought–in the same way we identify posts as answers, I wonder if we could identify answers as outdated.  I think MSDN does this with documents for obsolete products. That way, they are still there and we don’t necessarily need to remove the archive (which may still be valuable for somone), but it won’t clutter up the BI for finding recent relevant data.  My $.02…

  3. MSDN Archive says:

    Thanks Dennis and Sandy–great suggestions and comments.  I’m going to continue editing the content of this post as new suggestions come in, so some of your feedback has already been added.

  4. Peter Ritchie says:

    RE: Permalink: there are post destination anchors in the threads, but they’re not guaranteed to stay on the same page of a thread.  If the post stays in the same thread (say you can just add the anchor to the URL: to "link" to a post.  Replies to previous posts could push that post to another page, in which case that link is no longer permanent.

    Of course, there’s also splitting a post, etc…

    Traffic wouldn’t be such an issue with a richer set of moderator tools.  There’s really only /move/, /delete/, and /lock/ (split/merge just doesn’t work) and those require too many steps and are really prone to human error and subjectiveness.

    The idea of a post wizard would be great, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere: analyze the post for keywords and suggest a forum to put it based on those keywords.  With .NET related forums for example, if each forum was specifically assigned namespaces, the namespace with the most number of associated keywords in the post would be the suggested destination forum.  People don’t really want to "find" the right forum and for those who are really in a pickle they don’t: they just pick one hoping to get an answer (or they just don’t know enough to pick an appropriate forum).

  5. Arnie Rowland says:

    Great discussion Joe,

    One suggestion that I would offer: Have some way to ‘close’ a thread without having to mark it answered. I know that for me, I often look for the ‘unanswered’ threads to see if I can help, and it wastes my limited time clicking in and then back out of a thread when I discover that the thread has either been answered (and not marked) or abandoned. On occasion, when I have been certain about my response, I have marked it answered just to keep myself (and others) from wasting precious time looking at it again (and again). I would prefer to leave the ‘answered’ to the OP, but there has to be a way to signal that one need not look at the post.

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