Friday, 12 June 2009

Limits of community support

One of the trends I mentioned during the meeting in Vienna this week was the growing importance of user generated content.

User generated content can mean many things, but in the context of commercial products and services it generally means allowing users and customers to add comment to your company's web site through open wikis, blogs, or user forums. Some companies encourage their own staff to engage with their customers by responding to forum comments and questions, by writing blogs and inviting comments, and so on. Other companies are happy to let the users - the customers - get on with things by themselves, without interference from the company. They even deliberately use the term "user community" or even "community support" to encourage their customers to take part.

On the other hand, there are some serious objections to user generated content. Many companies believe that any information published about their products needs to be authoritative and reliable. For example, if you are manufacturing electrical equipment you need to give your users accurate information about the correct voltage for your products. If you leave this sort of thing to others, you might be opening yourself up to legal challenges, and more importantly, people could even get hurt.

Nevertheless, there are independent, user-run forums for many products, as well as company-sponsored ones. An ongoing research project sponsored by STC has found that independent user forums are more popular, and more trusted, than vendor sponsored ones. Perhaps you don't find that fact surprising. After all, the Internet was all about sharing information amongst peers long before the commercialisation of the World Wide Web, and many people feel strongly about the freedom of information.

Something happened to me this week which made me recognise a limitation of community support. I often use Huddle, an online collaboration platform, to share documents with clients and colleagues. My use of Huddle is quite low volume, and so I only use a free account, which means I don't have direct access to Huddle's tech support. This is reserved for paying customers, and I quite understand that distinction. Although this little anecdote may sound critical of Huddle, I think it is a great product, very easy to use, and definitely worth evaluating if you are looking for an online collaboration tool.

This week, I wanted to share a rather long document with a client. It was much too big for email, so I uploaded it to my workspace on Huddle, and tried to invite the client to join the workspace. Inviting people is a very standard action, something I'd done without a problem many times before. This time I could see that something was broken. Clicking the Send Invitation button got no response, and instead I saw a line of code in my browser's status bar. I have been around software long enough to recognise a bug when I see one, and I wanted to report this to Huddle.

When I went to the Support page, I found that as a free account customer the only option open to me was to post a message to the community forum. I found that someone else had encountered exactly the same problem, and had posted a message to the forum some six hours before, but there had been no response. I added a "me too" comment, and waited.

Community forums are really great for how-to information, and for tips and tricks, but communities can't fix software bugs, not even the most trivial ones. I hoped that the messages posted to the forum would alert Huddle to the problem, and that they would look into it.

After waiting a few more hours, I decided to turn to another sort of community to see if i could attract Huddle's attention. A message on Twitter, with the tag #huddle, got three friendly and helpful responses from the company very quickly, and I am pleased to report that the problem I experienced was soon resolved. (It may even have been one of those minor bugs that resolves itself when something else happens on the server, I don't really know.)

It was unfortunate that Huddle hadn't provided a Report a problem link for its free account customers, and I have suggested that they should consider doing so. I am certainly going to continue using Huddle, and continue following Huddle staffers on Twitter as well.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Notes from Vienna

Let me put your minds at rest - despite the possible pun in the title, this is not a posting about Mozart. (I leave that sort of musing to my STC colleague Tom Johnson.)

Tom and I have both been in Vienna this week for the 10th Anniversary Conference of the STC TransAlpine Chapter. Tom gave a workshop on WordPress, and two other sessions, while I gave my talk on ignoring users (I'm against it, by the way) and took part in a panel discussion about trends in technical communication. These prosaic and unmusical notes are about the conference themes and that discussion of trends.

Most of the conference was about the basic challenges that technical communicators face. We talked about getting messages across to users, improving the documentation we create, and trying to improve the product we write about. I was very impressed by the lively discussions from the audience, and the spirit of collaboration and participation at all the sessions I attended. The feedback I received to my own presentation was particularly valuable, and I hope my next audience (at Technical Communications UK 2009) will benefit from some of the ideas my audience in Vienna suggested.

The panel on trends in technical communications covered a wide range of issues. We talked about the impact of the world-wide economic slowdown on job prospects for technical communicators, and the need to keep our skill-sets up-to date as part of our response to this. We talked about the continuing need to demonstrate value to our employers and our clients. We talked about the challenges and opportunities to technical communicators presented on the one hand by the growing adoption of structured authoring techniques such as XML and DITA, and on the other hand by the growing importance of user-generated content through blogs, wikis, and discussion forums open to customers and the public at large. Despite not being able to provide definitive answers, I hope the panel discussion highlighted areas of interest to watch in the coming months.

As is usual, the social aspects of the conference were important too. It was also a great event for meeting other professionals, with delegates from a dozen countries. I enjoyed being introduced to the sights and sounds, and to the tastes, of a new city, and I really enjoyed a very worthwhile trip. My thanks to all the organising committee for inviting me.