Despite of the fever (38,6) last night I did spend some time on this today. The post is coming from under the blanket.
I stumbled upon interesting article “Should We Move to Stack Overflow? (2015)”. It discusses the role of Stack Overflow (SO) in support. We all know that a lot of the developers utilize the SO when in problems with APIs (and otherwise as well). There’s a lot of opinions for and against the use of SO in support. In addition some see that it pushes copy-paste culture which can according to research lead to increased security issues in applications. In that sense the fear is justified.
Mailing lists, forums and groups have been used in providing support for own and larger developer base before the arrival of SO. Some stick with the mailing lists still and that is ok, there’s nothing wrong with it. The mailing lists are almost always project specific eg all have their own. Mailing list are though cumbersome for the people who have just one or two questions. They need to signup first for the mailing list, possibly wait for approval and then they can ask questions. The searchability of mailing lists varies and sometimes offers very limited view to previously asked questions. So why does SO feel so attractive to service providers? This was discussed in the study as well and some of the service provider notes offer some insights:
“Stack Overflow is rich in content and community support. This move will open up our discussions and support to the entire development community as a whole, thus providing better and faster support to everyone.”
“to StackOverflow, where I’m convinced all of you will get more timely and relevant help for your questions from not just each other, but the large number of developers who regularly participate on the site.”
“to Stack Overflow, we’ll be opening up the discussion to the development community as a whole.”
“Many Google developer products already use Stack Overflow to provide technical support, and a large number of Google engineers are already heavily involved in the Stack Overflow community.”
From the above quotes it’s visible that you as a service provider you have to go where the developers are. Attracting them to specific support forum or alike does not often work. Stack Overflow is the social media channel for developers. The success of SO has created the pulling force of more and more services focusing support functions in the platform. What is also visible in the quotes is the fact that SO is not only interesting for company external developers but also own staff is involved anyway. Why not take advantage of that?
In the study 20 projects were identified. Those projects moved from mailing lists or google groups to SO.
Reasons to onboard Stack Overflow
According to the research the most common reason for moving to Stack Overflow is that the developer community is larger: more people use the site. Higher quality of questions and answers is given as the second-most common reason (this includes de-duplication of questions), and faster response time as the third most common reason.
At the same time as companies move to SO, the previously used groups or mailing lists are either abandoned or left read-only mode. Some have left the mailing list alive for announcements. Simply removing the mailing list and forums from the internet would also mean losing of information. The amount of information gathered in the services is still at some level usable.
Use product tag
The idea is that you have a tag for your product. The amount of questions in SO is enormous. It grows over 5 000 questions per day on average. Tags help you as a developer to find questions related to a specific topic or like in this case to a product or API. That is why companies use tags.
- Foursquare: in 2011 they announced that the Google Group would become announcement-only and that all new developer questions should use the ‘foursquare’ tag on Stack Overflow.
- Dwolla: in 2012 they announced a move to Stack Overflow, where they planned to use the ‘dwolla’ tag.
- Docusign: in June 2013 they announced that their transition to StackOverflow would begin and that posts should be tagged ‘docusignapi’
Our Platform of Trust did the same and we have “platform-of-trust” tag in SO.
Since the developer base in SO is greater than in specific forum it’s assumed to have shorter response time. The studyfound that the use of Stack Overflow improved Google-BigQuery response times by 12 hours, and Docusign developers got answers on Stack Overflow almost 16 hours faster (medians).
In the study three of four projects (Foursquare, BigQuery, and Dwolla) saw considerable improvement in reducing unanswered questions by moving to Stack Overflow. Docusign’s answer rate was the roughly the same (2% vs. 2.3%). Whether this success is due to the “more eyeballs” theory or just a rejuvenated developer support effort on the part of the company is not known.
Duplicates annoy and distribute the knowledge of the answers. That in turn reduces the discoverability. In the study the number of questions on Stack Overflow was lower than the number on their original forum for 3/4 projects. SO encourages removal of duplicates and rewards for doing that. This leads to reduced noise ratio, less questions in total and more concentrated knowledge.
Stack Overflow is not a silver bullet
Some companies have made the move to rely more on SO. Some have tried and turned away from it. Why? Some claim that legitimate questions are closed in the SO and that it considered unacceptable: “The main reason is that StackOverflow moderators close valid OpenXava questions, like this one (link), and we think this is unacceptable”.
In March 2014, Dwolla announced that even though they had moved to Stack Overflow only a year before. They deciced to go back to Discourse driven discussion forum. Having such a forum streches the amount of topics to discuss. If you open up business model discussion in SO, it’s quite likely to be closed in a matter of minutes. “The purpose of the Discussion Board is exactly what the name suggests—for users to easily start a discussion amongst one another, whether they own a small boutique in Georgia, have a feature request they’d like to share with the development team, or are a developer working on an integration into their ecommerce site.”
Even some of the developers say SO is hard to contribute
Tools for purpose
Obviously SO is not the answer to everything. Some companies have gone towards a hybrid model in which issues are reported in one service, specific programming related things in SO and more generic discussions in groups on selected platform. Depending of your product, you need to use multiple online services to satisfy the needs of your consumers.
Some more to read from 100 Days DX
- #100 - The biggest open resource on Developer eXperience so far
- #99 - Hackers - the top 1% of engineers
- #98 - Invalid Open API spec files ruins the developer experience
- #97 - Lightweight API evaluation framework
- #96 - Embracing open source community driven tools development
- #95 - Exploring the multilevel nature of API Design Guides
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Check out Platform of Trust in which I've worked to enable best possible developer experience!