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Why TR should kill Tech Q&A


After more than a year of TechRepublic editors and engineers debating

the best way to finally solve the "nobody ever closes and rates

questions in Tech Q&A" problem, we found a solution. Get rid of Tech Q&A.


Hear me out. We have actual logical reasons.


We've spent the last year trying to set up a series of rules that

would force users of Tech Q&A to act like decent human beings and

provide feedback on the questions they ask. Besides fighting a losing

battle against the inevitable jerkwad user who would never rate no

matter what you do, we also couldn't solve two basic scenarios:

  1. "Drive-by" users who ask a question and never return to the site

    (or, worse, start a new account to avoid restrictions on their old

    login).
  2. "Forum jumpers" that get frustrated with the restrictions in Tech Q&A and just post to Discussions instead.

The more rules we added to Tech Q&A, the worse the above-listed

problems became. Instead of making a better feature, we were just

making the Tech Q&A harder to use. We realized the problem

this morning, so we effectively scrapped a year's worth of ideas in

about 45 minutes and started over. Sounds crazy, but we're really

jazzed about the new concept.


Let's start by talking about our three goals for Tech Q&A:

  1. Make it simple and easy for a member to get technical help from our super-genius community (thereby hyping our users and our site)
  2. Make

    it simple and easy for a user to document what has worked for him, so

    others can learn (thereby hyping our users and our site)
  3. Recognize the members that provide the most and best technical help (thereby hyping our users and our site)
Goal #3 relies on achieving Goal #2, and Goal #2 relies on Goal

#1. If people can't easily ask a question, the whole deal falls

apart--and all our enforcement rules ultimately served to discourage

usage of Tech Q&A. Strange as it sounds, improving Tech Q&A

means reducing enforcement, not increasing it.


So here's the idea--Tech Q&A as a separate feature goes away.

Instead, we allow users to flag Discussions as Technical Questions. One

submission form, one set of categories, one coherent tag structure, one

set of tools, one learning curve to climb. Simple, easy, clean. Users

could even flag a post as a Tech Question after the thread has started,

so our forum regulars could pop in and educate newbies on the feature,

telling them to flag their in-progress threads as Questions when

appropriate.


Flagging threads as Questions would unlock an additional feature for

the original thread poster--the ability to mark individual posts within

the thread as Helpful. This would be a binary state; either a post is

helpful or it isn't. There is no Rejected state. There is Helpful or

unrated, period. Within the tree view, Helpful posts would be

highlighted, so you could skip to the good stuff without trawling the

whole thread. Within the forum view, Questions with Helpful answers

would also be highlighted, so serial answerers could jump into threads

that still need help, and knowledge seekers could skip right to the

threads that contain helpful answers. There's no need to worry about closing

unrated/autoclosed Questions, because--like Discussions--Question

threads never close.


When it comes to recognition, goodbye TechPoints. The TechPoint economy

is broken, and only makes it harder to ask questions, anyway. Instead,

we only need to track two factors: Total answers given, and total

answers rated helpful. Everything else is just noise. We can import all

the old data for these two factors. Our best members will provide a lot

of answers, and over time they will accumulate a number of Helpfuls.

We'll award merit badges based on both factors, so even if nobody ever

comes back and rates your responses, you'll still get credit. As far as

enforcing a rating behavior, we'll leave that to the community to

self-police--but I know our regulars are aware of repeat offenders.


That's the Big Idea we had to today. I know its probably scary to some

to see all the safeguards removed and secret corners exposed. That's

the point. Tech Q&A is a crippled feature. Weighing it down with

more overhead is only going to make it worse. It's time for radical

measures, and I can't think of anything more radical than this.

About

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger -- amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...