Tag Archives: vision

The vision for SUMO – Part 8: Live Chat

We’ve reached the last part of this comprehensive vision for the scope and role of the SUMO project moving forward. This part is dedicated to the most social form of text based user-to-user support: Live Chat.

If a problem isn’t yet covered in the Knowledge Base, or if the instructions in the article are too hard to understand, Live Chat is a powerful way for users to get touch with Firefox experts and get hands-on assistance in solving their problems.

Live Chat can also be a very fun way for contributors to provide support. Contributors helping out with Live Chat don’t just help users, they talk to each other in the backchannel as well, providing assistance to other helpers whenever needed. This means that although you’re usually the only one interacting with the user you’re helping, you’re never alone.

An important aspect — and one of the most interesting in my opinion — about Live Chat is that it is instrumental in detecting new and emerging support issues that are not yet covered in the Knowledge Base. The people helping out with Live Chat, along with helpers of the Support Forum, are those closest of all to what is going on — they really are the ones with their finger on the pulse, if you will.

However, without enough contributors, Live Chat has the risk of giving the user a negative experience, principally because of long waiting times or limited hours of operation. Without contributors, Live Chat can never be successful. We think the two keys to attracting contributors are:

  1. to make contributing as straightforward as possible;
  2. to minimize the load on the contributors by using their time as efficiently as possible – we do this with the support funnel. More specifically, we want to make sure that people search the Knowledge Base (and Support Forum) before turning to Live Chat, so helpers aren’t overwhelmed by the number of users requesting assistance.

I’ve already covered the support funnel in previous blog posts, so this time I’ll focus on how we can make contributing to Live Chat as simple and fun as possible. As always, we already have some ideas, but we really need your feedback as well.

Fully integrated help client

In order to help out with Live Chat today, you need to install an open source Java-based chat client called Spark. This means that unlike the Knowledge Base or the Support Forum, people need to learn how to install, configure, and use a separate application in order to get started with helping people with Live Chat. While the current solution certainly works, it is far from ideal for a number of reasons:

  • It’s an unnecessary technical barrier and yet another application installed on peoples’ computers.
  • It’s poorly integrated with the rest of SUMO, meaning, among other things, that people helping out with Live Chat may not be aware of the support funnel and the most commonly reported problems and solutions already documented in the Knowledge Base.
  • The software isn’t custom-made for our needs, meaning for example that it’s not straightforward for helpers to find the backchannel where other helpers hang out.
  • We rely on good documentation to ensure that helpers understand where they should look for assistance and relevant information.
  • We have a separate log in for Live Chat than the rest of SUMO.

Replacing Spark with something integrated into the SUMO website itself would give us a solution that is pre-configured for our particular needs, do away with the need for separate software, and seamlessly integrate information about weekly common issues and other things relevant for our helpers. The barrier of entry would be reduced significantly.

Simple scheduling solution

Today we have specific times of the day when we’re sure to be open — our “hours of operation” for Live Chat. This is helpful for contributors as they know when they can expect other people to be online. After all, just like many other things in life, Live Chat shouldn’t be a solitary activity.

The ideal solution would be if people could just log in and help out whenever they wanted to, but that would require lots and lots of helpers. We’re not quite there yet, and in the meantime we need a way to make the existing helpers gather around certain scheduled hours naturally. However, the hours of operation might not fit everyone, so we need something that will allow people to commit to specific time slots that are convenient for them, while still seeing which slots other people have offered to take or would like to take — think of it as a shared calendar.

This would give helpers the ability to plan ahead of time when they want to help out, based on what time slots other helpers have already committed to. We think this will encourage collaboration and make Live Chat even more fun. Furthermore, the official hours of operation could then be based on the confirmed schedule time slots, rather than predefined hours we’re using today. And from a user’s point of view, the relevant info is when Live Chat will open next, not a predictable weekly schedule.

Other improvements

Of course, integrating the help client and adding a capability to assist volunteers in being able to plan their contribution of time are just a couple of things we can do to make things simpler. Here are some other things we have in mind:

  • Support for other languages than English — Both users and helpers often speak more than one language. Ideally, users would simply select which languages they understand from the list of currently available languages. That list of available languages would itself be based on which helpers are currently logged on.
  • Add a lower limit of the number of helpers that needs to be logged on before Live Chat opens, to ensure a good support experience. This way, we can control the helper/user ratio and thus avoid helpers burnout. In other words, if there are lots of users in need of help, we’d need more helpers before we opened Live Chat, to ensure that the waiting times are not unreasonable.
  • Automatically save chat logs, along with user happiness rating and whether or not the problem was solved. This would allow us to make better use of the Live Chat stats about common Firefox problems. It would also allow us to tell which helpers are doing a great job, and which ones need a little more training.

Have you tested Live Chat already? If so, what did you like about it, and what would you want to change? We’d love to hear your thoughts, and whether or not you think our ideas are in line with what you’re seeing, or if you have other ideas we haven’t covered here.  And if you haven’t tried it yet, consider this a written invitation. :)

The vision for SUMO – Part 7: Support Forum

The Support Forum is a way for users to ask direct support questions about problems not (yet?) covered in the Knowledge Base, as described previously as the support funnel. It is also an important place to detect new or emerging issues and make sure those issues are dealt with in the best possible way.

The Firefox 3.0.2 release is a very good example of this importance; shortly after the 3.0.2 update started to roll out in Europe, Carsten Book from the QA team noticed early signs of users having problems with the Password Manager from various places such as support forums on Heise, and Hendrix. It was then quickly confirmed to be a frequent issue in the Support Forum of SUMO as well.

In a matter of hours, this went from early signs from our different user channels to a solid plan to release an update of Firefox (due out today or tomorrow) to fix it, as well as a new Knowledge Base support article about the issue. SUMO was just one player in this great and efficient teamwork, but it highlights well our ability to “extend our tentacles” during releases to ensure that we keep doing what we do so well: listening to our users — in this case as an early warning system, if you will.

For contributors, the Support Forum is an exciting place to be, since you can take part of this early warning system, while at the same time making other people happy by helping them with their problems. It’s a good place to start helping since you can simply browse through the posted questions and see if there is anything you know the answer to. There are no obligations to respond if you don’t know the answer.

Reaching out to the people in need

One of our current challenges with the Support Forum is that while we have an incredibly helpful community answering a large number of questions, we don’t have a good way of ensuring that the user asking the question actually comes back to read the answer. This means that we don’t really know if the user’s problem was actually solved or not, only that we at least tried to help.

Question asked in the Support Forum.

We’d like to change this by making it easier for users to find their way back to the forum thread they posted. When a user asks a question in the Support Forum, we should offer the ability to get an e-mail notification when someone responds to the question. This way, people don’t have to worry about how our support site works or what page to bookmark — we will reach out to the user instead of the user finding its way back to us.

Making the forum easier to use for our community

Of course, in order to reach out to our users we need to make sure there are people who want to help others in our forum. :) We already have a group of really amazing people in the forum who help a lot of the users who turn to the forum with their Firefox support questions. However, we definitely need more contributors to cope with the load.

One important thing to focus on in order to make it more pleasant to hang out in the forum is to make the site easier to use for our contributors. We have a few ideas:

  • Give contributors credit for solving problems — Allow the user posting the original question to tell us whether or not an answer from a contributor solved the problem, giving contributors credit for their help. Readers of the earlier parts of this blog series might remember the discussion about a contributor karma system in part 3.
  • Highlight the solution to a problem — Some forum threads quickly grow long, making finding the actual solution to the posted problem hard to find. Other people who stumble across the thread in search for a similar (or same) problem typically want to get straight to the solution, which could be buried on page 4 of a very long thread. We should make that solution easily discoverable at the start of the thread, by allowing the original poster of the thread to mark a particular response in it as the solution to the problem. This will benefit not just our users, but our contributors as well.
  • RSS feed for incoming support questions — Instead of having to log in to SUMO in order to read the latest incoming support questions, a convenient alternative would be to just subscribe to an RSS feed (also known as Live Bookmark in Firefox). This way, people could set their mail client (e.g. Thunderbird) to notify whenever a new question is posted.
  • Smart forum thread filters — When browsing the forum today, all questions are listed, including the ones that are already answered. Many contributors are more interested in looking at threads that haven’t been answered yet. Others might want to see only the threads they’ve responded in. We should allow for an easy way to filter the forum view based on what’s relevant for our visitors.
  • Localization — This is a big one. We currently only have an English support forum and we’re starting to get more questions posted in other languages as the visibility of SUMO increases. For the locales that have enough contributors a need for it, we should definitely create a support forum in that language.

What other ideas can you think of that would make the forum more pleasant to use for you? We would love to hear from you about your experiences with the SUMO Support Forum so we could use your feedback to improve the site for everyone.

The vision for SUMO – Part 2: Understanding the bigger picture

A critical piece in having a community-powered project run successfully is that all participants understand the bigger picture. In the case of SUMO, there are actually two pictures, and with part two of this blog series I will try to explain both of them.

Picture 1: The truly big picture

Looking at how SUMO relates to the rest of the Mozilla project, this could be called the macro version of the bigger picture. This picture was made for a presentation I gave at FOSSCoach (OSCON 2008, Portland, Oregon) and is intentionally a little busy, and friendly. :) It does highlight some very important things, though:

  • We’re not just helping our users solve their problems with Firefox so they can keep using their favorite browser; we’re here to listen to our users as well. Past readers of this blog series know that part 1 covered exactly this.
  • The data we can gather by looking at stats for the Knowledge Base articles combined with incoming support requests in the Support Forum, Live Chat, letters and e-mails all help painting a better picture of what our top issues in Firefox are.
  • The support and QA teams can work together and combine their findings from channels targeting different types of users and reach a shared understanding of which bugs we should be working on first.
  • Knowing which features and bugs to focus on will be invaluable information for the development team. It will lead to a better product, and a better understanding of what our users want.

That’s the most important way support interacts with other parts of the Mozilla project, but far from the only ones. There are other aspects of the bigger picture, for example that the QA and development teams usually have information about known issues prior to releases gathered from the beta testers. This knowledge should be shared with the SUMO team prior to releases, so we can, among other things, prepare for a better support experience for our users.

In some cases QA might be working hard to track the cause of a known issue down; if the SUMO community is aware of that bug, they can confirm this with the users reporting it and get a unique chance to do some direct QA testing with a user. People from the QA team could even be logged on to the Live Chat component using a Jabber client of their choice, and the SUMO team could invite a QA tester to a chat session whenever a good chance to solve a known issue comes up.

Picture 2: The “support funnel”

This could also be called the micro version of the bigger picture, or the internal picture. As many people are already aware, SUMO is a support project consisting of three major components: the Knowledge Base, the Support Forum, and Live Chat. Many contributors provide support in more than one component. For example, Bo regularly helps out in the Support Forum, but occasionally he also writes Knowledge Base articles for new solutions to Firefox issues. Another example is myles7897, who regularly helps out with Live Chat. Just as Bo, he sometimes writes or edits Knowledge Base articles too.

However, not everyone helping out with SUMO will be aware of how the three components relate to each other, or how the site should work for users. The “support funnel” is a way to describe this:

  1. The Knowledge Base should contain the solutions to our most common problems. Users should start by searching for their problem here. Ideally the vast majority of our users find the solution to their problem here; it’s critical both for performance reasons and for quality of support. Using the funnel metaphor, the user would go straight through the funnel without hitting the sides.
  2. If they can’t find the solution to their problem in the Knowledge Base, the forum should show if others have already reported the problem. (We’re working on making this step simpler — more on that later in this series.)
  3. If neither the Knowledge Base nor the forum contains the answer, the forum or Live Chat should be available to the user. These two components should be viewed as fallbacks when the Knowledge Base fails to solve the user’s problem. Which of the two fallbacks is best for the user depends on the situation. The forum has the benefit that the posted question is public and can be read by many people, thus increasing the chance of getting answered, while Live Chat offers a direct communication with a Firefox expert, if the user is willing to wait for it.
  4. Frequent or serious issues solved in the forum or Live Chat should be documented in the Knowledge Base, to ensure that the support quality and performance remain consistently high, and to allow us to get better data on which issues are the most commonly reported.

It’s important that everyone contributing to SUMO has a clear understanding of how the Knowledge Base, the Support Forum, and Live Chat interact and relate to each other. That way we can ensure that the “support funnel” works.

Finally, the insights we will gain from this collaboration will be shared with the rest of the Mozilla project as well. A better knowledge of what our users want in our product would be incredibly powerful information to the marketing team, which SUMO is proudly a part of. Similarly, getting better information about what security issues are most commonly reported would likely be valuable for the security team. Et cetera, et cetera; I think I made my point. :)

In other words, support is vital to the success of Mozilla, or any open source project for that matter.