August 23, 2010

The ‘Forum': A Nudist Colony waiting to happen…

by with 13 comments

When we first started SpiderOak I did not know anything about a ‘Forum’. In truth, I didn’t even know that Forums existed on companies sites as a way for users to interact with each other, share ideas, experiences, and lessons learned. I suppose it would be safe to say that I have never been that kind of user.

Roughly nine months into SpiderOak we started to receive more requests to setup a Forum (at that time I had been doing all of the customer service requests so I would see the suggestions firsthand). This of course prompted me to ask “What is a Forum?” and “How is a Forum different than other forms of communication on our website?” and “Do we NEED a Forum?”. My research returned some contradictory findings which I will share in the paragraphs to follow.

I was told by many (including members of our own team) that a ‘Forum’ was a way for SpiderOak users and staff to have open conversations about various topics, to discuss shared experiences with the product (both positive and negative), to serve as a live journal and index of information, an open line of communication, and the like. This all sounded like a good idea – a positive ‘forum’ for conversation where everyone (including SpiderOak staff members) could learn from each other and which we could use as tool for growth and understanding about how people use SpiderOak and how we can make it better.

Based on this information and the ideas above, we started to construct our Forum. In full disclosure and not as a typical ‘Forum’ user, I was a bit concerned and quite scared that this ‘Forum’ would be too naked and too exposing. After all, the purpose was full disclosure and openness which we are all in favor of in theory but in practice we all usually wear some form of clothing. After all, a nudist colony is a fun place to visit but I would not want to live there permanently let alone be the host as you never know who is going to show up.

The Forum launch was welcomed by our users and we received some very positive feedback. Of course I would monitor it almost daily to see what users were saying – the good and the bad – and worked hard (as I always try) to place every comment in the right context and use it as a learning experience. Over time, my job duties took me a bit further away from actively engaging the forum but I would still review its contents at least weekly.

Fast forward to a few days ago. I was reviewing our customer service emails and read this from one of our users:

“According to your Forum, your Sync product does not work so am closing my account. Thank you.”

As with most cancellations, I try to send an email to gain a more full and complete understanding of their reasons for leaving. In the response from this particular user I would learn that he never actually tried to use our Sync product. As you might imagine, I was very upset by this and immediately went back to our Forum to better understand how this form of expression and openness turned into a tool capable of driving users away. The answer was clear and I would invite you to have a look.

In full disclosure, our Sync product does not work perfectly in every situation. However, in the vast majority of implementations it does perform well and as intended. Given the very nature of the Forum as a collection for topics that users are having difficulty navigating, it is not surprising that these posts would be present. And if I were simply to review this one page, casually perusing the headers but never actually reading the specific post dialog, I suppose I might come to a similar conclusion about SpiderOak Sync. However, if you open and read into any of these posts, you will see that there are pages and pages of dialog. And further – in several cases – there have been resolutions to problems posted. But one would never see this on the first page displaying the titles or the subsequent pages if they never bothered to look deeper into any one Forum string.

This realization makes me mad for three reasons. First – one of the early lessons of childhood is that you should never judge a book by its cover and as adults we all too often forget this rather simple principle. Second – users like the one above diminish and dismiss all of the hard work and effort of our development team. They work tirelessly to make SpiderOak better and deserve at least the opportunity to provide a helpful solution as opposed to ‘according to your forums it doesn’t work’. And third – it taints the purpose and design of the whole ‘Forum’ concept as explained in the introduction.

I would also like to add that I took the time to visit the Forums of our competitors and it would appear that they suffer from a similar fate. And as I feel bad for our lost opportunities, I feel bad for theirs as well as we all work hard and want to provide a good product to our users.

In the end, it is clear to me that we need to restructure the nature and presentation of our Forum. What started as a place for open communication has turned into a concentration of negativity that does far more harm than good for all of us who have Forums (referring specifically to the competitors sites I reviewed) as well as potential users who are being swayed prematurely. One of our most basic ideas is to better categorize our Forum posts so that a user who simply wants to review general information can access it on the homepage under ‘General Discussion’. The other posts are not going away of course but rather just being properly placed under the appropriate sections. On a larger scale I would like to find a way to display the final post of a Forum string as opposed to the title or first line as it is much more descriptive and true to the work and effort involved. The idea is not and never will be to minimize or curb exposure as this would defeat the very nature and ‘Nudistness’ of the Forum but surely there is a medium that can be met.

  1. LOL, I read this as a much more convincing statement that sync is totally broken than any number of stupid forum posts. Everyone knows the Internet is full of trolls, dude.

  2. For what it's worth, when I was looking around for backup solutions I don't know if I would of paid for SpiderOak without the forums or something similar. Basically, I needed an independent way to verify the company was legitimate. Third party reviews helped, but being able to go to a community forum where people were posting problems and seeing answers really gave me that assurance I needed and a greater understanding of the product I wanted to buy.

  3. Well I guess it would help if you had somebody would spend 1-2h per day actually responding. This person could also moderate: e.g. Close topics with flaming and change topic titles to more meaningful ones.

    AND PLEASE use another forum software. The current one is a big piece of $%&/()/&%

    Maybe if you had a knowledge database, where you could enter questions and it would give you some fitting answers would help, too.

  4. 1. Experienced users would not react as the user cited has done.
    I had seen lots of posts about sync failures, but still tested it myself.
    All competent users know that not everything works for everybody.
    And frankly, I don't think your product is really suitable for incompetent users –
    the things that can go wrong (at the user level) on a sync are too many.

    2. Many years ago I used Symantec.
    I stopped using them when they closed their forums.
    I was sure they had something to hide
    (am sure I was right – around that time their software became much worse).

    3. I almost didn't use SO because your forums were locked.
    But given all the other reasons
    I got a free account and looked at the forums.
    Then realized it was just the normal stuff
    and that user level problems were lower than expected.
    Only then did I start to seriously test it.

    4. In fact the key use of a forum is that if you are having a problem,
    you can quickly check are other people having it or not,
    and if so what solutions are out there.
    This is absolutely essential in reducing frustration.

    *** The key point is that with a forum you save far more users by reducing their frustration than you lose by giving inexperienced new users a bad impression.***

    Speaking for myself, if I had not seen the problems others were having with sync,
    then when I had my problems I would have put my foot through the screen
    and immediately and completely uninstalled SO.
    But seeing others problems I thought, ok, doesn't work perfectly,
    provide feedback and give it time.
    Backup does work well.

    5. Finally, the only problem I have with your forums is that your staff frequently ignore it for days.
    That is a mistake. On something that involves peoples' critical data,
    you need to be on top of it all the time.

    In short, don't overreact to one user.

  5. Please, just get a UserVoice, GetSatisfaction, or Tender account. Issues will then be neatly organized as Issue, commentary, and solution, rather than the mass of negativity you are seeing. It will be MUCH easier for us users to find the issue we have and see if there is already a solution for it. And it will be easier for YOU to keep track of whether a particular issue is resolved.

  6. You need to do two things IMHO :
    1 – Change your Forum software.
    2 – Have some staff monitor / post response. [ max 24h response time ]

    both already suggested by others also.

  7. Indeed, I second the suggestion to get uservoice, but as an *additional* medium of communication – to solicit ideas, suggestions and feedback. This would really help you prioritize :) There is nothing like a forum for troubleshooting, but yes, certainly it needs subsections – if you look at the forums at Hostgator, for example, there is a reviews section that is largely positive. And yes, moderators who can go and fix the titles so that it can begin with "RESOLVED: blah" whenever an issue was resolved, and so on. A cleaner forum software would, doubtless, help too :)

    Also, the website is missing a Testimonials section. I, for one, would be happy to vouch for your services, even sans the sync component – and I am pretty sure that there are many who would! I think this might off-set some of the negative vibe, and also, more incentives for getting folks to blog about you (a la the twitter promotion) would help a great deal.

    So well, responding to your concerns in particular:

    "not judging a book by its cover" – since you know people will do it anyway, you can fix this by improving the cover by changing the titles to "FIXED", as suggested above, and by the others.

    "diminish and dismiss all of the hard work and effort of our development team." – To this, I would agree with a response above that says don't overreact to one user. I am sure all of us that use SO regularly – free or paid – are quite grateful for the work you do, even if we forget to express ourselves often enough.

    Finally: "taints the purpose and design of the whole 'Forum' concept…" – I assure you that the users of the forum find it really handy. I haven't even posted there yet, but I lurk all the time, and often I've resolved my own issues by just searching.

    In summary: please work on making the forums more organized, actively moderating them, and having better software, and open up to uservoice, and I hope you will be a much happier crowd!

  8. To All: Thank you greatly for your thoughtful feedback, comments, and suggestions. We are in the process of implementing many of them now on our forum (as you may notice soon) and we promise to make additional improvements to our overall communications in the weeks, months, and years ahead.

  9. I've never used internet backup software before and the only reason that I'm here is a post in the forum at my hosting company. That forum is totally open and works really well. About the only posts that get deleted are spam and I can only remember one flame war. I wouldn't use a hosting company that didn't have a decent forum. No matter how good your product is, there are always going to be people that are unhappy. Do you really want users that have their heads where the sun don't shine?

  10. I agree with the comments about managing the forums. It isn't about deleting posts or anything like that, but if there's an issues section, it's worth making sure that discussions about an issue all stay in that section. Personally, I think SO is great, especially at the price point you offer!

    I'd love to see an RSS feed of the forums as well; the link that I found won't import into an RSS reader because of the authentication requirement.

  11. I second (third?) those who argue in favor of forums (fora?). I don't think I would have signed up for SO (or any other product whose functioning is as important to me as backup of priceless files) without the presence of a user forum. It's a way of investigating the product before buying, and, even more importantly, of seeking assistance without submitting a support ticket (which is often unnecessary because 80% of the time my problems have been previously found by someone else.

    I also agree with those who opine that the SO forum software is lacking. It's hard to search effectively.

    I know one company that abandoned their forums, but they pretty much have 12 hour email response time (max!), so it works. The response time right now at SO is too long to consider abandoning the forums (not criticism…just observation).

  12. "The response time right now at SO is too long to consider abandoning the forums (not criticism…just observation)."

    Actually, I would say that it is a criticism. We were researching SO for the servers in our data center as well as reselling it to our customers. I emailed several questions to the info address and did not get a response. I would have called, but no phone number listed on the contact page. That made me squirm and I have been looking at other solutions every since.