August 23, 2010
The ‘Forum’: A Nudist Colony waiting to happen…
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.