Talkin’ to Users

I get a lot of direct email with questions about Eclipse. Now that I’m being copied on mail sent to emo@, I’m getting a lot more.

I actually enjoy these emails. It’s a great opportunity for me to learn about how Eclipse is being used, and what people outside our relatively tight committer community think. I generally try to provide as much help as I reasonably can when folks ask me questions, but I always point them to the newsgroups. In some cases, I point them to the newsgroups multiple times. Ultimately, I may be able to answer a few questions, but the truth of the matter is that you are more likely to get better and more thorough answers from the larger community through the newsgroup. That is, while it may seem convenient to send me a note, it’s actually in your own selfish best interests to post your question on the newsgroup where a larger number of folks with far deeper knowledge than I possess can help.

Newsgroups are the preferred mechanism for the user community to interact with the committer community. The problem is that it’s relatively hard to get started with newsgroups. To start, while you can certainly browse newsgroup archives without specialized software, you really do need specialized software to post (or is there some good web-based newsgroup software that I haven’t searched hard enough for?). Then, before you can post a question, you have to get an id/password; for this you need to create an Eclipse Bugzilla account (unfortunately, when we turn off the password protection, the spam levels get unmanageable). Once you have the account, and your newsreader/poster is all configured, then you need to figure out what group to post to. Of course, we have some very talented and dedicated people who monitor eclipse.newcomer and will point you in the right direction.

In short, posting that first question on an Eclipse newsgroup is a pain in the arse.

So. My question to you is: how can we do better? How can we make it easier for our user community to get help? Is it time for a replacement for newsgroups? I have my own ideas, but I’d like to hear yours.

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15 Responses to Talkin’ to Users

  1. CHENG Yuk says:

    The sad thing is: commenting your blog need a bugzilla account too.

    Could we make bugzilla account creation easier?
    Rename it to something like “eclipse account”?
    Use openid everywhere (accept gmail/facebook/etc login)?

    There is a bugzilla openid plugin.

  2. Oisin says:

    +1 that the newsgroups are a pain in the arse – they don’t conform to 21st-century web usage norms. I loved NNTP back in the early 90’s, but we’re beyond that now, and into a time when everyone expects to be able to get information from the web directly without suffering a mode change. Good work got done in terms of creating the web portal to the newsgroups, but we really need to have a good global search mechanism over the groups.

    I don’t think we’ll ever get away from the ‘you must register to post’, and that’s not a bad thing. An identity is something you need in a community.

    It’s long gone time for a replacement to the newsgroups. If I had a magic wand to wave, we would have a forums system, with individual profiles, avatars and the like, rating systems for questions/answers, project-specific administrative capabilities and wiki/static page content so that we (the projects) could get away from the current rather cumbersome web site approaches we have now.

    Now that would liven things up considerably, I think.

  3. Dominik says:

    my 0.02$:

    Access to the newsgroups could be easier, but given the spam-problem it’s reasonabe the way it is. Newsgroups are not the best medium for end user support though. Even if dedicated people respond frequently, it’s still not instant, and waiting for a solution doesn’t really add to a good user experience.
    Providing an instant support option under help (e.g. using ecf and irc channels (or an xmpp server) where users could click a button and chat with these dedicated people inside eclipse could change that. Encouraging those who got help to help out themselves could lead to a big enough community of dedicated (and not so dedicated) people that the response-times are instant.
    To help those answering questions, add options in eclipse ‘i want to help other people’ ‘i know how to use jdt’ etc. that joins you in the correct channels (or marks you as an available supporter).
    You could even run statistics and give awards to helpful people (i remember eclipse-plugins.info giving away donated commercial plugin licenses for free).

  4. Tomasz says:

    imo, an initiative similar to stackoverflow.com[1] would be much better then old-school newsgroups. No setup required, no id/password needed to ask a question, giving helpful answers gets rewarded and so on.

    [1] http://stackoverflow.com/questions/tagged/eclipse

  5. Remy Chi Jian Suen says:

    Well, there’s IRC…😮

    It’s not uncommon for us to point users to the newsgroups (for stuff like CDT questions, which come in every day). However, some of them get discouraged by the password bit or it (supposedly) never arrives in their inbox.

    Both avenues have their pros and cons. Perhaps a system like StackOverflow.com could be introduced? One of the things I don’t like about StackOverflow.com (or maybe the only thing) is that you can’t anonymously contribute. That might just be a side effect of me being a pretty zealous Wikipedian though.

  6. Dave Carver says:

    Well, I think eclipse should consider phpBB (http://www.phpbb.com/) or similar software for the front end facing option. Of course Ed’s work flow might be cramped by that as he won’t have it in his Thunderbird. But in general, most people can’t go to News Groups from a corporate setting, they are blocked. With that said, we have a huge number of people on the newsgroups. Imagine how much more active they might become if there is a way for the community to use online forum software like phpBB instead. You still get the level of spam control you want (at the mylyn-mantis sourceforge project we’ve moved our forum posts over to phpBB).

  7. Dave Carver says:

    Another option is the FUDForum software which allows reading and writing to Newsgroups through a web based interface:

    http://fudforum.org/forum/
    http://cvs.prohost.org/index.php/Features_overview

  8. Eric Rizzo says:

    This is a very difficult question. On one hand, newsgroups are, IMO, the by-far most powerful and flexible forum technology around; less intrusive than mailing lists, easier to control than website-based forums (like phpBB), and available to any client you choose.
    On the other hand, as you point out Wayne, the barrier to entry is too high (and only getting higher as time progresses, I think, because as the audience gets younger their familiarity with the “ancient” technology deceases).
    The ideal solution, IMO, would be to keep the newsgroups but provide a web-based forum front-end. I know we have something now, but it is pretty useless in my opinion, being read-only and not very flexible in terms of daily reading. I know there are NNTPemail gateways out there; perhaps that is a good first step. But I’d really like to see something like phpBB that mirrored the newsgroups (bi-directionally).
    Aren’t the Eclipse newsgroups backed by a database? If so, shouldn’t it be pretty straightforward to put an HTML front-end on it? I’d think something like this exists already, anyway.

  9. Wim says:

    Newsgroups are _so_ cool. In fact, I am currently creating an Eclipse Based newsgroup reader with the name Salvo. It can already subscribe to servers and read news. The two major things to do are handling mime messages (80% complete) and posting (0% but easy to do). If anybody wants a quick preview please let me know wim.jongmanatgmail.com (I could also need some help making it an Eclipse project)

    Renaming bugzilla account to eclipse account is a +1 +1 please read my blog about this
    at http://industrial-tsi-wim.blogspot.com/2009/04/getting-more-out-of-ecosystem-1.html

  10. Wim says:

    > Then, before you can post a question, you have to get an id/password; for this you need to create an Eclipse Bugzilla account

    No bugzilla account needed, user exquisitus pazz flinder1f7

  11. Dave Carver says:

    +1 Oisin. Would be nice to have a community portal along the lines of Joomla, Drupal, or even a good integrated phpBB or similar forum software. FUDForum includes a NNTP new synchronization so could have both during a transition period.

  12. Chris Aniszczyk says:

    Obviously a Lotus Notes teamroom would be the best decision😉

  13. Wim says:

    > On the other hand, as you point out Wayne, the barrier to entry is too high (and only > getting higher as time progresses, I think, because as the audience gets younger
    > their familiarity with the “ancient” technology deceases).

    Give the youngsters a little credit. Do you seriously think that kids that have to figure out how to use remote services or program in Java have any trouble using newsgroups?

    BTW, leeching newsgroups is the #1 download method amongst people under the age of 20 (i just made that up but it could be true).

  14. Gabe says:

    +1 for forums. I use forums to answer all shorts of problems/issues/tweaks to Ubuntu (to name just one project). Maybe there is a good reason we don’t have forums, but it seems like a lot ‘new to Eclipse’ questions could be self answered by reading a forum thread.

  15. Ben Vitale says:

    +1 for forums. I don’t know that it solves the barrier to entry problem (may still have to register, probably still have to find the right “group” (topic) to post to), but I think for power users there would be some benefits as Oisin and Dave mentioned.

    /me would spend more time on IRC but frankly its not as useful for “newsgroup type questions” because of the synchronous nature.. you need to be online and watching for someone’s response. It certainly has its value for other discussion styles though.

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