My History with Community Q&A and Forums

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Over the past 25 years, there have been many forums that I have engaged in. This week Figma just launched a new forum for their users. It made me think I should note the previous communities I have been a part of. I had blogged about Q&A in 2008 and also Forums in the same year.

Experts-Exchange.com

Previous Review – (Site has been shut down and launched as a new service) This was a classic Q&A site. I participated in a variety of topics including system administration (IT). One problem with the site was that it looked close to “expert sex change” instead of “experts exchange”. (There were alot of jokes!) The UX wasn’t particularly good, but it was influential on many other Q&A sites over the years. It had introduced a paywall which made answers impossible to see if you weren’t a member. Stack Overflow founder Jeff Atwood cited Experts-Exchange’s poor reputation and paywall as a motivation for creating Stack Overflow.

jQuery Mailing List

jQuery was the first community that I really went deep into. It wasn’t even a site. It was a mailing-list! Ahh, the good old days. First I asked a question. Then I started answering questions. Then they asked me to be on the evangelism team. I was answering both jQuery coding questions as well as giving free design advice. I loved that community. The UX was nonsense though. Mailing Lists are no way to manage a community.

It felt good to answer people’s questions. I would often “whip up” a demo to show someone how something worked. I wish I didnt delete all the examples, but they were lost to some upgrade years ago.

UX.StackExchange.com

2010 Post by me. When StackExchange went live it quickly became the Go-To place for Q&A on the web. The UX was quite good and really nailed the idea of reputation and gamification in Q&A sites. The only problem was that questions like “What do you think of this design?” were automatically shut down. It wasn’t an objective question that had a single correct answer. Therefore, the “question nazis” as I called them, blocked answering those kinds of questions.

This had a corrosive effect on the community and eventually led to its irrelevancy. It became more about research than design, so I stopped looking at it. My profile is still in the top 1% of reputation even though I stopped looking years ago.

Quora

Review of Quora 2011 – Quora works very differently than StackExchange. There is very little reputation. You just answer questions. This had the opposite problem. Without reputation, you didn’t know whose opinion to listen to. The questions were asked, but the best answers were unclear. It also didn’t have that same gamification aspect to it.

Additionally, it had the infuriating habit of opening up new tabs. If you use Quora for 10 minutes, you will have a dozen tabs open. It was for these reasons that I stopped answering questions a few years ago.

Spectrum Chat

I started using Figma pretty early and noticed that they didn’t have a forum. At some point, they outsourced their forum to a site called Spectrum.Chat. This site was made by a small crew as a new startup. They did interesting work, but ultimately, the forum was just unable to handle the needs of a thriving Figma community. I used it for a little while, but got tired of it pretty fast.

Figma Forums

Finally, after three years, Figma moved off of Spectrum to a real forums system. They choose Discourse, which is built by Jeff Atwood – same guy who made StackExchange. This time, however, he isn’t shutting down any questions. Figma sent me this little gift bag for signing up. Cute.

I haven’t used Discourse before, but I had high hopes for it. My first days are a little disappointing. The UI is all over the place, strife with anti-patterns. The way the replies work is mind-boggling. it’s too early to see how the system supports the community. We will see how it develops over time.

Nation.Marketo.com

I’ll add this one in here because I was responsible for it for a few years. I haven’t logged in for years, but the Marketo community was so vibrant that it was one of the differentiators of the entire company offering. People flocked to it and spent significant time answering each others questions. It lowered the cost of support and increased the love between users. It was essential to build audience for upsell and summits. It was a terrific success.

Summary

I am a community evangelist in the sense that I believe communities can be incredible weapons in your business. However, it’s not free. You need to staff them with people who wake up and try to make it better each and every day. You need your Support Department to use it frequently and not go around the system. You need to tend it like a garden. If you do, the rewards are huge. If you don’t, then you get nothing.

UX and Product Design hasn’t had the perfect community to gather our talents. We have had Dribbble and other sites over time, but nothing has stuck. I am hopeful that the perfect site emerges before AI takes over and does our jobs for us.

Whatya think?