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I still dream of Organon

Improving Support

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Three months ago, I met with Paul Kim, to discuss ways of improving Mozilla user support web content. I initially thought we wouldn’t need all 45 minutes, but it turned out that 45 minutes wasn’t nearly enough. He asked if there was a page anywhere in which I outlined my thoughts on improving support. I did post a response to Chris Hofmann’s enquiry a couple of months before; but even that didn’t contain all of my thoughts on the matter; and there have been developments and new ideas since then. I had been meaning to post this sooner. Sorry Paul. 🙁 With the support meetings happening this week, that kicked me in the butt, to get this post done.

Rather than go through every problem/bug I see in Mozilla’s user support, let’s go through solutions, which may fix multiple problems at once:

In-product

  • Add “More Info” links to tooltips and pop-up messages:This is less about troubleshooting, and more about general “How to” enquires. Whereas some features may be relatively discoverable, finding documentation on it, can prevent users from creating there own problems. I’m not sure if it is technically possible, but putting “More info” links in tooltips may help users get to know how the program works.
  • Beef up the Help menu: Let’s say Joe User has a problem. If he is willing to look for support, the first place he is going to go is the Help menu. The Help menu should have quick links to the primary support venues. A while back, I took a screenshot of Google’s Picasa2 Help menu:

    Not only is there an item for the in-product help content, but there are links to tutorials on some of the basic functions, a link to the online support site, and a link to the user forums. We’ve got an online help site, and it has a User Forums page.
  • Beef up XUL pages/errors: What ever happened to bug 335289?! Each time there is a new Firefox update, we get a batch of questions about Firefox not being able to connect to the internet anymore (caused by a Firewall not recognizing that the app was updated). It’s a major problem with every release.
  • about:support(diagnostics): I filed bug 367596 to get this created. In looking at the Dell support site, I loved how I could enter my computer’s serial number, and the Dell site would show me info, that applies to my setup. Likewise, by giving a Dell support person my computer’s serial number, that person would have my computer’s specs in front of them; and this helps greatly in being able to diagnose my problem, and telling my how to fix my problem. While every Firefox download is available “as is,” there’s still a lot of info that helps support volunteers help users. For example, what version of Firefox the user has, what operating system, what add-ons are installed, the version number of each add-on, what plug-ins are installed, what locale is being used, where the profile is located, etc. It would be nice if support volunteers could direct users to a single about: page, that listed all the info a user needs for user support; and create a “Copy my support info” button on that page.

Website

  • Move it to mozilla.com/%PRODUCT%/support/: If a person is looking for Firefox support on the web, they are going to go to the Firefox website. If a person is looking for Thunderbird support on the web, they are going to go to the Thunderbird website. If a person is looking for SeaMonkey support on the web, they are going to go to the SeaMonkey website. If a person is looking for Camino support…well, you get the idea. The support indexes at www.mozilla.com/support/ and www.mozilla.org/support/ are redundant, and give the user a lot of info that may not apply to that user. In almost all cases, a user is looking for info about one product. The biggest offender of this is actually the MozillaZine Knowledge Base. For example, if a Firefox user is directed to the profile folder page, they are bombarded with profile locations for Thunderbird, Sunbird, SeaMonkey, and told about files that don’t exist in Firefox profiles. A SeaMonkey user may be taken to a page written for Firefox users. It simply has a note at the top saying “this page also applies to blah, blah, and blah.” Meanwhile that page may contain UI directions, that are different in SeaMonkey. Having one page for all products might be beneficial for maintainers; but it’s a lot of unnecessary confusion for the user. Support web content should be split by product from the get-go. Maybe even split by version.
  • Search: I’ve mostly taken care of this on Firefox and Thunderbird Help sites, but I just want to explain the philosophy. I found this comment on Eric Shepherd’s blog very interesting: “I tried to call their customer service (ha!) but on top of their horrible support they’ve added an obnoxious automated system that insists on making you jump through the hoops you used to be able to demand they not make you jump through (admittedly with varying degrees of success).” Too much automation can be a bad thing; and while we discuss methods improving self-help, diagnosis and solutions need to be quick. There cannot be so many steps, that the process becomes a hassle. When I have a problem with any product, the first thing I look for is a search engine. I go to the Help menu, open the help viewer, and do a search there. If I don’t find what I need, I go to the product site, and look for a search field for the online help documentation. If I don’t find what I need, I look for a support forum, and try find a search field for that. These functions already exists for Firefox, but need to be obvious/convenient. The term I like to use for it is “unmissable.”
  • Use multimedia: I’m sure you all know the saying “A picture speaks a thousand words.” It is very true for user support. Many users tend to give incorrect terminology, or not understand the terminology we use. It’s amazing how much confusion can be avoided, by using screenshots. Screen videos are even better. Are you familiar with the CustomizeGoogle extension? Are you familiar with what it does, or how to use it? Go to customizegoogle.com, and view the introduction video. I doubt you’ll find many people who won’t know what the extension is, or how to use it, after viewing that video. Apple is doing the same thing, to give folks a preview of Leopard.
  • Designate responsibility: The Mozilla Organization is great, how it organizes and coordinates Mozilla development. There are project leaders, module owners, etc.. That hasn’t really happened with Mozilla User Support. One thing I’ve found about Mozilla support is that there are a lot of “Jacks of all trades”. Perhaps its just me who’s guilty of this. In addition to running the firefox support list, I also run the thunderbird, mozilla-suite, other, accessibility, and calendar support lists, as well as the test, and test-multimedia list. I answer questions in all of those lists, except for calendar and accessibility. I contribute to the www.mozilla.org support site, as well as maintain my own website, which not only requires knowledge of support issues, but knowledge of web coding (HTML,CSS,etc.), and the need to proof-read and organize everything, and keep it all updated with every new release. I often find myself spread too thin; and perhaps there are others in the community doing much of the same. There needs to be more designation of responsibility. Thunderbird helpers should leave Firefox support to someone else, and vice versa. Designate people for adding content to documentation. Designate others, who know a thing or two about the English language, for proof-reading, and others, with web-coding knowledge, for presentation. Instead, we’ve got people who answer questions in support forums, providing web-content, and doing all of the above. It may not seem like a lot of work at first, but the more web-content there is, the more maintenance needs to be done, when the product is updated.

Other

  • Private support: It’s inevitable. Mozilla is going to have to start offering private support sooner or later. The only current private option is a whopping $40 USD. You know that feeling you get after you’ve bought a printer for a great price, then see the price of an ink cartridge for that printer? The private option is usually that taken by those who don’t want to “test the wild” of public support, or aren’t familiar with certain technologies. How many Firefox users are familiar with IRC, newsgroups, or even web-forums? I think it’s safe to assume that most, if not all Firefox users have a phone, or iphone unlock ….an email address. The support mailing lists used to get a lot of non-members posting, thinking that address was for private support. I don’t know what the cost of offering private email support is; but I really like that, as a new support venue.
  • Certifying experts: Don’t you hate it, when someone who claims to be an expert, starts giving the most BS answers you’ve ever read? Or even worse, a community troll starts deliberately giving users bad advice. One incident that sticks in my head, is in the days of Netscape 6/7. A user was having trouble installing Netscape, and one person suggested they take the Netscape CD, and put it in the microwave for a couple of seconds. The user followed that advice. Users need some sort of assurance, that the help they are being given is from an expert. This is separate from moderators, because being good at helping users does not equal being a good forum moderator, and vice versa. And those who are certified, can take that title to any third party Mozilla support forum.
  • Make a better product: Okay, this isn’t really a support issue. 🙂 I just sometimes feel guilty, telling people about a product upgrade. You still need a computer guru to install add-ons in Thunderbird, there’s still no UI for backing up your Thunderbird profile, you still lose bookmarks, and they still eat memory like a pig…but now you’ve got live titles and a new theme. There’s only so much good user support can do.
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One commentcomments7

  1. I think the big part missing out of the “designating responsibility” part of all this, is coordination. A lot of us are doing a great job supporting whatever products we like to support, and in the form we like to give support, but getting people from all of these areas (IRC, newsgroups, forums) in one place to make sure every area has the most current knowledge has seemed impossible so far. This is the part that makes me most excited about official support. No matter where you like to give support, in theory everyone will be feeding back to the official source new problems and new fixes.

    I disagree with splitting people by application. For most basic user problems, the issue is in the profile and that doesn’t change much between app. I’ve taken up doing Thunderbird support on IRC out of necessity and the only real stumbling block I’ve hit is not having the documentation to look up more complex issues, like what customizations are possible and which need an extension. The forums are great if I get my search terms right, but there is no catalog of all of mail’s config entries like there is for Firefox (unless I’ve just completely missed it?). I’ve also known what to do right out of the box for some TB issues because they were so similar to Firefox issues that I already knew how to solve.

    Of course, when it comes to creating support module owners, yes, splitting people up makes sense, but when it comes down to people volunteering and fielding questions, I think you run the risk of creating more gaps in the coordination and that leads to less communication, and less sharing of knowledge.

  2. I wanted to comment on a few other parts, but didn’t want to write an essay. I love your idea of certifying experts. I’m sure this won’t just give users people they should be able to trust, but it will attract people into doing support. I know a lot of people that would take a lot of pride in being specially certified, especially if it came with a neat little card you could actually show people.

    Your last part, it is a support issue. We see problems users that the devs might not realize are upsetting people, or hitting as many people as they thought. I have a wonderful advantage, doing my support 6 feet away from mconnor’s desk, and being able to throw stuff at him if he ignores me, but I don’t believe anyone else has as good a way of letting the team know something is biting users hard. This advantage also disappears for me if I find something in TB rather than firefox (like prefs.js getting reset and account info being lost on reboot).

    There have been comments lately of the devs and QA wanting to know what’s going on with users, calls for people to try and sort the hendrix data. Support providers would be incredibly effective at processing the hendrix data. We’ve helped enough people to know what “I have a red arrow at the bottom” and “my searches are gone” actually mean.

    So it looks like we have answers and no real place to share them, and they have questions, but no good way to get answers. We should definitely see about fixing that.

  3. This is *terrific* feedback. I’m going to share this with the team here at Mozilla that’s moving the end user support effort forward from our end (Sam Sidler, Chris Hoffman JT Batson, Jay Patel), and ask them to make sure you’re involved in a meaningful way.

  4. The certifying expert thing reminds me of something chris, like… http://mozillachampions.ufaq.org/members.html ? 😉

  5. about:support(diagnostics)

    The Nightly Tester Tools Add-On already pulls most of this information so co-opting it should be easy. I have added this comment to the bug.

  6. …, there’s still no UI for backing up your Thunderbird profile,

    I think I’ve used MozBackup twice and it’s a great tools to backup your Mozilla products profile.


  7. Search: I’ve mostly taken care of this on Firefox and Thunderbird Help sites, … If I don’t find what I need, I go to the product site, and look for a search field for the online help documentation. If I don’t find what I need, I look for a support forum, and try find a search field for that. These functions already exists for Firefox, but need to be obvious/convenient. The term I like to use for it is “unmissable.”

    Do we need a Firefox/Thunderbird Help search plugin to go with google, amazon, etc available in the top right hand corner? Maybe one that autmatically picks up version info to use where appropriate – querying the knowledge base or product site?