Working for Postbox

I’m happy to announce that I’ve started working for Postbox, doing user content and support.
This means that I won’t have time for some of my commitments within Mozilla. Over the next while, I may be cancelling or transferring some of my projects and responsibilities.

Reply to Walt Mossberg – Native apps vs web apps

I recently listened to an episode of the Ctrl-Walt-Delete podcast, in which Walt Mossberg and Nilay Patel talked about web browsers vs native mobile apps. There was something Walt said that I have to comment on, because I disagree with it, and a tweet just isn’t enough. 🙂

When explaining why most people use native mobile apps, he argued that the main reason is because an app (when done right) offers a more focused experience, He cited Google Maps as an example.

I don’t think it’s that complex. I think it has more to do with how fast you can get there. If I want to use Google Maps, it’s quicker and more convenient to tap on the Google Maps icon than it is to tap on the browser, then pull up a list of bookmarks, and tap on the Google Maps bookmark. That has nothing to do with the experience of using the app.

I’m not saying that’s the only reason people use native mobile apps. I think most other differences have a minor effect on the user’s decision, and how fast and convenient it is to get to the app is probably the biggest factor.

Do you need to install Flash anymore?

If someone asks “Do I need Java“, my answer is a) most people don’t need it, and b) to find out if you need it, remove it. I did that many years ago and haven’t needed it. I’ve been hoping to reach the same point with Flash. I’d try disabling it, but there are two sites I regularly visit, which sometimes require Flash – Youtube and Facebook (for videos). Last year, Youtube switched to HTML5, and recently I found that Facebook started using HTML5 for videos, so I decided to try disabling Flash again. This time, I was pleasantly surprised at how many websites no longer use Flash.

Using Firefox on a late 2013 Macbook Pro, here is a list of sites I’ve found work well with Flash disabled:

  • Youtube
  • Facebook
  • Thestar.com
  • Instagram
  • CNN
  • CNET
  • Vimeo
  • Dailymotion

There are still some holdouts. In my case, I’m really affected by CTV Toronto News requiring Flash. I also wanted to watch an episode of Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee, and that required Flash. Others:

  • BBC
  • Hulu

I emailed CTV, and here’s the response:
At this time we currently do not have any future plans to support HTML5. Regardless, your comments have been forwarded to our technical team for review.

I’ve decided to switch back to thestar.com for local [Toronto] news, now that they’re over their Rob Ford obsession.

And with that, I can keep Flash disabled. Every now and then I may require it to view some web content, but for the most part, I don’t need it.
Flash has been thought of as a must-have plugin, but after disabling it, that wasn’t the case for me. A lot of the web has already switched to HTML5. Try disabling Flash for yourself, and enjoy so much more battery life!

Need help with Firefox in Toronto?

If you need help with a Firefox problem and live in Toronto, send me an email and I can meet you in person at a public place to help solve your Firefox problem.

I’ve been wanting to put together some sort of system to allow support community members to schedule in-person sessions with nearby users at either public places or Mozilla offices. The biggest barrier of quality for online support is communication. We rely on the user to describe their problem through mostly text, and they usually don’t give all necessary info. That’s why we try to use screenshots and videos. Being able to provide in-person support not only eliminates that barrier, but it showcases the power of community in a big way that creates a great support experience.

There’s no system like that for Mozilla, but that doesn’t prevent me from doing it on my own. 🙂

Tips on how to deal with disgruntled users

This is something I’ve been wanting to write about for a while. In many community driven support venues, I see some bad patterns in the way users are treated. People who may be knowledgeable about Firefox end up giving bad user support, because they’re not being empathetic or approaching support with the intent of helping users.

Reasons for this?

  • Even with real names, many people behave less empathetic on the internet. It’s too easy to compare home insurance companies and forget that the person you are talking to is a real human.
  • The people helping are mostly volunteers, who don’t feel obligated to be nice, or represent Mozilla.
  • Also with volunteers, many are involved in support simply because they know the technical solution to some issues, and have no formal training in support.

Those factors tend to create a community of geeks lacking the social skills to help novice users. Most people in the community just haven’t considered this. If a fellow user is being uncivil, it’s natural to flame back.

It’s important to remember:

  • Empathy: If you have a problem with your cable, and call your cable company tech support, how would you like to be treated? They would never say “PEBCAK” or “RTFM“.
  • The user is having a problem with Firefox, and it’s obviously of some importance to them, because they made the effort to find the support venue, register, and post about it. If they’ve gone that extent, we should expect a level of frustration. It would be nice if most users posting in a support forum were calm and civil, but that’s not the nature of the beast.

I’m not saying the customer is always right; I’m saying don’t argue with them. Here are some tips everyone can use when giving technical support:

  • Remind yourself of your purpose there. It should be to help others, not to show off your knowledge of Firefox. Don’t expect to be treated like royalty by users, just because you’re helping them. “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you” does not fly with software users. If you don’t think you’re getting enough appreciation, let it be known to the forum manager, not the user.
  • Packaging, packaging, packaging! Almost any criticism of the user can be phrased in a way that appears helpful rather than confrontational. If your mind says “How in the world am I supposed to help you, when you provide no details and no URL? I’m not a mind-reader“, then say “We’ll need some more info about your Firefox setup. Here are the details we need and how to provide them…” There’s a big difference between telling a user he/she should have searched the web before posting, and letting them know that they can search the web before posting.
  • You can calm a user down by explaining things. Frustration comes from lack of understanding. A couple of years ago, I went to see my dentist about a pain I was having. He showed me an x-ray of my tooth, explained what the problem was and why it was happening. He then told me what he planned to do to fix the problem, warned me of any side-effects, and told me how much it would cost. I walked out of there feeling much more confident and relaxed about the situation. I also thought “So much of that applies to user support“. Instead of simply giving the user instructions on how to fix a problem, explain what you think the cause of the problem probably is, and what the solution is. Then tell them how to carry out the solution.
  • If you’re not having the same problem as the user, say so. It doesn’t directly help the user, but it shows that you’re making an effort to help, which the user will appreciate. It shows that the problem may not be a bug, which will discourage other users from chiming in just to rant about the product. It encourages people to give details, which a good user support person loves like crack.
  • Act as if you are talking to the user in-person.
  • Don’t get hung up on protocol. This is something I see a lot of in newsgroups. If the user starts a new thread to respond to your reply in the original thread, or puts the entire question in the subject and nothing in the message body, mention it, but don’t focus on it. That takes focus away from the issue they posted about. Better yet, don’t mention it at all until after you’ve solved their problem. At that point, they will have gained some respect for what you have to say.
  • If the user just wants to argue, disengage. Some users just want to rant. It’s good to offer to help and direct them where to submit feedback, but if you’ve already done that and they continue to rant, leave it alone.

Quantity vs quality is hard. With SUMO focusing on making sure every question gets answered, making those answers better quality can take time away from another user getting any answer at all. One good way to solve that is snippets that provide good detailed explanations, instructions, and links. Right now, you can use an extension called Clippings, which allows you to automatically paste canned responses you’ve saved. It works on both Firefox and Thunderbird, so you can use it on web-forums as well as mailing lists and newsgroups. You can find a list of canned responses to use on the Mozilla wiki. Soon the SUMO support forum will have canned responses built in.

What should Mozilla do when a volunteer is not being empathetic?

That’s a natural extension to the above issue. I have some scattered thoughts on that. I still need to organize them, and will probably start a thread in the SUMO community forum to discuss.

If you’ve made it this far into this blog post, thanks for reading.

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SeaMonkey Help is back…with screencasts!

Back in 2007, I stopped maintaining my SeaMonkey Help website. Others took over maintaining the site, but it wasn’t long before they stopped maintaining it as well. That wouldn’t be a big deal if it weren’t for one thing: SeaMonkey 2. SeaMonkey 2 was a huge change, making most of the site incorrect.

I recently decided to revive the website, and at least bring it back up to date. In addition to correcting out of date content, I had learned a lot about technical writing from working on the SUMO project, and wanted to apply that to my SeaMonkey Help site. I also had the tools to make screenshots and screencasts and learned the enormous value they add to support.

As I started looking at all the things I need to do to update the site, it was clear that this was a huge task. For over 200 items, I had to:

  • convert markup to HTML5 (to include screencasts)
  • remove obsolete content
  • test each help item to see if it still applied to the latest version of SeaMonkey
  • fix the text content (and markup)

And all of that was before enhancing the content with screenshots and screencasts.

I was in the shower, taking some rain shower on the body and thinking about how to plan this massive update, when I thought “Why am I even bothering to provide text and images, when I can replace it all with screencasts?

  • Updating the markup is dead easy.
  • The understandability goes way up.
  • I have section indexes, and the page titles are searchable, so finding pages should not be a problem.

For some of the content, text is better, and any css that needs to be copied was added below the screencast, so there are some exceptions. But for the most part, it is a screencast-only help site

When all you want to know is if the bug is fixed

For some specific bugs, I’ve added myself to the CC list, because I’m interested in knowing when the bug is fixed (and maybe when the target has changed). Problem is: because there has been a lot of discussion in a few of those bugs, I’ve been getting a lot of bugmail that I’m not interested in. I don’t want to remove myself from the CC list, because I still want to be notified when the bug is fixed.

I don’t know if I’m the only one with this issue, so I thought I’d share how I fixed it.

In my Bugzilla Preferences, there is an Email Preferences tab that allows me to choose what changes I get emailed about based on my relationship to the bug. In it, I turned off most options for when I am a voter of a bug. Then, for any bugs in which I only care if the bug is fixed, I vote for it instead of adding myself to the CC list.

I made that change over a week ago. So far, so good.

What is compacting folders in Thunderbird, and why you should do it

Are your Thunderbird folders taking up a lot of disk space, even though you only have a few messages? Is Thunderbird slow to open folders? It’s probably because you have not compacted your folders.

When you delete a message, it doesn’t really get deleted from the folder. It gets marked as deleted. Thunderbird sees that marking, and knows not to display the message. Compacting a folder will command Thunderbird to remove all messages marked as deleted from that folder.

To compact your folders, go to the File menu and select Compact Folders.
To compact an individual folder, right-click on the folder and select Compact.

If you’re having any issues, post in the Thunderbird Support forum at https://support.mozillamessaging.com/en-US/kb/ask