I’m amazed by the quality of information available on this forum (and others), and at the phenomena of tech forums in general. It is a new model of technical support; one that significantly cuts costs for manufacturers, and improves the breadth and depth of of information available to users. But what brings this phenomena about? What human drives nurture it? And, what are the threats to a forum’s health and how can it be nurtured?
Those questions have been churning around in my head, and so accept this as an attempt to answer them, and to participate in some strategic way in the continuation and growth of the Particle forum.
Some background, and many of the other gray hairs here will relate. I’ve been working with uP and code since 1977, beginning with an Intel 4004 and moving up through 8080, 8085, 8086 and 8088 and on and on. In 1977 there was no such thing as tech support (unless you were a huge company on Intel’s radar) and there were no forums, but there was a very well written data book. You had to read it, from the beginning, then go back and read it some more.
In 1979 I started a company making educational CPU boards based on the Intel uPs. I did provide tech support by phone, and learned that my best first line of defense was a clear and well written user manual. The products were sold as kits, needing assembly, and coding was done by manually converting mnemonics into bytes and typing them into the uP with a serial monitor.
Next there was MetrByte. We made dataAcq hardware and software for the PC.
Next and last was Measurement Computing, also with dataAcq for personal computers but the software and hardware were getting ever more sophisticated.
In both those companies I personally provided technical support, then managed technical support groups, then managed the manager. I also wrote tens of thousands of pages of user docs. Understand that I do know about providing technical support to embedded products sold primarily to technical people, and the docs and software tools needed to minimize that expense.
Here is what stuns me about this (and other forums). A huge burden has been lifted off the manufacturer by those experts (here called Elites) and experienced regular members who voluntarily assist new users with simple problems, and all users with ligitmately challenging problems. The expense trasference from manufacturer to the contributors is huge and valuable.
Why do they (contributors) do it?
Why would anyone contribute to a company’s bottom line by off-loading their technical support cost, for free?
Other than the occasional tidbit of wisdom gained, and possibly the sense of community, I believe the high quality and volume of forum contribution comes from what Daniel Pink (Drive) identifies as the three most important aspects of work: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. Pink asserts that if an organization can provide the opportunity to experience autonomy, mastery and purpose, it will recieve in return an output of quality and quantity of work not possible with other rewards.
Forums are an ideal expression of all three, and I believe the most perfect proof of PInk’s thesis.
Autonomy: Contribute when you want to, as much or as little, and as deeply into your favorite subject as you wish.
Mastery: Forum expertise promotes your personal mission to achieve mastery in a subject. On the forum that mastery is generally recognized in Reputation (Stack Overflow, etc.) or becoming an Elite, here.
Purpose: Problem solving is possibly human-kind’s most natural purpose. Communicating the solution to others is next in line.
With so much to offer the contributors, with such a perfect outlet for the three aspects of Drive, what could possibly threaten to cause contributors to lose interest?
It has been happening on Stack Exchange for a while, and is the subject of much debate there. More and more quesitons are going unanswered and the elite members are expressing more and more frustration with questioners who don’t do their own research, don’t read whatever documentation they have, and don’t search forums for answers before posting.
My opinion is that it will be coming to a Particle forum near you, and soon.
More and more posts are rehashing the same old problems. More and more new users are asking the same questions, and expressing previously expressed frustrations. Experience on other tech forums has shown that eventually, help for the new users drops off.
Particle cannot afford that. It is a commercial venture where every customer counts and you can’t sort out the someday-OEM volume customer from the one-off hacker during the intitial experience. They both look the same from the tech support facing personnel and forum contributors. Particle will lose potentially valuable customers to a company that provides a smooth and well documented initial experience. Providing that experience is something established organizations understand, and why startups are so often not the long term beneficiaries of the markets they pioneer.
It is time for Particle to offer clear, step by step documentation, and not the blog-like web documentation it relies on today. It’s time to provide IDE’s without non-standard naming behavior and other quirks.
For the Photon, the best documention example I’ve seen so far is the new book on the Photon. Sadly, its not even available in the store (7AM EDT 7.13.15). Creating documentation of that calibre is a monumental task, but it is nescessary. HIght quality instructional documention is worth money (sales). I’ve experiened it! In my first startup, I was approached by Hitachi ( and recived a lucrative flow of revenue from them) becuase they were impressed with the quality of the documentation.
The Forum provides Particle an opportunity for a large expense-transferance, but it does so at a price. While Particle can reasonably expect experienced contributors to enjoy contributing meaningful content, it must respond to repetitive and boring problems in the intial experience with a support outlet for those folks at Particle’s expense and staffed by Particle employees. It must create and support the kind of documentation and robust software that minimizes the requests for routine help.
Continued reliance on the forum without a strong improvement in user docs could push the forum toward a morass of unanswered questions from frustrated initial-experience (soon to be not) customers. A problem that other forums are struggling to solve today.
Autonomy is the freedom to contribute; or not.