A proposal for effective, volunteer-friendly user support in LibreOffice

OpenOffice.org has failed to provide effective user support via email. LibreOffice can and should avoid the same mistake.

(important: this is just one of the Three things to not forget to make LibreOffice (and ODF) succeed!)

An office suite is (besides games, Web browsing and email) the only reason for many ordinary people to use a computer. Users of such programs often know little or nothing about how computers or the Internet work. There is nothing to be ashamed about this: I am just stating a fact that one should take into account when looking at how to best help such users. Another fact is that most of these people will only ask online for help once or twice in their life, without participating regularly in any kind of online user community.

Since its appearance, OpenOffice.org has had a mailing list to support such users. Here I am giving for granted that LibreOffice will or should the same, since email is still the preferred communication system for many people. For the reasons listed in the previous paragraph, it is unavoidable that such a support list must accept (after moderation) even messages from unsubscribed users.

So far, the OpenOffice.org users list has dealt with this situation in a very dumb, uneffective way. The next two paragraphs describe why that “strategy” doesn’t make sense and suggest a solution to implement in LibreOffice and, why not, even in OpenOffice.


How to make a mailing list useless

Unexperienced, unsubscribed users who post their once-in-a-lifetime help request can be excused if they forget to put a decent, that is meaningful subject to their email. But a technical support mailing list is successful if (among other things, of course) it reduces the need for always asking the same questions, by producing archives that are clear, search-engine-friendly “how-to” collections: archives, that is, in which it is evident from the very subject what solution is inside each message.

Therefore, subscribers who answer to help requests with an empty subject… without replacing it with a meaningful description of the problem are making a disservice to all end users of that program (OpenOffice in this case). Volunteers that do this systematically should not be allowed to continue their “support” activity. In the long term they do more harm than good.

But there’s another problem, much more serious. Most people who consciously subscribe to a volunteer support mailing list as ooo-users are people who want to help others for free, in their spare time, on a more or less regular basis. Such people are precious: they should not be bothered or forced to waste their valuable time. However, this is exactly what has been happening for years on the ooo-users mailing list.

Around 2002, or maybe even before, some now forgotten subscriber of the ooo-users mailing list, who surely meant well but had too much spare time and no clue about how email works, had a terribly dumb idea:

  • Q. If an unsubscribed OpenOffice user sends an help request to the list, by definition he or she won’t get all the replies sent to the list from subscribed users that provide a solution. How can we avoid this?
  • A. Whenever ANY list subscriber sees a list-only reply to an “email sent by an unsubscribed user”, he must resend that message both to the unsubscribed user AND to the list, so that all other subscribers who haven’t done the same yet will not send even more extra copies


Email isn’t a real time medium, so it’s impossible that all members of a mailing list will receive all replies in time to avoid multiple “resend”. Besides, recognizing “email sent by an unsubscribed user” is pretty tricky, depending on how that email was sent and what your email client is. The absolutely obvious consequences are that:

  1. a good part of the list traffic and of its archives doesn’t consist of useful answers but of many copies of the same replies, plus many rightly angry requests from other subscribers to stop the nonsense, plus endless explanation of “how to recognize unsubscribed users”…
  2. volunteers come and go, but only the good but clueless ones that sincerely believe that this is a sensible “strategy” remain to provide “support”. Sooner or later, almost everybody else eventually becomes too annoyed or embarassed to remain. Why subscribe to a mailing list that requires changing or complicating the configuration of one’s email program and wants to generate too many useless messages anyway?

To summarize: in order to (theoretically) make happy people who may need OpenOffice support from the list just once in life, let’s systematically make the archives useless and annoy dedicated volunteers with useless list traffic and ridiculous procedures. As you can see in the archives this is the “support” offered through ooo-users in the last 8 years.

Since 2002, I and others have suggested several times that this was a dumb idea, that it would have been much simpler and more effective to either “Reply to all” to all new messages from whatever address, or set up an automatic server-side auto-forwarder to unsubscribed users. All such proposals have been either ignored or dismissed with some explicit variation of “since I don’t know anything about email, what you suggest is wrong”, therefore perpetuating problem #2 above.


Here’s a proposal

The only reasons why I have put this page online is that LibreOffice and OpenOffice are too important for Free Software to provide such a disservice… but the “strategy” above has already reappeared on the TDF mailing list! (1). If the Document Foundation really wants to encourage wide participation it should not tolerate such “ideas”. So here’s my proposal for effective, volunteer-friendly user support in LibreOffice:

  1. set up the support mailing lists in such a way that they refuse messages with empty subjects or useless ones (“help”, “libreoffice”…)
  2. unsubscribe people who insist that harassing other volunteers with duplicated messages is a good idea
  3. insert in LibreOffice a “Click here for help” button that opens a form (in the users language) that:
    • automatically gathers relevant info (operating system, LibreOffice version…)
    • forces the user to insert both a meaningful subject (refusing stuff like “help”, “libreoffice” etc…) and a description of the problem
    • sends everything to the users support list for that language
  4. set up a Web form working in the same way for all cases (e.g.:”I can’t install LibreOffice”) where the system above is not usable
  5. Oh, and even if it’s another issue: add to the forms and to the LibreOffice splashscreen a notice that “this is Free Software, if somebody sold it to you and told you to ask the community for help, they ripped you off”

(1) not in that particular message, in the answers to that!

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10 thoughts on “A proposal for effective, volunteer-friendly user support in LibreOffice

  1. Sveinn í Felli

    Good proposals.

    #3 could say “Click here for help via email”
    The integrated help form and the web form could look/feel about the same, the former could gather more precise info on OS environment (if you accept to include this info), the latter might have some dropdowns and checkboxes for similar usage.

    Really liked #5

    regards

    1. marco Post author

      #3 could say “Click here for help via email”

      yes, of course. How it should actually work in detail can be discussed in a second moment. The basic point is to integrate as much as possible “helpdesk management” functionality in the program itself.

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  3. geoff_f

    A better way would be to ditch mailing lists via email and use web forums instead. Then, instead of being bombarded with thousands of emails that you’re not interested in, you could choose which topics to view, according to your knowledge level for each topic.

    That would solve all the problems outlined in the article.

    1. marco Post author

      A better way would be to ditch mailing lists via email and use web forums instead…

      Geoff,

      no, what you say it’s not a better way at all, It’s not even a worst way, it’s just something else. Sorry, but what you say has nothing to do with the problems outlined in the article. Do you really think you’re the first one since 2002 to have had this brilliant idea? Here is what I just answered on the TDF list to the millionth person since 2002 that said the same thing as you:

      there are many people who are only willing to provide free support through email (ie if they have to go to web forums, newsgroup or anything else they won’t do it, period, for reasons not even worth discussing here)

      The problem I describe did not happen because OOo had no support forum. They happened because many volunteers did not want to use them but the official mailing list sucked big time because of certain “policies”.

      Now, in my opinion, forums are very limiting and ineffective tools compared to email and mailing lists. But this is my opinion, so we can safely ignore it.

      What I know for a FACT, which is embarassingly evident from the ooo-users archives, is that, regardless of your opinion, there ARE many people who were only available to provide support by email, were driven away by the dumb strategies I describe in the article and never used the forums that OOo does have.

      So, if you want to engage those potential contributors too, you have to give them an email environment that is purged for good from certain bright ideas. If you don’t want that, no problem. The “form that sends the help request” can certainly send it to a forum instead of a mailing list, if that’s the only channel TDF decides to offer for LibreOffice.

      The above is what I wrote on the TDF list. If you need further confirmation that your proposal does nothing to solve the problem described here, please visit the TDF list archives yourself and check the discussion. After my announcement of this page there have already been people saying “tsk tsk if you just used web forums everything would go well” and others (NOT ME) immediately replying “I’ll never use anything so dumb and inefficient as web forums”. Call it religion, if you like, but saying “web forums are better” won’t change this fact. So the problem is if LibreOffice wants to take advantage also of this (BIG!) class of potential contributors, or only stick to those who don’t like email.

  4. AC

    marco wrote “there are many people who are only willing to provide free support through email (ie if they have to go to web forums, newsgroup or anything else they won’t do it, period, for reasons not even worth discussing here).”

    Um, no. To paraphrase: there are many people who are only willing to provide free support through [forums] (ie if they have to use [email] they won’t do it, period, for reasons not even worth discussing here).

    Unfortunately, the OO forums are poorly designed and are effectively unusable. A Slashdot-like web forum where unregistered members can post questions/answers would be more inclusive (though perhaps more troublesome). Allowing people to have accounts without giving out their email address would also make it more likely people would participate. Most average users are not going to subscribe to a mailing list – for a variety of reasons (including an aversion to receiving spam) – mailing lists exclude the very group that need help the most, the very group we want to attract. Offering help only via mailing lists is effectively the same to offering no help at all to most people.

    As an aside, reporting bugs needs to be easier, too – and not a futile endeavor (and bugs need to be investigated and fixed rather than ignored and/or denied).

    1. marco Post author

      Dear AC,
      your comment is the perfect demonstration of what I wrote: it is really not worth discussing what is better between mailing list and forums. Personally, I am sure that you are wrong and I may write a ten pages paper to explain why in all possible details with plenty of real world example. But it’s just my opinion, I have better things to do and above all it doesn’t really matter. Please read my other answers in this page. If the form I suggest points to a forum, OK for me. The only thing that matters is that, if it continues as I personally hope, mailing list based support is never done anymore as it has been done in these 8 years on the ooo-users list (see article): because its mere existence is a real embarassment, regardless of how many people use it.

  5. Twayne

    ALL of this belongs on the TDF forum, group or mailing list as the case may be. LibreO is going to be on new website from what I can gather and not this OO.o site. I’ve asked for clarification but no one will provide anything.
    At any rate, the TDF groups are where all the planning et al are being done, not here.

    HTH,

    Twayne`

    1. marco Post author

      ALL of this belongs on the TDF forum…

      Not at all (as you would know if you had carefully read the article and the comment I added yesterday). First, because the current protagonists of this mess on the ooo-users list started suggesting the same bright idea for LibreOffice. Second, and above all, because “this belongs to some internal mailing list” is exactly one of the reasons why this mess was tolerated 8+ years.

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