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
  1. 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

  2. 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!