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February 6, 2010

Collaboration and Crowdsourcing

The system is what the user makes of it -- the system is what the user brings to it. That's the essence of social sites, compared to crowdsourced sites.

Crowdsourcing fails and usually sucks, unless you have a community of people who actually know what they're talking about. So while everyone in the industry has been hyping social for several years now, it's not because authoritative, editorialized, expert content is actually going to die or go away. It's because we're just now getting the technology that ALSO affords other people the ability to create and partcipate.

In other words, I'm not arguing that the mode of collaboration will replace information-seeking behaviors -- i.e. seeking authoritative information from editorially controlled, expert-to-novice systems. Even if it's entertainment we'll still have experts who'll create widely disseminated works that other people consume without offering any collaboration. And now, joy, we can also watch people getting kicked in the nuts on YouTube.

In HCI we used to hear (like in the 90s and early naughties) that a major failing of PCs was lack of collaborative features. Lots of companies tried -- anyone remember the awful, clunky whiteboard-sharing professional applications from back then? It was a holy grail of sorts -- there was such a perceived efficiency increase in offering true remote-collaboration tools that lots of software companies spent a lot of effort writing a lot of software to solve the problem. (When your company creates an efficiency in the marketplace, you probably get a lot of money.) It hasn't been until recently, i think, that technology has gotten good enough to support truly useful collaborative tools:

  • Wireless. Between smartphones and scads of 802.x networks, it's pretty easy to always be talking to the network.
  • Device size. Extremely powerful devices are extremely small.
  • Bandwidth: there's enough of it that you can screen share, desktop share, video chat, whatever -- all while recording your screen and audio AND browse the web.
  • Browsers & web technology: XMLHttp and really powerful javascript have (1) made web front ends a suitably dignified and powerful system for hardcore engineers to spend years of their careers on. (2) they are able to invent and build robust, fast applications that do really cool stuff.

So it's not that the former needs to research and consume information are obviated. It's just that finally, since maybe 2005 or 2006, we're really able to start satisfying the collaborative needs that have been extant and unsolved since the beginning of personal computing. (Since the beginning of time if you want to get even more philosophical.)

In certain types of systems the whole is more than the sum of its parts. That's why you have collaboration; and if you can create a collaborative dynamic

Generally this is what Web 2.0 has been saying all along: the 2.0 web has highly personalized applications and a focus on user-generated content. This is different from crowdsourcing, however. Yahoo Answers! sucks because it's crowdsourced and most people are, shall we say, not exactly rocket scientists, so having them answer your question probably leaves you far worse off than having access to information from authoritative sources. (Even for something simple like "how long after each airing does iTunes release each episode of Lost?") But it's cheaper for Yahoo! to have its users make up answers to questions than for them to build a better search engine, much less hiring actual experts.

Facebook, however, isn't crowdsourced. Or at least it's not crowdsourced in the same way. FB doesn't replace authoritative content with the chatter of whichever eager-beaver member feels like commenting. If you put some work into FB -- in the form of setting up your contacts and maybe listing your preferences -- and occasionally post a photo or a status update, you are rewarded with a fairly low-key current of updates about people you know. If that is not a reward for you, I don't want to hear about it -- that's the purpose of the site, and if you don't actually find FB worth it, we both know you wouldn't be using it; thus, those who do use it obviously find it sufficiently rewarding to justify the effort.

For some communities, crowdsourcing works, primarily in a community of experts. Slashdot is good at this. They have enough really expert people and enough of a huge user base anyway that really robust, high-quality comments tend to move to the top of the stack in a reliable manner. In other communities, like, say, StackOverflow, there were very high-quality, difficult questions at first, getting answered with some truly robust and detailed technical discussions; in my view the quality of the conversation has gotten diluted a bit now that use of the site has spread a bit beyond the borders of hardcore experts. (It indicates that there's more of a benefit to asking questions than answering them; answering takes a fair bit of effort and the only reward is the artificial points & reputation system.)

The benefit that you get back depends a lot more on the expertise of the other people involved, rather than on your own effort.

Lampe and Resnick published a fantastic paper on Slashdot's community filtering at CHI 2004, and IIRC they said that it takes a community size of about 50,000 users to get sufficiently robust crowdsourced filtering.

February 5, 2010

Customer support is part of user experience...

UPDATE: I have found where the nerds have discussed such things: StackOverflow which I <3.

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Which is why at work I'm taking on the (currently not-unmanageable) job of responding to customer support requests.

However, I'm finding that gmail (we use google apps) is not really a good interface for doing this quickly. I want to be able to do things like bulk respond to a set of emails with the same message... Gmail has the canned responses plugin, but that doesn't cut it -- it's too slow to use.

So I just hooked Thunderbird into our support queue, and now I'm trying to figure out how to configure or optimize it for processing customer support emails. I'd also love it if it automatically kept stats or some how output to a CSV file on the number of emails processed through canned responses.

Or maybe I just need some lightweight CRM software. Hmm... I wonder what the best CRM solutions are for a small business? and how much can I expect to pay? If only there were a website with some reviews and a listing of top providers that would give me a sense of what to expect... (Okay, this is a shameless plug, since that's what ChoiceVendor does.)

  • Office Interactive: "All you need to run your business using one system". That scares me; I don't want to run my whole business on this. NEXT.
  • BatchBook: "Your Social CRM". I don't really want my CRM to be social. I want it to be efficient. This seems to be about within-company contact management, not CRM (remember, that would be CUSTOMER relationship management).
  • Relenta: "Can your email do this?" Again, seems more salesforce / lead tracking-focused.


Let's try investigating "Customer Support Software for small business".

  • Business.com -- ooh, that looks promising, they have a result in Google for "Small Business CRM Software: Customer Service Solutions | Business.com" (and I'm not going to link to it because I don't want to make them even more credible for their stupid site). Oh right. Business.com is a crappy AdWords linkfarm.
  • WorkEtc: Okay, again they want to manage my entire company. First, dont' want that, second, not authorized to make that decision, third, we're generally pretty happy with Google Apps. (Most of us worked at Google after all, and we're pretty used to their stuff.) However, maybe their Help Desk Software is what I want.

Why are there SO MANY crappy sites for small businesses, by the way?

Okay, now I'm back to Salesforce Service Cloud 2. I can't really see if it does what I need since I have to register to walk through their product demo. Annoying. I'm pretty sure I even have an account with them already, but I'm not going to bother to look it up just to see if they even remotely have what I need.

Open source help ticket system:

Kill me now. I don't want this attached to our bug tracking and I care about the interface and how fast it'll let me get through the emails in our queue. I don't want to have to install anything anywhere, either. Back to paid / hosted services....

Searching through the Thunderbird extensions for business, CRM, helpdesk, and related keywords yielded no results.

Okay, I'm hosed; I've now spent about 2 hours researching this and haven't come up with a satisfactory discussion or solution, so it's time for me to ditch the effort and just process the emails manually.

Le sigh.