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delirium happy

Just keep on trying till you run out of cake

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More on the FAQ
delirium happy
Following on from my poll the other day, I promised sarianna an explanation of just why the FAQs suck (which about 60% of those who answered my poll thought they did). There are, essentially two problems with the FAQs:

1. The backend sucks
2. The content sucks

The FAQ system was designed a long, long while ago, when LiveJournal was much smaller, had many fewer features than it currently does, and many fewer users than it currently does, an so on. At the time it was created, the FAQ system worked rather nicely. It's been sitting, largely untouched, for several years now, and is very, very dated, and it can't really cope with what's needed.

If I Were Queen™ then there are a whole lot of updates that I'd like to see to the FAQ system, such as markup, metadata, crossreferencing, keyword searches, and such like (actually, what I really want is a FAQ wiki, but that's never going to happen). Unfortunately, my plans for total world domination are still in their infancy, so I can't get my own way on everything. LiveJournal developers seem to regard this sort of thing as a low priority. In some ways, I agree with them: a new FAQ engine isn't as sexy as image hosting or phone posting or whatever. But generally, I think that usability is Important and that more manhours should be spent on it. However, it isn't my call, so I'll live with what's there.

Then there's the content. The problem with the content is that it tries to do too many things at once. The way that I see it, there are three main functions that the FAQ tries to fulfil:

i. A list of questions and answers, that people can use to look up things they're curious about.
ii. A complete end-user manual, explaining everything that LiveJournal can do.
iii. A tool for the support area, to make answering questions there simpler and less time consuming.

Take, for instance, the FAQ about custom friends groups. The real, basic, answer to the question would be one short paragraph and a couple of URLs. Instead, it's very manualish, with 15 paragraphs, 5 URLs, and 4 references. This is great if you want to read up about all of the capabilities of custom friends groups, but sucks if you just can't remember the URL to use for filtering your friends page. There's also a whole paragraph about errors with JavaScript, which is really unrelated to the actual question, but is useful for people doing support to just be able to point to a definitive reference and say "here: this answers your question" rather than having to explain JavaScript to everyone who asks.

The problem is that both the simple question and answer sort of reference, and the more thorough end-user manual type reference are both necessary, or at the very least desirable. And the support-oriented sections are also necessary given how the support area currently works (whether the way it currently functions is the best way for it to be run is another question entirely, but again, this isn't something that I have any control over).

So, with the problem in mind, the question becomes: how best to balance the three sections? Is it better to go too short, and leave out bits of information that some would find useful, or to go too thorough and make the most useful information difficult to hide? Historically, I think that the general priorities have been to have the FAQ as a support tool first, then a reference manual, and finally as a set of questions and answers.

Now, as you may have surmised from my general rantings, and from the fact that "last edited by rho" shows up at the bottom of several of the FAQs (example), this is the one thing which I actually can do something about. I do see some benefit to organising things that way. It means that all the information is available, if not easily accesable. If anyone felt like reading through the entire of the FAQ from top to toe, then it would almost certainly answer the vast majority of questions they could think up about LiveJournal, and several more besides. There's a lot of good information in there. The problem is though, that it currently stands at over 65,000 words. With the shallow tree structure that it has, it's damn near impossible to find anything most of it if you don't already know where it is. This means that people are less likely to look up their own answer and more likely to go and ask in support, which means that support gets swamped, which leads to an even greater emphasis on the FAQs being a tool of support, so that support can keep up.

On the other hand, if you get rid of a lot of the information, then there would still be a lot of support requests, about things that aren't explained in the FAQ, and which those doing support would have to explain in full every time. It would also mean that people wouldmn't even be able to look up the information for themselves, even if they wanted to.

Given the confines of the system, what I'm trying to do (and I say "I" as it is something of a one-person crusade: I'm not the only person currently involved and some other people are doing some stirling work, but I think that it's fair to say that I'm the driving force behind the movement) is keep all of the information, but reorganise it to make it at least somewhat more accessible. For instance, I pushed for the creation of the "quick answers" FAQ which just gives one line answers to some simple questions; I'm currently involved in trying to rewrite the whole FAQ to get rid of the purple prose and ambiguous wordings and to change tangential links over to "further reading" style (example) as opposed to inline (example) and generally make them more readable; and I'm trying to shift the content around within FAQs so that it's logically grouped together (for instance, until recently, much of the material about custo friends filtering was in the security settings FAQ rather than the custom friends groups FAQ).

Essentially, what I'm trying to do is make the FAQ not suck. Unfortunately, it still does suck. Which makes me incredibly frustrated, and leads to entries like Monday night's poll. If anyone has any useful thoughts on how to make the FAQ not suck, then please do share them.

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Wikipedia is so cool. :)

I agree with you about the FAQs - and I bet you know what my suggestion would be, don't you? (And I'm pretty sure what your arguments against it will be. ;))

But me being me, I'm going to g'head and say it anyway. What if a bunch of people, say, you, alsatia, other like-and-doc-minded people got together, and turned the FAQ into a Wiki, and then gave the completed project to Brad, or to Rah to give to Brad, or however it would go? Sure, it'd take a lot of time, effort, and self-startership, but one thing I know you have is self-startership and independence, which in some regards this project would also call for.

You do that, I'd say your world domination plans would be way on their way to fulfillment. ;)

There are two main drawbacks to that plan:

1. I lack the technical knowledge to do so.
2. Even if I did, nothing would come of it.

But other than those two tiny little problems... :)

(and yes, wikipedia is cool: Me on wikipedia)

(Deleted comment)
It's not just your users: all users are fuckwits. It's one of their defining traits. I remember seeing something a while back about how much of what appears on screen most people actually read, and it was disturbingly little. The basic message of it, was that if you want something to be read, make it short, punchy and simple. Don't bother with factual accuracy, or correct grammar or anything like that; just put in the shortest possible message that gets the rough message across. Which does actually relate to both your users and the LJ FAQ. This sort of hting would be much easier if people weren't morons.

It's not that it's a low priority with developers/employees; we've been aware of it for a long time, and we've got tons of plans to fix it. Problem is that the current technical limitations of MySQL prevent us from implementing any of them without upgrading, and we can't upgrade without giving the FAQs a dedicated machine (along with some other stuff that needs the newer version), and we can't do that when we're trying to keep the damn site running with every machine we've got.

Fair enough. I was basing my comments on dimly remembered memories of this. I know that it isn't top priority, and that keeping the site from shitting itself is, but it's been so damn long that it's easy to geet downhearted and feel as if you're pissing into the wind. Which you already know. I could rant and rave about this for hours, but 95% of what I'd have to say would be stuff you know already, so I'll stop.

I know, and I'm still working on it.

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