Feedback Loops

November 5, 2009 Answers — Kyle Wiens

I recently learned a lesson on the importance of feedback loops. We have lots of people participating in the Answers beta, and I reposted a couple questions there from our public discussion forums. I was hoping that it would produce some helpful solutions. My approach turned out to be a mistake, but not for the reason that you’d expect.

People actually posted several thought-out, interesting answers. The community voted some higher than others, and some of the answers . What did I do wrong? I got several answers to the user’s problem, a number of which looked viable to me. But I didn’t know which answer to accept! It turns out that the information that I think is useful is probably different than what the person who asked the question actually needs. I wasn’t able to honestly accept an answer because the question wasn’t mine!

Accept this

This really illustrates the need for our ‘accepted answer’ loopback mechanism. One of the really fun things about repair is that when you do find a solution, you know for a fact that it worked. There is no wishy-washy epistemological debate. Either what you suggested works to fix my problem, or it doesn’t. Accepting an answer communicates this success to the world, and to the person who posted the solution. This feedback is hugely encouraging to people posting answers.

Accepting answers solves an important issue with online communities. Troubleshooting forums are traditionally full of ‘hit and run’ questioners: people who post a single question and then disappear forever, never communicating the end result to the community members who tried to help. There are two problems with one-off questions: over time, it discourages established members from helping newbies, and it doesn’t indicate to people who stumble upon the forum whether what they are seeing is actually a useful answer. Establishing a social norm of saying ‘thank you, that solved my problem’ solves both these issues.

Two perspectives

The asker is not the only one who benefits from answers. There is another intended audience for the answers people post: the community at large. There are actually two right answers to every question: the response that fixed the asker’s problem, and the answer that the community as a whole finds most useful.

There is an immediacy to the first answer— we strive to provide timely, helpful solutions to problems people post. But what’s wonderful about our system is that it gets better with age! The more people vote up answers, the more views it will get and the more people will be able to edit posts to make them better.

When you help people here, you aren’t just writing answers to questions. You are building a long-term knowledge base of solutions to problems people encounter about devices. Because everything is editable, the answers to more popular questions will actually get better over time. The world needs this information.

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