August 26, 2011
Real Community Management: A Happy Story with a Grim Lesson
Yesterday, a Hacker News thread started about the recent yuilibrary.com site re-launch. The new template had drawn a good deal of praise from various Friends of YUI on the Internets over the previous few days, which made everyone feel pretty good.
But Hacker News lives very much outside the YUI community bubble, and feedback there was more mixed. One of the earliest comments set the tone:
While YUI is probably one of the best JS frameworks around the sloppy design of their webpage beats me. the yuilibrary.com looks so 90ish in its design.
Instead of letting the thread sit out there and rot, YUI engineer Ryan Grove quickly responded with:
What parts of it strike you as sloppy? How would you improve the design? We'd love to hear specific feedback.
And got comments like:
* Use a fixed-width site. Most people go for something like 960px. * Establish horizontal and vertical eyelines or columns. * If you're on Github, might as well use gists. Offer example projects as open projects on Github
+1 on the fixed width. I'm a developer, so I have a big monitor -- it's hard for my eye to follow sections of the document without lined up elements.
Trebuchet feels dated, especially when bolded and part of blue + orange scheme. That look was very trendy a few years ago. Also, too many faces. Two faces usually work fine...
... I know you have your own CDN but can we have back a "Download" button? I hate it when I have to search for 5 minutes to find out how to download something. It really makes me feel like the whole project is going to be a pain in the ass when even downloading it is hard.
About two hours later, Ryan responded again with:
Great feedback, everyone. I've pushed a few quick changes to address the low-hanging fruit: - We're now using Maven Pro for headings (no more Trebuchet). - Replaced Lucida Grande with Helvetica in the nav bar (sorry Windows users, you get Arial). - The site now has a max width of 1200px instead of expanding infinitely. This seems like a reasonable compromise, since any purely fixed-width design draws the ire of people who hate fixed-width designs. Keep the feedback coming!
We wanted to emphasize the CDN over downloads, but we clearly hid the download links too well. I've added a "Downloads" link to the "Quick Start" dropdown menu in the top nav bar, and we'll give some thought to adding a more prominent link somewhere on the front page. Thanks for the feedback!
Not everything got fixed immediately, but some easy changes got pushed right away. And just like that, comments like this started appearing:
Thanks! That's a pretty amazingly quick response and makes it way easier to find.
Wow, that was fast.
All of a sudden with all of rgrove's (YUI's) interaction, it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy about using YUI again. Great customer service does make a difference.
No doubt not everyone was 100% satisfied, but the thread stayed popular for a good part of the day, and I think most folks came away with the feeling that the YUI team was responsive and effective. After all, they were in fact being responsive and effective. All in all, a good result.
However, the lesson here for the field of community management (at least when it comes to software products) is actually pretty grim.
The idea behind community management is that rather than letting feedback sit out there and decay, you have a professional someone whose job it is to come in and keep things from spiraling out of control. Talk to the people. Gather up the features and bugs. Communicate changes. Let people know that you’re listening.
But “listening” and “participating in the conversation” are weak sauce, and everyone knows it. It’s action that matters.
Having a community manager who is also a working engineer or a product manager makes sense to me. Those are people who can push changes. The icing on the cake is if your product allows for pushing simple changes very quickly. But even without that, just having real authority and knowledge over the timeline makes a world of difference.
By contrast, the classic dedicated community manager is someone who is bright and socially adept, someone who can funnel information back and forth, but who lacks real product authority. After all, you don’t want to waste a product person’s time doing that stuff, do you? Way too expensive. And they would suck at it. No, you need someone specialized.
More and more, that whole line of thinking seems like a huge trap.