A victim of its own success

I was surprised to read last week that Atlassian — the maker of JIRA and Confluence — is closing down comments on its documentation.

Picture of a large crowd

What happens when you open up your documentation development process to the crowd?

I don’t use Atlassian’s products. But I know their reputation as a progressive, customer-friendly company. They’ve been ahead of most of their competitors in terms of welcoming customer feedback and thus building a community of users.

So why are they closing down their commenting feature? Basically because it worked too well.

Listen to this, from Nick Doherty, manager of Atlassian’s Information Experience (IX) group:

Committing to moderating page comments creates two huge problems: an ever-increasing amount of comments to moderate and, as a result, proportional overhead on the team. For a company of our size, it just doesn’t scale.

Doherty went on to note that only about 20 percent of the comments received were actually relevant to the documentation. (The rest were tech-support questions, requests for new product features, and general inquiries.) He promised to provide an easy way of guiding people to the right places to make those kinds of requests. And the popular Atlassian Answers portal remains in business.

So what happened at Atlassian? Simply put, Atlassian did everything right: they made it easy to comment, they publicized the commenting feature, their employees were receptive and responsive. The commenting feature proved so popular the company was overwhelmed.

What does that bode for the future of user-generated content? If Atlassian did everything right and the idea still didn’t fly, does that mean it’s impossible? Should we just go back to the old days of living in a bubble, isolated from our customers — perhaps saying “drop us a line, and we’ll respond if we can”?

Atlassian-logoNo and no. We can’t go back to the old days because customer expectations have changed. If we don’t accommodate our customers’ desire to provide feedback, someone else will. Third-party websites and aftermarket books will provide platforms for user-generated content — platforms over which our companies will have little or no influence in terms of managing messages and protecting our brands.

So we have to find a way to make it work. I think that Atlassian has given us a model. I won’t be surprised if Atlassian tweaks things, for example by finding a way to siphon off that 80 percent of irrelevant feedback, and comes back as strong as ever. Or, if not Atlassian, some other forward-thinking company will find the key.

Someone will have to find the key. When we talk about user-generated content, I don’t think failure is an option.

What do you think?

5 thoughts on “A victim of its own success

  1. Colum McAndrew

    Absolutely right Larry. We have implemented a feedback mechanism in our UA. Whilst we don’t expect to have the same level of feedback as Atlassian, we are prepared for a proportion of feedback not being related to the documantation. For example, we have systems to pass feedback onto our Support or Product teams.

    What I think this highlights is the need to be flexible is how we communicate with our clients. Why limit them the help feedback mechanism to only offering feedback on the help. In just the same way as clients phone up our Support staff with enhancement requests as well as product queries. It is all grist to the mill.

  2. Mark Baker

    One of the axioms of content strategy is that the customer does not care how your company is organized. Even as we place technical information online, we still segregate it between different departments — docs, support, dev, training — and get upset when comments meant for one department are posted on the content of another department.

    Except, of course, the comments were not meant for a department. The customer meant them for the **company**. They absolutely do not care about the distinction between docs, support questions, and bug reports. All they care about is “make it go”.

    Until we get past publishing by department (or, for that matter, organizing our communication functions along the lines of paper-age delivery mechanisms) we will continue to have these problems.

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Colum, Mark: I think you’re both saying that it’s important to have a switching mechanism that directs comments to the people who can best respond to them. I agree with you. As you point out, Mark, it’s futile to try to restrict the kinds of comments that are submitted.

      Colum, it sounds like you’ve just recently implemented your feedback mechanism. I’ll be interested to hear what you learn from the experience.

  3. Nick Doherty

    Hi Larry. Thanks for the write up. I totally agree with Mark’s point too – “one of the axioms of content strategy is that the customer does not care how your company is organized.” We are doing all we can to tear down those Chinese Walls between our content-producing departments – the changes are more visible internally than externally at the moment – and clear things up for our customers.

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      So glad you stopped by, Nick. I’m betting on you to find a way to tear down those walls. And when you do, I hope you’ll share your story.


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