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ExpressionEngine Support Forums: Is There a Better Solution?

Many folks know of Hop Studios (and my) long and supportive, if arms-length and “openly honest”, relationship with EllisLab.

Recently, a long thread about customer support started up in the ExpressionEngine forums, and I was going to post a simple response there… but then realized I had more to say than just a simple response.

I used to come to the EE forums frequently—sometimes daily—to:

  • ask support questions
  • look for how-to advice
  • download add-ons
  • get support for add-ons from other developers
  • upload and support my own add-ons
  • find out about community news

And when I came to the forums, I took part in the community, and answered other questions—just like I did today (I came with a question and stayed for a bit of discussion, which prompted this post).

But in decision after decision as EllisLab has changed the forums, their attitude generally seems to treat developers like “kids” they want to keep off “their” grass.

  • They delete old posts (that, true, are often no longer relevant) which causes the oldest members to have post counts that appear as low as newcomers (I have made thousands of posts, but my counter currently says something around 400.)
  • They merged and demoted forums for add-on developers
  • They told developers to distribute and support their add-ons elsewhere
  • They started closing threads after a short time in an attempt to make forums into support tickets. Those threads, for me, often provided jumping off points for followup questions or related issues. I almost always used to try to find an old thread, and add to it, when I had the same or a related problem. Then I’d get in a discussion with people who shared my same issues.  Now, users have to start a new thread, and thus their experiences are not shared.
  • Tangentially (because what’s a blog post without a tangent) when they released documentation for EE2, they purged all the user-submitted annotations instead of bothering to keep the ones that were still appropriate; even though most of the old advice was valid in EE2. Again, it’s a case of ignoring or demoting value in non-EL provided material, and the feelings and effort of the people who contribute on an ongoing basis.

The line from the company in the thread that got me riled up talked about the unsustainable “unlimited free support” that they are considering doing away with.  But that line just isn’t true: It’s only “free” if you have never upgraded EE, which, presumably, means you won’t be doing much that’s new with your site.  Plus, you’re I’m sure you’ve all encountered the “are you running the latest version of EE or else we can’t help you” response from tech support. Basically, if you continued to upgrade your software, you continued to pay EllisLab for support.

Besides, ultimately, I believe support for older versions leads customers to eventually pay for a new license; the opposite, poor support (or no support), certainly won’t drive continued usage and upgrades… because people won’t keep using your software.

* * *

EllisLab, I feel bad for you, I really do.  You say you have many, many new people using the new version of EE, and that forum response time is the victim of success.  Well, unless all these new people are somehow getting a much cheaper version of EE than I am, you’re making as much money off new licenses as you ever used to.

So look past the stock answer (Basically: “your question is important to us, but we’re receiving higher than normal volumes of questions! Please stand by!”), and see what else has changed.  Look at who has stopped using the forums, and why, look at why people are currently using the forums, look at how the community is changing, and re-tool to meet their needs, not yours.

For instance, here are a few (possibly wrong, but quickly brainstormed) ideas:

* Set a better response time promise than “same business day” for the only support mechanism that you offer to paying customers. Fast response time means less time spent overall in back-and-forth, which means less time spent overall per post.

* Re-enage developers by bringing them onto the forums: Promise faster response time for people who have met a certain level of forum posts. Offer discounts on software to top forum posters.

* Make better, more obvious links between bug reports and forum threads when that’s a solution to an issue;

* Improve the forum search; it could be much better

* Change your forum titles from “Summer Student”, “Grad Student” to something that means something real—quick, is a research assistant better than a lab assistant, and what does either have to do with EE?

And lastly, @rmedek hit another nail on the head:

The biggest issues, in my perspective, are:

The high number of support requests dealing with EE 2.x bugs and broken features.

The higher number of support requests which aren’t answered by the community.

EllisLab doubled the price of ExpressionEngine; continued the trend of addressing missing features by pushing third-party products; forced support of third-party products out of the EE forums; changed the support forums from a typical open-ended thread to a “support ticket” style. It just seems that EllisLab wants the community to be a group of paying customers receiving terse but accurate solutions to small problems, when what it had before was a large group of freely contributing clients and developers. I get some of the reasoning for wanting to focus the support model, but it seems EllisLab threw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak.

Support requests for bugs are the most wasteful kind of support request.  It goes something like this, I spend an hour troubleshooting what turns out to be a bug; I finally turn to the forums and post an question, you spend ages troubleshooting, too, and finally it becomes a bug report, which doesn’t get fixed for three months; meanwhile, the process repeats for every copy you sell where someone else stumbles across the same problem.

Test properly and fix bugs faster, and you solve a very big part of the forum problem—I would be very curious to analyze how many of the last, say, 500 forum posts were bug related, compared to two years ago…

And, let me end by saying.. this is posted with nothing but good wishes for improvement for all our sakes. The disconnect here is really puzzling to me.  Leslie (and Lisa and Sue and John, etc.) all actively and effectively do a great job reaching out and helping EE users on a daily (hourly!) basis, and the company goals are laudable in their efforts to empower and assist the EL customer. Nevertheless as a company, many of your policies and decisions in the past two years have me feeling like you’re more and more insular and brisker—less accessible and supportive and friendly. And I’m seeing more and more of my colleagues drifting away from EE because of it.

This trend needs to end.

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