Comment on a question instead of answering it

Discourse is awesome and it helped us growing community around our open-source software tremendously, thank you!

We would like to improve user’s experience by answering all questions. However, too easy too hard, to too specific questions often remain completely unanswered, because nobody feels well suited to answer it. The result is simply “no answer”.

Is there any best practices how to avoid this situation? For example, is it possible to distinguish comments on the question itself (“I don’t know the answer, but I’m interested in this, too”, “This seems to be a basic question, somebody may answer but if not then look up in the documentation”, etc.) from proper answers?

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Stack exchange was designed exactly to solve that problem. Discourse is designed specifically to solve a different problem.

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Thank you, I know Stack Overflow has this feature, but in general a simpler, free discussion is preferable. We only miss the ability to give hints about why a question does not get a proper answer.

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Well, that’s why I ended up with Discourse as well.

I think that all you can do is to coach some people to provide discussion for those questions and why they aren’t getting answered in hopes of having that become a community norm.

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Discourse often provides ingenious solutions for these kind of problems (e.g., multiple people replying to a question does not happen since Discourse shows if someone has already started answering).

In case of not-responded topics, we could save time on training and make manual moderation easier if the system would help us, for example with any of these features:

  • be able to comment without answering (like StackOverflow)
  • allow adding auto-response to topics that did not get any response for x hours
  • be able to get notification about topics that remained unanswered for x hours
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This doesn’t solve your problem, but you can make unanswered topics more visible with the Unanswered Filter theme component. It adds an Unanswered button to your site’s navigation bar.

I’m not sure about the issue of being able to comment without answering. I do that all the time by creating a normal Discourse post. Usually it’s to ask for clarification of the question, or to try to get some details from the user that could help someone more informed than I am to answer the question. I don’t feel that this requires any special UI.

You can distinguish the accepted answer from other posts in a topic by encouraging questioners to mark the best answer to their question as its solution. To do this, make sure you have enabled the Solved plugin, and that it is either enabled on all categories on your site, or that it’s enabled in the category people are asking questions on.

A feature to auto bump unanswered topics sounds like a good idea to me.

It’s important to remember that Discourse is designed to be a platform for discussions. It is not question and answer software. Question and answer systems are great, but they do put a lot of restrictions on discussion.

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Thanks for the tips!

The “unanswered filter” would be a great solution, but this is where “commenting the question without answering” problem comes in: if I want to comment on the question something like “I don’t know, but I would be interested, too” (or add any other comment that does not actually answer the question) it still counts as an answer and so the question does not show up anymore as unanswered.

Accepted answer could be a good solution, too. We try to encourage users to use it, but so far with limited success. Maybe we should push it more and then we could start monitoring all questions without accepted answer instead of questions with no answers.

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Figuring out how to identify unresolved questions is an interesting problem. It’s something I deal with on Meta.

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I’m in the middle of considering how to handle question and answers on the forum I’m currently setting up.

I’ve gone into some detail replying to you because it is worth being clear about what we’re doing. I expect that you’ve seen many of the linked topics before but others may not have.

Looking at this topic critically as a Q&A topic.

FYI, I’m not looking to criticize you. This is how I look at Q&A topics.

I fell that your topic may discourage the answer you want. You’ve already presented ingenious solutions to your problem which partly close out the opportunity to discuss your broader issues.

I see four issues:

  1. Not keeping our eye on the goal. In other words, if our objective is to improve users’ experience by answering all questions then why make the topic focus on one technology solution. That’s probably why there is such a specific and limited response as the first reply - and Jay’s normally really helpful:
  1. Looking at this issue as it is a technology issue when it is as likely to be primarily behavioral. Jay Pfaffman also points out. By making it about narrow use of technology we are less likely to get useful responses.
  1. Providing no evidence of research on how to improve users’ experience by answering all questions. The Q&A (question and answer) model and its specific implementation at Stack Overflow has been discussed so many times here that there must be enough information to form a general plan to resolve your issues.

  2. Using terminology that confuses the issue and attempts to force Discourse into a different mould. A Q&A website has answers and comments but core Discourse only has replies.
    For example, you can already comment without answering so a Q&A distinction between answer and comment doesn’t apply in a general-purpose discussion forum.like Discourse.

Managing the issue

I think that you are looking at this issue at too low a level. it is worth managing such issues as if it is a non-IT issue:

  • Who is responsible for this? Who are the stakeholders?
  • How important is this to you and them, and to the users?
  • What resources do we have to work with? Do you need more?
  • What do people think? It’s usually worth getting user views and feedback.

Here’s an example with people and no technology:

  • Allocate responsibility for making this work, i.e. make sure that someone has the job of making this work. Use the levers you already use - KPIs, objective, goals, tasks, whatever -
  • Organize staff to make sure it happens, e.g:
    • roster supervision of forum support
    • assign targets or quotas - there will be a rush to resolve easy questions which is what you want
    • motivate e.g. awards, prizes, etc.
  • Get more volunteers to help i.e. like this site.

Consider the following approaches outside of Discourse

Ask the experts

I like this site because they actively use Discourse too.

See what others are doing

Look at what others have done to manage different types of questions e.g:


How the Discourse team manage support


How to encourage users to post


Empower the community


Add volunteer moderators.
Add more moderators to educate and assist users.

Maybe Q&A is too dominant

Maybe focusing more on the concepts of help and support is what’s needed. The Q&A format does have its weaknesses, e.g.:

Create model answers such as FAQs

The more uniform the types of problems then the greater the benefit from standardizing solutions.

Consider using the following Discourse-related features

View unanswered topics

Topics without replies can be unearthed by sorting any topic list view with a column for the number of replies. Save the web browser shortcut then you have easy access :
https://meta.discourse.org/latest?ascending=true&order=posts

Keywords

Create a home page

A home page can set the tone for users.

Use categories

You might benefit from creating lighter categories like “I was wondering …” or “Does this only happen to me?” to reduce barriers to participation.

Use tags

Assign tags for the status of a topic. These tags can be part of a tag group.

Solved plug-in

As a Discourse customer you get this in the base plug-ins but other sites have to add it:


Reduce the noise

Use core features to make the main questions and answers more obvious:

  • Close resolved topics.
  • Archive effective duplicates.

Assign plug-in

A plug-in on Discourse hosting. Assign a team member the responsibility for making sure that a topic is resolved:


Tickets plug-in

Assign tickets to users or staff. But not a Discourse hosting plug-in.


Q&A plug-in

Not an official plug-in but it isn’t indispensable to your goal given the other features:

Canned Replies plug-in

Save time repeating common responses to questions. This could also form the basis for some further automated responses:


Reply as Linked Topic feature

Split topics where the questions are different but related:

Combine this with the Solved plug-in to allow additional solutions to similar questions:

Linkify Words theme component

Creates hyperlinks for certain words. This could be used to link to FAQs, model answers, specific category, etc.

Abbrify Words theme component

Add the expanded terms to any abbrevation so users don’t have search online:

Restrict Replies plug-in

Restricts replies in a topic to specific groups e.g. the support team.

Data Explorer plug-in

For reports and analysis that can’t be provided in the core interface:


Saved Searches plug-in

Notify when search items are found. It could help staff to find the topics they support.

Voting plug-in

Vote on topics in a category has quite a few potentially useful options. This could be used to vote for topics of most interest to users. It could be used on resolved topics to indicate best questions or best solutions. Or it could be used to rank FAQs and best model answers.

AMA (Ask me anything) format

For example, to have an expert answer broader questions of interest.

FYI, a specialized AMA plug-in was started but has gone nowhere:
Plugin: Ask me anything or Q&A format (threaded replies)

Add a group chat channel with Discourse Chat Integration plug-in

Some questions are better chatted about because chat removes much of the weightiness and formaility that may being deterring some users from participating.


Add custom buttons etc to automate actions

For example, one of several plug-ins and theme components that do this.

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I’d be interested in a topic about the softer side of issue resolution in Discourse.

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It might be something that the Discourse Solved plugin could deal with by sending a “Did you get this resolved?” notification to the original poster in topics that have no marked solution. That would move some of the responsibility of making sure there are no unresolved questions from the site staff to the people that are asking the questions. It would also make searching for topics that have no marked solutions more meaningful. WIth the current functionality, at least on Meta, having no accepted solution for a topic is not a good indication that the OPs questions have not been resolved.

I’ll give this some more thought. It should be in a new topic.

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I’m sorry if this is not the right place to follow this up (since you suggested that maybe a different topic is the right place…), but it seems like maybe a softer version of ‘closed’ might solve this problem. One could imagine having a ‘resolved’ marker that could be selectively filtered (and can be styled appropriately in the topic lists). Then topics could be un-marked as resolved either with a toggle, and/or maybe any new post to a ‘resolved’ topic auto-un-resolves it (though maybe not)?

Anyway, this kind of thing could play nicely, I think, with the notion of a selected answer since it separates the two concerns: one thing for marking whether a thread still needs attention, and a separate thing for indicating whether the resolution is actually nicely summarized by a single post.

This feels to me like it could be part of the solved plugin, or like it could work well as a standalone plugin that can optionally interoperate with the solved plugin (maybe choosing an accepted answer auto-marks the topic as resolved, for example).

Anyway, just spitballing. I might try my hand at writing such a thing when I have time anyway, since I think it would be really useful for my particular use case.

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@Remah Thanks a lot for the lots of links, they give lots of ideas to think about. Very useful!

@Simon_Cossar Getting some help from Discourse to encourage marking topics as resolved would help a lot. That way we could ensure that the person who asked the question is happy with the given answers - and that’s our goal.

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