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New users of a Stack Exchange site may not fully understand how the site works. For example, the user may not know how to vote, what reputation is, how to format a question or answer, or how to navigate the site. While the FAQ and privilege pages may offer enough information to teach new users some of the basics of Stack Exchange, they aren't the most coherent or beginner-friendly way to teach how the site works.

To help new users learn the ropes, I suggest a guided tour for users creating an account for the first time on a Stack Exchange site. The tour should consist of a series of pages that (suggestions welcome):

  • welcomes the user to the site
  • explain how to post (and edit) a question, answer, or comment
  • specify the scope of the site, what questions are on or off topic, and other questions to avoid asking (such as those that are highly subjective)
  • provide examples of good and bad questions and answers
  • show how to vote on posts and accept answers
  • explain the reputation and badge systems
  • show how to navigate the site; how to search for questions using the search box, tags, etc.; and how to find users
  • show users how to read user profiles
  • explain what meta is and how to use it
  • introduce chat and explain how to use it
  • introduce users to the Stack Exchange network as a whole, and how the site forms part of the SE network (including a brief introduction to Area 51 and the new site proposal process)
  • discuss more advanced features such as flagging a post, voting to close, community wiki, etc.

By creating a guided tour for new users, we can help keep users interested in Stack Exchange and make the site easier for novices to use. There should be a bronze badge for completing the tour. Personally, I'd like to have the tour give the impression that users are embarking on an exciting journey by posting their first question or answer.

We can use the suggestions on RFC - Stack Exchange 2-minute intro as a start, but I'd prefer an interactive page-by-page introduction on the sites themselves, where users can learn by doing, rather than by watching a video.

Edit: As an extension of this feature request, we may want to consider taking the approach Dropbox takes: create a series of "quests" for the user to take, each involving a key function of the system (which includes completing the guided tour). Once the user completes a certain number of these quests, award a reputation bonus (perhaps 50) to the user. These quests should include (suggestions welcome):

  • complete the guided tour
  • ask a question, earning at least one upvote
  • answer a question, earning at least one upvote
  • accept an answer
  • share a link to a question or answer, visited by at least 25 unique IP addresses
  • flag a post (marked helpful)
  • participate in meta
  • participate in chat
  • associate an account on one site with accounts on other Stack Exchange sites

Here's how Dropbox does it: Dropbox Get Started page

Assuming we don't implement the "quests" above, we can nonetheless give users a reputation incentive (perhaps 10 or 15 points) on top of the badge for completing the guided tour. That way, we can encourage users to read about how the site works, helping new users write better posts and take better advantage of what Stack Exchange has to offer.

One of the key reasons to have a guided tour is to have all the important information on how to use Stack Exchange in one place, rather than scattered across places like the FAQ, the privileges pages, the meta site, and the blog. The way the rules are presently laid out on Stack Exchange can make it hard for beginners to fully understand the rules. A guided tour can make these rules and guidelines more cohesively arranged, which can greatly help users who need help finding a certain rule or guideline that they may have missed. The tour doesn't need to thoroughly explain every rule, but it should briefly mention most of the key points about using Stack Exchange; the tour text should contain links to full discussions of rules.

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Are you inventing FAQ2? IMO FAQ covers most of the things you've enlisted, even provides a bronze badge for reading all chapters. For example -- how to post a question -- isn't that easy and definite? –  om-nom-nom Mar 17 '12 at 21:27
@om-nom-nom: A guided tour is not a FAQ. A FAQ is a static block of text. A guided tour is more like an application or a videogame's tutorial level. It tells you exactly what to click on, what each element means, etc. It's much more interactive than just a block of text. –  Nicol Bolas Mar 17 '12 at 21:32
What I'm envisioning is a more interactive, step-by-step approach that is clearer to new users and easier to follow, which links all the pieces of the site together and helps users fully understand how the site works. –  DragonLord the Fiery Mar 17 '12 at 21:35
I think this makes a lot of sense, and is long overdue. Don't make it mandatory, but give it an incentive. It could coax people through the parts, and could be done with nice graphics and easy explanations to help them along. It could also explain a few of the "things you'll get to once you get more rep," like comments - show what they are, and explain they'll get them soon. Award them 10 rep or something for getting through it. Or, make it more like 50 rep, and increase the minimum points needed to vote. –  nhinkle Mar 18 '12 at 0:29
I definitely think a rep incentive (and maybe even a badge, like the one you get for reading the FAQ) is a good idea. But 50 points might be too steep; 10 or 15 is a good bone. –  Cody Gray Mar 18 '12 at 7:44
"I see you are trying to ask a question on Stack Overflow. Would you like some help with that?" /shudder –  mindcorrosive Mar 21 '12 at 10:07
It would also be great to give first formatting help. Especially line breaks are hard to get at first (double spaces at line ends). But also code-blocks, headings, quotes ... –  örs Mar 21 '12 at 13:42
It might be worth adding (or SHOUTING) that this is about Stack Exchange, not (just) Stack Overflow. SO users tend to be fairly ... uncaring ... about new users (we're drowning in them), and that can influence their reactions. –  Benjol Mar 22 '12 at 7:01
I came across this while doing some research. With the rollout of the new about page, the hero banner on the homepage, and the new help section, we've probably gone about as far as we're going to go on this. –  Jeremy T Jul 9 '13 at 18:24
Sounds good to me. A one hour video narrated by Jon Skeet that must be watched in its entirety before the new user is allowed to ask a question. –  Gilbert Le Blanc Jul 9 '13 at 19:35

4 Answers 4

First off: I like parts of your idea, though possibly not for the reasons you'd hope. More on this later, but... keep it in mind.

While the FAQ and privilege pages may offer enough information to teach new users some of the basics of Stack Exchange, they aren't the most coherent or beginner-friendly way to teach how the site works.

New users - the vast, vast majority of them - won't read the FAQ, or the privilege pages, or notification banners or even all of the instructions on the login screen.

And that's ok. It doesn't mean they're stupid, or lazy, or hate us. They're here because a Google search turned up an answer to their question, or answers to their last three dozen questions, and now that they have a question we don't have an answer for we're stuck in their head as a good place to look for one anyway.

Most importantly: they're not here to get reputation, or badges, or become part of a community. They're here for answers to their questions. Anything we throw in their way - from a line of text to a multi-page document - is just a roadblock they have to navigate around in order to get to their destination.

With me so far? Good.

Harnessing desire for the benefit of all

Now, a new user to Dropbox wants storage space. Quite possibly they want storage space they can get stuff into easily, from where ever that stuff happens to currently reside, and retrieve from some other location. Those are the users Dropbox wants at least. So the quests exist to make sure they've set that up properly before they get a ton of storage space to play around with. Note that each quest they must complete is something they'd probably have to do anyway - making sure they do it up-front just saves everyone time and frustration later, after they've spent 2 hours uploading that video of the kids eating watermelon on Independence Day and now need to figure out how to pull it down on the desktop where they can edit it and re-upload it for the grandfolks.

At no point in the process - and this is critical to understanding why it works - does Dropbox ask them to spend a few hours hanging out in the Dropbox Townhall where they can discuss matters of Dropbox governance and perhaps help a few other Dropbox users learn to use Dropbox. There's no gratuitous "learning about the Dropbox community" here - everything a new user does is self-serving, and they're rewarded for doing things that benefit them by being given more things that benefit them.

So what's the equivalent new user checklist on Stack Exchange?

You're 1 step away from a helpful answer!
The one quest below will teach you how to get the most out of your Stack Exchange. Finish at least one of them, and we'll give you a reward!

  1. Ask a clear, useful question

That's it.

No really, that's it. For most of the new users on Stack Exchange, all of this other stuff is just... Meaningless. We go well out of our way to give it some meaning with these token economies of badges and "reputation", but boil it down to its fundamental essence and the primary motivation for folks asking questions, the single best reward we can offer them for doing a good job with it, is... a good answer.

And that's also the best thing most of them can do for us. All this other "stuff" - badges, reputation, comments, voting, meta, chat, unicorns, waffles... It serves a purpose, and if they complete that one key quest they'll get plenty of them... But it's infrastructure, overhead - the core value of these sites is utterly, ridiculously simple:

  • Useful answers to common questions.

Indeed, I'd be really embarrassed about writing 11 paragraphs to get to that end, if this question didn't already have three answers, with only Andomar's even coming close to the truth on this and hardly even a kind word for his efforts.

So, here we are at last. I'm sorry, but there's no way in hell this sort of byzantine introduction will ever accomplish your goal of a "coherent, beginner-friendly way to teach [people] how the site works." It doesn't match their goals, it doesn't make them do things they'd want or have to do anyway, and it doesn't necessarily even benefit us - really, the last thing I want new users to get is an "introduction to chat". Rewarding them with reputation would just be insulting to them and harmful to us - they'll get plenty of rep if they post a useful question, and if they can't or won't do that all we would have accomplished would be making 10-50 points the new 1.

But I said I liked parts of your idea, so let's get to that...

Those infuriating nerds who actually do read the manual

Ah, remember being a kid? Opening a gift, to find some game or gadget you'd been lusting after, tearing open the wrapper, dumping the pieces out on the table, and diving in to see how they worked?

Yeah, me neither. Since you're actually proposing this idea, I'm guessing you were more like me, and that new toy sat, lonely and ignored, while you eagerly paged through the manual, absorbing every usage instruction, troubleshooting tip, obvious warning about not using it while plugged in and showering, and which screws would absolutely void your warranty if removed. And then you went and removed those screws, just in case there was something really cool inside. And then you went and wrote up a better manual, with all the details they left out of the main one.

Most people don't do this. Even if they wanted to, they don't have time.

But... That tiny minority who does, the ones who take the time to fully understand the system they're using - perhaps before really even using it - and then take the additional time to find all the undocumented bits that no one talks about and even the designers don't know or let onto knowing... And then publish that...

That minority is critical to keeping these sites running. When a new site launches, it's really useful to have one of them active on it. When one of the normal users gets into trouble, they're there to explain how things work, and why they work that way, and how to make them work. Having the right person with the right information in the right place at the right time is vastly more useful than a tour no one pays attention to.

And right now, the best resource they have is The Community FAQ here on Meta. Which has been maintained and expanded for years now, and is a fantastic resource, but could use a bit of re-organization, because it's not a terribly cohesive or even coherent document.

So I'm going to recommend that you, instead of focusing on some sort of "Stack Exchange for Dummies" tour, look at ways in which all of that detailed information could be presented more effectively to that handful of users for whom reading it is actually their goal.

share|improve this answer
Flagged for excessive Shogging⁹. –  random Mar 28 '12 at 1:09
Dropboxed for excessive Dropbox of the word "Dropbox". –  gnostradamus Mar 28 '12 at 2:38
Totally agree. I still think a 90 second video presentation of Stack Exchange would be a good idea. Not as a prerequisite for asking questions, nor for rep or badges, just for the curious: "I want to know more, but not too much more". –  Benjol Mar 28 '12 at 6:12
Your answer makes perfect sense, and I totally agree. I'll ask a new question as a follow-up to this question based on your feedback when I get a chance (I'm busy with a take-home exam right now :P). –  DragonLord the Fiery Mar 28 '12 at 7:00
WRONG....the FAQ and others are after the fact...after the question has been asked....YOU have to take action and refer the user to those. –  Benalmadena Apr 5 '13 at 12:52
Thus a Entry exam test or a video would be more than welcome, to HELP new users. –  Benalmadena Apr 5 '13 at 13:13
@Benalmadena: we've actually tried to incorporate some of these ideas into the new tour page; that said, SE still isn't dropbox and the best "test" we can give someone is... Just writing a question or answer and seeing if the community will accept it. –  Shogging through the snow Apr 5 '13 at 15:45
@Shog9..so we will continue to allow people to bypass the lobby. –  Benalmadena Apr 5 '13 at 19:41
@Benalmadena: the lobby on SE is /questions/ask. We do have information we give new users first, and some additional roadblocks in some areas, but... At some point you have to just let someone ask a question before you know if they've learned how to ask a question. –  Shogging through the snow Apr 5 '13 at 19:50
@Shog9..that is rather tiresome and time consuming to the mature users, and frustrating to new users not understanding why they are voted down, or closed or deleted, or referred to read the pages and pages of how to ask a question. –  Benalmadena Apr 5 '13 at 20:20
@Benal: read the first two steps of Dragonlord's proposed onboarding system... And tell me how they're any different from what's in place right now? –  Shogging through the snow Apr 5 '13 at 20:40
@Shog9 they are not ! And who has time to watch a movie, mostly people just come to ask their question, not spend a long time learning how to ask it. –  Benalmadena Apr 5 '13 at 21:24
Who's proposing that anyone watch a movie? That's an even worse idea! –  Shogging through the snow Apr 5 '13 at 21:25

A good idea, but a few issues:

  • Does a one-and-done beginner who just needs a certain Python question answered need to learn extra stuff?
  • How is this implemented?
  • What exactly is implemented?

I'm assuming you are thinking JavaScript/Web 2.0 stuff with interaction.

What about if a few Good Samaritans made a thorough YouTube video with all that you're requesting? For example, to:

show how to navigate the site; how to search for questions using the search box, tags, etc.; and how to find users

Well a YouTube video works fine. After all, Eclipse and Netbeans IDE vids are very well-received. And the FAQ will reference that.

Again, it's a great idea - it's just that to do it well is a fairly big amount of work, and most newbies usually skip that kind of thing.

share|improve this answer
I like this idea. There are already various blog posts by Stack Overflow's more illustrious members which discuss the site at length, not to mention countless posts and podcasts from the Stack Exchange team. But that's a daunting amount of reading/listening. A quick one-or-two-minute screencast walking through the site would be pretty easy to do and can cover all of the basics from a new user perspective, with commentary on how the community generally behaves and reacts to things. Naturally, the video would re-enforce the idea of "always read the FAQ." Not too detailed, or it would get dated. –  David Mar 17 '12 at 21:43
@David - Thank You for your comment - Yes, agreed - it should be fairly general. –  Adel Mar 17 '12 at 21:50
I like the idea of an optional multistep process which, if users complete, they get a badge and 50 rep (so they can comment). It'd hit the subjects of the top 10 mod flags, such as how to ask a good question, what are subjective questions, professional behavior, etc. Something that requires interaction, so that you can't just play the video in another tab with the sound off... –  Won't Mar 21 '12 at 10:45
You have to be more than just a Good Samaritan to put in the considerable effort required to create a quality video with no guarantee from the team that it will ever be linked from anywhere official... –  Benjol Mar 22 '12 at 6:57
@Benjol - I believe SO can offer a nice rep package to the winner! As in, make it a competition. Whoever wins, gets 1000 bonus rep plus some recognition. To prevent the "but that's unfair and fake rep" argument, entrants must have already attained 2000 rep to participate in the video-making competition. So it's assurance that A) they know enough about SO and B) they aren't e-bums who dropped in for some free 'easy' rep . But TBH you can also make the prize SO swag(mug and T and USB). –  Adel Mar 22 '12 at 13:36
@won I want to restate my violent opposition to any plan that grants rep for doing arbitrary basic actions. You learn the game not by reading some manual or taking a tour, but by playing the game. Users that aren't willing to do this will be 10 times more dangerous if we let them unlock rep by cheating a tour. –  Jeff Atwood Mar 27 '12 at 19:03

New SO users arrive with a problem that they are stuck at. They want to ask a question; their minds are busy, and there is little room for distraction. So unless you limit distraction to a minimum, people with real questions CANNOT ask them on SO.

I just tested, and if you hit Ask Question as a new user, you

  • Get hit by a wall of text
  • Have to check a checkbox
  • Click the next button
  • After that you are told you have to create an account (wtf?)
  • An incomprehensible OpenID screen pops up

You probably lost 90% of the interesting questions right there. I probably wouldn't have joined myself if SO had made me go through that crap three years ago.

Adding yet another hurdle like a tour or a quest would make this problem even worse. Programmers want to solve problems, not take a guided tour in what management thinks would be the ideal Stack Overflow citizen.

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Would you completely dismiss the idea of an optional tour-that-prevents-you-from-getting-your-dumb-ass-auto-postbanned that (once completed) earns you a badge and enough rep to leave comments? –  Won't Mar 21 '12 at 13:02
@Won't: Say you've resolved your question and decide that you like Stack Overflow. Then you come back the next day. At that point, a tour would be great. (My theory is that the wall-of-text and required registration lower the quality of first questions by removing people with hot issues from the pool.) –  Andomar Mar 21 '12 at 13:43
I don't agree with the "wall of text scares off good users with hot questions" opinion at all. But I do agree that we shouldn't require users take a tour before they can interact with the site (wall of text, checkbox, and register is pretty standard in order to post on most websites). –  Won't Mar 21 '12 at 14:04
"StackOverflow is different. Deal with it." - every SO mod, ever. :) –  Won't Mar 21 '12 at 14:17
@won I would be VIOLENTLY F'ING OPPOSED to granting rep for anything like this, or to be honest this entire proposed feature in any form. For one thing, this already exists; there's a bronze badge for reading every section of the FAQ. Protip: USERS. DON'T. CARE. The only way to educate is "just in time", not some ridiculous guided tour. Want to know what questions are on topic? READ THE FRONT PAGE OF THE SITE. Users who can't do that.. are not going to be helped by some Disneyland Tour. –  Jeff Atwood Mar 27 '12 at 9:41
@JeffAtwood, for Stack Overflow, I agree. For some other sites, I'm not so sure. If we want to get those grannies onto parents.SE, we'll have to play nice :) –  Benjol Mar 27 '12 at 13:05
@JeffAtwood: You're violently opposed to it, yet you claim it already exists? Logic circuts, overloading, etc. –  Won't Mar 27 '12 at 13:22
@won a "guided tour" is a non starter. Get the bronze badge for reading the FAQ, which already exists. Heck, get all the bronze badges. And rep for completing a guided tour.. well, twitter.com/#!/codinghorror/status/184576782232600580 and meta.stackexchange.com/questions/65234/… –  Jeff Atwood Mar 27 '12 at 18:57
Note that the process is a bit easier on SE sites that aren't Stack Overflow, Andomar - we've put up a few roadblocks there over the years. But otherwise, this answer pretty much nails it - there's no motivation for folks to read this stuff, so no matter how well it's presented, they won't read it. Heck, even the folks who post so much crap they get auto-banned by the system routinely fail to read or comprehend the detailed instructions for getting the ban lifted... And we link to that in the message that informs them that they're banned! @Won't –  Shogging through the snow Mar 28 '12 at 1:13
up vote 3 down vote accepted

Extensive changes have been introduced to make Stack Exchange easier to understand for new users, including the new about and help pages as well as an overhauled close system. Given these changes, the underlying problem has been resolved.

In particular, the new about page does an excellent job of guiding new users on how to use Stack Exchange, what questions are on topic for a particular site, and what questions should not be asked. This page comes remarkably close to the "guided tour" I had originally envisioned. I am very happy to see these changes, since veterans and newcomers alike can now make the most of the Stack Exchange network.

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