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Looking at the discussion here so far, a lot of it has understandably been focused on regular users; not necessarily high rep users, but people who have essentially "committed" to the site in some way, and know a reasonable amount about it. Suggestions like fine-grained notification settings are great for those of us "in the know", but it's a pretty high-end feature.

That kind of user - while obviously important - probably accounts for a relatively small proportion of page views. In particular, I guess (and Jeff may have figures for this) that most page views don't come through the front page at all: they're straight from a search result.

This question is aimed at encouraging users to take a fresh browser which they aren't logged into, do a search which gets a Stack Overflow result (e.g. int c# downsides) and seeing what it would look like to a completely new user.

  • Is the meaning of the information obvious to you?
  • Is this a community you would want to join, if you didn't already know about it?
  • Is the navigation, etc. obvious?

I haven't actually done the experiment myself yet (at least, not committing enough time to it to give a meaningful answer) but I'll try to do so later. It's hard to forget everything we already know about Stack Overflow and any quirks it might have, but I think it's a worthwhile thing to try.

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17 Answers 17

up vote 22 down vote accepted

The number of different "views" can be unintuitive even to me who uses the site every day (for 20 days and counting - c'mon WOOT!)

Clicking on the logo (/) give a slightly different view than clicking questions.

Also the recent page is some time hard to find for new users.

I think SO would benefit form a simplification of "views" - less is more.

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Hands down the search feature. Sorry but it's just plain useless. Anything that's worse than a Google custom site search should be replaced by a Google custom site search.

It's one reason I hardly ever downvote duplicates: I can't blame people for not finding them most of the time. Sometimes I know the duplicate exists because I've seen it before and still can't find it.

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cleaned up all comments, as I don't think they are relevant in light of recent /search improvements. Cletus, can you revisit your answer here and tell me if you think it's working now? –  Jeff Atwood Jul 31 '09 at 7:10
still waiting for a revisit. :) meta.stackoverflow.com/search –  Jeff Atwood Aug 21 '09 at 9:36
As I was hit by a search problem yesterday, I think cletus point is still valid. The thing that puzzles me most about the search is the strict ORness of the terms. Imho, most of the time if I have two search terms I want them ANDed. –  jhwist Nov 4 '09 at 11:01
well, that ain't how google works, so I think you may have unreasonable expectations. Pages which have more matches to whatever you type in, show higher. –  Jeff Atwood Nov 28 '09 at 10:35
+1 Well said Cletus. –  David HAust May 18 '10 at 3:12
+1 for "Sometimes I know the duplicate exists because I've seen it before and still can't find it." Sometimes I know a duplicate exists because I've contributed to it and still can't find it. –  Daniel Vandersluis Sep 22 '10 at 18:02

...seeing what it would look like to a completely new user.

  • Is the meaning of the information obvious to you?

If by "information" you include informations about the site, the all "vote-accept" feature is quite "unclear" for new occasional users.

They do not read the FAQ (what for? They have a question, they want an answer).

They may infer the all "voting-selecting answer" thing by looking at other questions, but for very narrow topic (few views, fewer answers), they are a bit at a loss about what they are supposed to do with answers.

I know there is already a lot (tooltips on arrows and tick signs, red box on upvote to remind an answer can be 'ticked', reminder on questions to select an answer...).

But those mechanisms are not valid for the occasional user with a quick post, a look two days later (oh cool! Here's my answer!), and... nothing. He is gone.

Proposition: rather than "first time here? Check out the FAQ!", I would rather have a:

First time here, take the feature tour!
(as mentioned by gnat in the comments, a kind of feature tour has been implemented in the about page, so... three and a half years later: )

Feature tour: 5 static HTML pages (1/5, 2/5, ..., 5/5) mentioning the five most important thing to know about SO, like for instance:

  • ask a question (and look after suggested questions to avoids dups)
  • post an answer
  • vote (up or down, on answers for your questions, or on other answers)
  • comment (or vote on comment)
  • select an answer (or post your own and select it)

5 pages, colored graphics with few text and lots of arrows and circle to highlight important parts, around a concrete use case scenario (a story).
No screencast (too long).
Anything more verbose is likely to be skipped.

(And then, an "advanced feature tour" for those who are interested and want to go beyond the common use-cases)

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"Anything more verbose is likely to be skipped." what you described would be skipped INSTANTLY. What you may not know is that, for users with < 1000 rep, the first upvote on an answer on their question triggers a "have you considered accepting an answer.. etc" <div> –  Jeff Atwood Jun 29 '09 at 11:07
@Jeff: 1/ they rarely upvote, so they rarely see it. 2/ If the story presented in those five pages is compelling enough, grab the user and make him think: "Whoaaa... wait a minute, I had just a question, but this is actually seriously cool", you have won more than a drive-by question. Hint: your FAQ is nowhere near that level. –  VonC Jun 29 '09 at 11:42
@VonC I like your idea but it collides with one of the greatest feature of StackOverflow, be a low-friction system. –  systempuntoout Oct 4 '10 at 9:52
@systempuntoout: but is this (the absence of any introduction) just a way to postpone the friction for the new user, when ill-redacted questions are downvoted, or not answered because his/her "accept rate" (which he/she has no idea it even existed) is too low? –  VonC Oct 4 '10 at 10:17
@VonC I don't know; personally I dislike tutorials.(As in Videogames when you have to play an easy level to get an overview of the game's main features). I just want to play and learn from my mistake without a previous lesson. This behaviour leads to two different scenarios: total failure or surviving (hey, kudos to me, I survived to this tough game without a tutorial!). Back to your idea, I think a skippable tutorial could be cool. –  systempuntoout Oct 4 '10 at 10:32
@systempuntout: I completely support the "skippable" feature of said tutorial ;) –  VonC Oct 4 '10 at 10:35
"feature tour", the way you describe it, sounds like what has been recently done at tour page –  gnat Mar 28 '13 at 15:51
@gnat I agree. :status-completed then? –  VonC Mar 28 '13 at 15:53
@VonC yes, sounds like that. Amazing how you figured the idea two years before it was implemented –  gnat Mar 28 '13 at 17:49
@gnat what I really found amazing is Jeff's comment: "what you described would be skipped INSTANTLY" ;) –  VonC Mar 29 '13 at 11:03
@VonC well per my observations, Jeff was right at the "first level approximation" so to speak: newcomers indeed tend to ignore it. It's "second level" where he got it wrong: when I downvote a post, with appropriate quote and reference to tour page, they start paying attention. :) My favorite quote is "not a discussion forum. There's no chit-chat" - makes wonders to NC questions / blah-blah answers –  gnat Mar 29 '13 at 11:18

Having to navigate the OpenID login system to become a full member of the community was a bit of a barrier when I first started. It may have become easier for new users since then, but there was certainly a lot of grumbling at the time.

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Interestingly enough, up until the other day when I started using this meta site, I had not used OpenID since originally joining stackoverflow a year ago. Meanwhile, I've used Facebook Connect about 100 times in the same time period. Hmm... –  bpapa Jul 8 '09 at 20:14
I had problems with my usual OpenID provider, namely jnareb.openid.pl ; it didn't work (and administrator when sent bug report about this reported back that their implementation fulfills OpenID standard). Fortunately Google OpenID works (but with quirks). –  Jakub Narębski Jul 8 '09 at 23:56
we have since improved OpenID signup considerably. Try again: stackoverflow.com/users/login –  Jeff Atwood Nov 28 '09 at 10:34

I think it's perfect, personally. I found Stack Overflow through Google, searching for something. The fact that the most up-voted questions are on the top makes finding the answer to your question extremely quick.

The only "barrier to entry" that I found when I first joined was all the "inside jokes" (like you :P) and acronyms (call me stupid, but I didn't know what "SO" meant for the longest time). But I guess that's to be expected, and it doesn't really hamper one's ability to find the answer to his questions quickly.

Nowdays, if I'm looking for something on Google and I see a result from SO, I go there first thing.

Edit: I'd like to add that the one thing that did not make sense to me at first was community wikis. I just didn't understand the point of them. It didn't help that everyone else magically knew when questions should be made wikis or not, but never really gave any reasons. I got the hang of it eventually, but at first I always got nervous when asking a question, and asked myself, "Should this be a community wiki? Is it going to get closed if I don't make it one?" The solution to this would be to add some kind of "help" or "what's this?" link next to the community wiki checkbox, that goes to the SOFAQ or a similar page explaining what community wikis are and what they're used for.

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If my earlier question was anything to go by, I think none of us really fully understand community wikis –  waffles Jun 29 '09 at 10:36
Part of that is because opinion is divided about wikis, with the loudest voices being those who think everything that's not an exact, technical programming question should be a wiki. Of course, that didn't seem to be the original design intent of the SO wiki. Don't let anyone pressure you to wiki whatever they feel you should, there is an automatic wiki mechanism that takes care of things. –  Lance Roberts Jul 9 '09 at 15:46
if it makes you feel better, i still don't really understand community wiki. and i've been here since launch. :) –  Kip Jul 9 '09 at 21:47

Unable to find questions you can answer

I find that one of the problems that I face is that I feel unable to contribute back. I can become overwhelmed by all the questions on the site that I am unable to answer, and when I do spot a question I can answer, there are already a half dozen answers with at least one of them superior to what I could have written. This can be discouraging.

I'm not sure how to resolve this issue though. Ideas anyone?

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A "race to the courthouse" dynamic definitely exists. This dynamic persists after a question is answered, since the first person who answers (correctly) typically gets a greater number of upvotes. I find that I get the best upvoting results when I answer questions about subjects in which I am currently active (like c# and ASP.NET MVC). –  Robert Harvey Jul 9 '09 at 22:11
I recommend browsing the unanswered section within tag combinations. (just make sure you're not on the "my tags" tab..) –  Jeff Atwood Jul 11 '09 at 14:08
You can get some spare points even by answering ancient questions. I got a vote for answering a question about emulating classic synthesizers. I just searched StackOverflow for "Moog" and read the questions. –  Nosredna Aug 8 '09 at 22:02

In response to the "Is this a community you want to join" point:

I believe the community can seem to be really harsh sometimes.

I've seen beginner/"noob" questions getting downvoted just because the OP has missed something obvious. Instead of helping the OP, some people just seem to start flaming them. Here's an example of what I'm talking about, it was at -4 when I first viewed it.

I know you'll always get a minority who let the community down in this way, but I find it concerning that for some people this is the first experience they get of StackOverflow. I'd prefer if it was a positive one.

It's not a problem that can be solved with algorithms or clever features on the site. The community just need to realise that the person asking the question is a human being who has a problem and is asking for help. They shouldn't be punished if they don't have enough knowledge to ask the question "correctly".

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I agree - my first question was closed instantly, after that I took a couple of weeks off from using the site. I do think that some of the folks that can vote "close" actually are not good moderators. –  Evgeny Jul 12 '09 at 21:09
Agreed. I had a question tagged as subjective, then closed by 5 people who I guess did not read the question on my first day. I couldn't understand why it was closed, because many of the top questons were subjective (including one by one of the people who voted to close). –  Macha Aug 2 '09 at 21:08

Nothing is perfect, ever. It's a flawed world running flawed systems. That aside.

I guess there are a few issues to consider:

As a Google searcher I am looking for the "objective" correct answer to a question, since there are little to no incentives to improve old posts quite often information is spread between multiple answers, as a newbie I would imagine that seeing the same question answered 5 times by 5 different people quite confusing.

For example: look at http://stackoverflow.com/questions/59590/lock-keyword-in-c ... this is the result of a search for the lock keyword in C#.

We all know that there is a better way to phrase the question and title the question, we just don't bother. We all would have ways to improve the answer, we just don't bother. We all know the question should probably be split up so it can be dealt with more throughly, we have no way to do that.

I think Stack Overflow as a community is way too focused at the last 1 hour of activity than improving and refining the body of knowledge in the expert system. I think this hurts the new users.

I think the community does quite a lot to help facilitate collaboration, but as a newbie you just don't realize how fast you need to be to get in on it. It may seem like there is this barrage of questions that somebody else (hint Marc or Jon :) seem to constantly get right. This may deter you from participating.

When I started out the whole community wiki thing really confused me, I think that is one area that newbies must find very confusing.

I had no problems with the OpenID piece, I actually really like it, helps me forget passwords which is one thing I love forgetting.

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great points sam, especially agree on the fact that very little is done to improve the overall content. Once accepted its assummed a perfect response and instantly forgotten. Maybe there needs to be approved answers that only mods can sign off....but then again –  redsquare Jul 1 '09 at 1:01
RE: "I think SO as a community is way too focused at the last 1 hour of activity..." There is a huge upside to this though: with everyone competing to be the first with the right answer, users can get correct answers to obscure questions in less than five minutes, if they phrase the question well enough. I'm sure there are more than a few users who have come back because they were amazed at how quickly they got an answer the first time they asked a question. I'm not saying there's not room for improvement, just that we need to remember why providing fast answers is so heavily incentivised. –  Kip Jul 9 '09 at 21:54
@Kip, sure, but how productive do you feel when you are clicking the refresh button on the front page waiting for new questions? –  waffles Jul 9 '09 at 22:49
@Sam: honestly, i've become quite inactive on main SO for that reason, all i really use it for anymore is asking questions –  Kip Jul 10 '09 at 1:49
"... helps me forget passwords which id one thing I love forgetting. ..." ?? –  Peter Mortensen May 18 '10 at 18:33

I was here pretty much since the beginning, so I can't say for sure, but I think newbies get something of a mixed message from all the vestigial subjective questions. In the first month or so of SO--before we really knew what the site would become--everyone was asking and answering and voting up subjective questions like "What's your favorite programming X?" Nowadays those kinds of questions are quickly downvoted and closed. New users might find that the vestigial subjective questions have lots of votes and assume they are still popular, only to get shot down when they ask one. Even if it is a good enough "subjective" question that it is not immediately closed, they get told "make that community wiki or else", even though they probably have no idea what in the world "community wiki" even means.

Related: my thoughts on community wiki.

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Yes, I actually wish someone (mods??) would go through and cull the off-topic crap. –  Lawrence Dol Jul 9 '09 at 22:09
@Monkey, does the off-topic crap really impact you that much? Surely a well-focused search or Google would give you search results that omit the "off-topic-crap." –  Robert Harvey Jul 10 '09 at 22:11

I believe there is a barrier for new users, especially the ones who register and ask a question never to return. Looking at the users page there are thousands upon thousands who have a single rep point. I wonder why these people choose not to return. Are they unsure that they should come back and tick an answer, is this highlighted well enough? What can be done to retain these people and make them an active participant once there question has been answered? Do they get an email asking them to mark their first question? Would giving them a badge straight away help to capture the hearts, even if it retained 10% of them. It would be interesting to do some a/b testing around these new users.

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That would be interesting to test out, but honestly I think you won't be able to do anything about it. Those people just go to get their one question answered, with no intention of coming back from the beginning. –  musicfreak Jun 29 '09 at 8:56
But they have to come back once just to see the answer, of course. Even achieving that is a big first step, IMO. –  Jon Skeet Jun 29 '09 at 9:00
For those who have no clue, like me: (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A/B_testing) –  Ladybug Killer Jun 29 '09 at 9:06
ooops sorry, my mistake^ –  redsquare Jun 29 '09 at 9:10
some of those 1-rep users probably did come back, but their cookie had been deleted so they couldn't get back into their account –  Kip Jul 10 '09 at 1:51

The lack of a single-sign-on is the biggest barrier for entry to me - I suspect it can be done by something simple like loading an image from the other sites with a suitable unique logon token (say, a UUID) on the query string, and sending back the appropriate cookie with it.

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see the accounts tab on your user page –  Jeff Atwood Jul 11 '09 at 14:09
Would still be nice to log on to one, and have it log on to all, rather than having to authenticate separately (this being slightly different from just linked accounts) –  Rowland Shaw Jul 11 '09 at 18:59

IMHO, inability to search on site is one of the single biggest barriers.

Saying Google is the defacto UI is fine if you only ever do a single search and find the answer first try. (See point 7 in the 'Nine Building Blocks' section of this article.)

But once you are already on S/OFU and you want to re-search or find something else, are we really expected to go back to Google, do the new search, just to end up right back on the same site (S/OFU) we were just at?!

That's crap.

And as Cletus mentioned, I feel sorry for the poor n00bs who come here thinking it's awesome, ask a seemingly innocent question, and then get shouted/voted down for asking a dupe and not searching properly before they asked. And yes, I said 'shouted down', because despite what a lot of experienced users many think, that's what it'd feel like for a new user who's unfamiliar with the S/OFU culture.

I think improving the S/OFU search is really important, for heavy and new users alike.

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problem is, inexperienced users are going to be bad at search, too. Even The Mighty Google sometimes can't find things I know are here, without me using metadata like tags, author, etc. –  Jeff Atwood May 18 '10 at 7:37
@Jeff. That's a valid point about new users being bad at search, be it here or google. But I don't see that as a reason to not TRY to improve the site's searching. And I do know that you guys have implemented many awesome advanced search features (stackoverflow.com/search) but these still won't help the new people to find answers or to stop creating dupes. I do recognise the tough position you're in though, with trying to cater for expert programmers and beginners alike. While search many be really hard, I think you should still strive to make it as awesome and intuitive as possible. –  David HAust May 18 '10 at 23:08

Also as a note if you're checking Jon's link, log out from SO and then check it out. Since there will be ads and a popdown saying "First time here, check the FAQ".

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yes, this is an excellent point -- as frequent users we sometimes forget some of the good (and bad) things that happen when you visit the site as a new, never-before-visited user! –  Jeff Atwood Jun 29 '09 at 10:10

As someone who is fairly new to SO, I can still fully relate to being a complete newbie (although I feel I'm quickly being assimilated.)

1) I think the "Ask Question" button should be more prominent. I think it should also advertise that there is no registration needed (subtext or hover over). To me, not needing to register for a site to ask or answer a question is huge. I think this alone is a large contributer to the success of SO.

2) I must agree with a previous answer that talked about OpenID. Up until now, I've not been forced to use OpenID on any site. I've got unique usernames and passwords on hundreds of sites (this should indicate something very bad... I'm just not sure what.) I had to first read up on OpenId, then find out which of my email addresses would work with open id.

3) I lost a question or two because the cookie was destroyed when I first used the site. I entered an email address when asking the first question, but I was not able to use OpenId with that email address. I thought maybe I would get the questions associated with my account after entering that email address in my profile, but no.

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1. we don't actually want ask to be that prominent; 2. the new user sidebar explains no registration (log out to see it, or clear cookies to see even more new user help items); 3. for openid, "click the big google or yahoo icon" works for most people –  Jeff Atwood Jul 11 '09 at 14:11

How the existing community treats new users

  1. If you don't have at least 100 rep, any question you post is pretty much ignored.

  2. "Should be community wiki." WTF is Community Wiki?

  3. OpenID was a bit of a shock.

  4. Downvoting without an explanation (irritating to veteran users at best, incomprehensible by new users).

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RE #1: i can't speak for everyone, but i personally never consider or even notice the asker's rep when deciding to answer a question. i will say that being able to ask a question well comes with practice for many people. a lot of people, especially those with 1 rep, don't give near enough details. it takes a lot of patience for someone to go through the back and forth to find out what the real problem is (which is usually not what the asker thought it was). but i don't think many people are intentionally avoiding low-rep users (maybe i'm wrong?) –  Kip Jul 10 '09 at 1:44
If your question is well written and interesting (at least to some subset of people) it won't be ignored. Reputation score of the asker is not that relevant, since answers generate the most rep, and you don't need the asker to achieve votes from your peers. Unfortunately, a lot of low-rep users are not very good askers. I've seen edits save some of these questions, though. –  Jeff Atwood Jul 11 '09 at 14:07
Most of the problematic questions were asked by new to SO, and new to English users. –  Brad Gilbert Jul 11 '09 at 15:09

It would be helpful to have a noob/first-timer version of the web interface, maybe with just a big Ask A Question button and a big Answer This Question box...and, of course, a prominent search box.

I'm just thinking in terms of non-technical users I'd like to try the StackExchange approach on, most of whom would be overwhelmed looking at the current GUI with all the tabs at the top of each page, and the tags listed down the side.

The Internet Marketing community throw around a statistic along the lines of...you have about 3-5 seconds to capture a user's attention before they leave the website again.

So, ideally, you want to make it incredibly obvious to the first-timer what options are available.

There could be a "Switch to Advanced View" toggle somewhere on the page for anyone who wants more options later.

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we actually don't want to make it too easy to ASK. That is a stated goal. Browsing and answering is another story. Just scroll to the bottom if you want to answer, and start typing.. no login required. What other sites can you say that about? –  Jeff Atwood Jul 11 '09 at 14:04
Fair point - I would probably agree on reflection. Making it too easy for trigger-happy people leads to more junk questions. –  Joe Schmoe Jul 11 '09 at 14:34

It's the fact that you can't reuse your rep between the SO/SF/Meta sites. The partitioning out between SO and SF is incredibly stupid. If someone asks a question on SO about, say, the FILLFACTOR of a database (and he's a developer and member of the SO community), should he have to friggin re-join this new SF community and have his question closed? Sorry, but that stupid and annoying, and causes friction when that user tries to post the question to SF (sorry, my example goes backwards, but it could go the other way).

The unnecessary partitioning out of the SO/SF/meta sites keeps well-rounded experts from wanting to use any of it.

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dave, have you visited the "accounts" tab on your user page? you might want to.. –  Jeff Atwood Jul 11 '09 at 14:03
aaaaaaaaaaahhhh. That wasn't in Revision 1.0 ;-) Much better. Maybe this should be on the account setup page when you initially set up your account? –  Dave Markle Jul 11 '09 at 19:23
we now add a banner alert when new accounts are created, reminding them of this –  Jeff Atwood Jan 1 '10 at 10:42
-1, this answer had a slight amount of merit before we had 389 multifarious sites but just doesn't make any sense anymore. –  Pops Oct 5 '10 at 18:53

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