Please note that I am not referring to explaining what Stack Exchange is. New users are figuring that out pretty well. This question is about using the site's features.

People who are new to this whole system of Stack Exchange sites often require several of the less obvious features to be explained to them.

This isn't a "problem" per se; they ask about something in a comment or on the meta and quickly get a polite answer. Happens on Stack Overflow all the time. But SE users may be less technically-inclined, they don't explore features like we do, and therefore need more help to reach the same level.

Invariably these users ask for a FAQ or a list where all these features are explained. Of course there are hundreds of features, all constantly being improved, so it doesn't make sense to put them in the official FAQ, but pointing this out them just feels like a ham-fisted excuse.

The other option is to point them to the MSO FAQ, but that seems totally inappropriate for an SE site catering to a non-technical audience. Try to imagine yourself in their position, being pointed to a monolithic list of a hundred links on a site run by programmers and other nerds. It's confusing at best.

Even if we hand-wave away the gap in technical level between the MSO community and that of other SE sites, it's still awkward linking to an obviously separate site, and once the SE sites have their own domains and themes, it's going to be bad for branding as well.

So this brings up the question, what can we do about it? Many of these people really do want to learn, we just need to make the information more accessible. Should we:

  • Continue linking to MSO indefinitely? (I actively dislike this for the reasons explained above);
  • Copy the FAQ content over to the new metas? (how do we keep them up to date?)
  • Synchronize the FAQ content with other metas? (sounds complicated, I don't want to be the one to put in a feature-request for it)
  • Host the FAQ content on a standalone wiki that can be re-branded (themed according to the site that referred you)? [Again, sounds kind of complicated, might be easier or harder than the one above.]
  • Use meta.stackexchange.com? (that site seems virtually dead, and most of the content is technobabble)
  • Something totally different?

I'm open to ideas, and I realize that this won't be solved overnight. But now that we've started to reach out to more "conventional" audiences, we need to start thinking about things like this. These people need significantly more hand-holding than Stack Overflow users, and in the long term, we're going to need something slightly more seamless and slicker than the bare-bones official FAQ and the MSO "Community FAQ."

I'm not going to drop the D-bomb, but let's put it this way: We're trying to be sort of a highly-specialized Wikipedia, so maybe we should look at what Wikipedia has as a starting point.

Thoughts? Anyone? Bueller?


Can you be more specific? This is so vague as to be completely unclear.

  • what, specifically, are you seeing users not understand?
  • what, specifically, do you have to repeat over and over in helping these new users?

I am not really a fan of the community faq (sorry, guys) because it's a wall of excruciatingly detailed text and a maze of twisty links. It's sort of the How to Ask problem...

Of course, users who ask clueless questions haven't the foggiest idea where to find a question FAQ -- and even if they did, they certainly wouldn't have the patience to read it. This inevitable fact of life is utterly and completely lost on Eric S. Raymond. It'd be funnier if it wasn't so sad.

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    I...actually agree with Jeff. The system is really intuitive. The biggest problem isn't how to use the tools, but how to use the tools in the same way the community does. The only way to do that is to jump in, make mistakes, and have people fix them and show you what you did wrong. – Thomas Owens Jul 29 '10 at 1:17
  • At this point, the best use of the community FAQ is probably as a target for "close as duplicate" when someone asks a support question here on Meta. Which is... something at least. The bulk of the site needs no documentation, but the way things behave at the edges is rather non-obvious (I'm pretty sure the "deletion" faq is still not quite right - imagine trying to remember that stuff piecemeal when a user shows up asking why he can't remove the question he just posted) – Shog9 Jul 29 '10 at 1:18
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    Spoken like a true programmer. There's not one specific thing that people don't understand, and none of the questions are "clueless", they're perfectly normal for features that aren't documented except in the community FAQ and maybe your blog: Comment notifications, question deletions, the flagging system, Community Wiki mode, how duplicates and merges work, what the diamond mods can do, bounties, moderation tools... you get the picture. Sorry Jeff, but non-technical people don't just experiment and figure this stuff out. – Aarobot Jul 29 '10 at 3:17
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    To be honest, I'm a little surprised at this response. You know better than anyone that many if not most new features are only documented on the blog, and that's if we're lucky. Even the community FAQ is woefully incomplete in this respect; how are we supposed to explain tag synonyms to new users? We need to focus less on what specific topics to document and more on an overall strategy for getting newer members acquainted with the "advanced" features of the site, beyond simply asking questions and voting. – Aarobot Jul 29 '10 at 3:21
  • I agree with @Aarobot, especially on the experimenting part. Non-technical users are afraid they break the internet if they click on the wrong thing, so assuming they get all these tiny visual cues is a bit optimistic. However, I don't think these features are really aimed at these users either, so perhaps we don't even want them to know about it... – Ivo Flipse Nov 13 '10 at 9:52

Even though it's been around for a while, nobody has mentioned it specifically as an answer to this question, so I'll call it out:

The Privileges Wiki is a huge step in the right direction and I think it solves a majority of, if not all of these issues. It is editable, comprehensive, centralized, and now discoverable.

There may still be more we can do in the long haul, but I think we can close the book on this for now.

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  • If we could leverage the wiki post type to highlight certain other aspects we cover (somewhat poorly) in our Community-Maintained FAQs, such as what does it mean for a post to be closed/locked/protected, it might be another step forward. – Grace Note Nov 12 '10 at 15:32
  • @Grace: True, locked and protected might be less well-understood (though rarely used on SEs, at least in early stages) - I think for closed questions, we've got it covered. – Aarobot Nov 12 '10 at 15:35

I think that an actual Wiki-like FAQ would help out immensely. For the multiple sites, it could be customizable for each site, but all the main articles are synced (e.g., if the LaTex markup gets approved, the math sites definitely need an entry for it).

I personally hate the question-like FAQ. It's hard to find good answers, and there is a distinct lack of an "Official answer", since most of the question askers simply accept what ever suits them.

With the wiki-like FAQ, we would have to construct it very carefully. Big-huge-massive FAQ's never get read, but small ones (i.e., the generic site FAQ) aren't all that helpful. We could perhaps have a "quick-start guide" for new people, then advertise heavily the larger FAQ. While this does sound similar to what we do now, it would be better since things could be synced keeping a site's branding customizable and easy to use. The organization would be better, submissions to the FAQ would be much less heavily moderated, and information can be actually useful.

  • Who could edit the FAQ? Anybody with a 100+ on any site subtracting the automatic association bonus (not lower because they don't know how the site works, not higher since people 100+ do know how the site works and higher requirements will simply be a lesser version of the moderation problem that we have now).

  • How would the site help change? First, rename FAQ to help (since FAQ sounds more like beginner generic basic help, nothing specific), then provide the quick start guide, then link to the to-be-created FAQ site.

  • How is this an improvement? Meta sites can stop being hammered by basic questions and duplicates, help would be much easier to find, and getting help would be a lot easier and less Wikipedia-like

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