How Microsoft IT Designed an Internal Community Support Forum to Foster Early Adoption
Business Case Study
Published: July 2012
Microsoft IT has evolved its support model with http://pointers, a moderated community forum where employees can get real-time expert answers to questions about Windows 8 and Internet Explorer 10 from Microsoft IT and product group experts. The forum improves user productivity and product quality by bringing together Microsoft IT customers, enthusiasts, and product group members through a social community.
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Microsoft IT wanted to fill gaps in existing support channels by creating a new self-help channel that would capture rich, real-time end-user feedback, not commonly seen in traditional channels.
Microsoft IT decided to capitalize on social networking by testing a new internal, moderated forum called http://pointers. The forum provides a “Modern style” design that makes it a friendly place to drive community participation and feedback, integrates with email, and provides search and reporting capabilities missing in other self-help solutions.
Microsoft Information Technology (Microsoft IT) is responsible for supporting the technology infrastructure across the Microsoft enterprise. Because the primary focus of Microsoft is developing software, early adoption and testing of its own prerelease software is part of the organization’s culture and mission. As its first and best customer, Microsoft IT uses the large enterprise and user base as a proving ground for new products before release. The early adoption programs provide Microsoft IT the opportunity to optimize its deployments and IT environment. By using feedback captured through their support channels during early adoption programs, Microsoft IT defines best practices that it shares with Microsoft customers.
Microsoft IT provides a variety of support options to its customers, including assisted (help desk), self-help, and community support. With the release of the Windows 8 and Windows Internet Explorer 10 Consumer Previews, Microsoft IT wanted to extend its support channels to offer users of the Consumer Previews support beyond the typical help desk and existing community options.
Help-desk support is expensive, and it does not always capture all the types of feedback and issues needed to drive improvements because users may not be comfortable calling the help desk for certain issues or at all. This is one of the reasons Microsoft IT offers self-support channels.
Self-support channels rely on the social culture at Microsoft. In the community space, users can choose from getting support by sending an instant message (IM) to a peer or reaching out through the OfficeTalk and Microsoft Answers forums. But Microsoft IT felt that existing community channels were not providing a good "listening" system for capturing the level of detail needed to help improve IT processes and user productivity, as well as reduce support costs and associated expenses. Microsoft IT found that existing options lacked:
- Moderators to ensure that Microsoft IT, users, and product groups were getting the feedback that they needed.
- Search features to easily enable search through archives to find similar issues.
- Reporting capabilities to identify trends.
- Thread anchors and counters to facilitate users' search for top issues.
- Email integration to increase user productivity.
- Scalability to extend community support to new products, programs, and services.
Microsoft IT saw the opportunity to fill the gaps in the existing support channels by creating a new self-help channel in time for the Windows 8 and Internet Explorer 10 Developer and Consumer Previews. Microsoft IT envisioned a social networking forum that would use and showcase the capabilities of the Windows 8 operating system, address some of the limitations of the existing support channels, and foster community spirit within Microsoft. Microsoft IT hoped a friendly, moderated forum would reduce the volume of help-desk calls while increasing the nontraditional feedback needed to drive improvements.
Because the culture at Microsoft lends itself well to social networking, Microsoft IT decided to test a new moderated forum called, http://pointers. http://pointers is an internal Microsoft web application that furthers Microsoft IT’s contribution to improving IT processes and user productivity by bringing together Microsoft IT customers, enthusiasts, and product group members through a social community. Users can engage experts from Microsoft IT and users across the company or participate by answering questions posted to the community. The Modern-style design of http://pointers makes it a friendly place to drive community participation and feedback.
Figure 1. http://pointers user interface
Built on web standards and Microsoft technology using HTML5, the Microsoft .NET Framework, and Microsoft SQL Server data management software, http://pointers provides:
- A moderated community support forum that addresses some of the top feedback from users in prior early adopter programs.
- Real-time, dynamic, searchable, and archived forum content.
- A new avenue to hear rich, real-time user feedback, not commonly seen in traditional channels.
- Valuable collaboration and knowledge sharing between groups (IT and users).
- A scalable solution to serve the whole company, covering a variety of Microsoft products and IT services.
The http://pointers design implements features common to many social networking forums. Some of the key features that help make http://pointers so well received and drive user acceptance include the ability to:
- Search a repository of questions and answers based on keywords and phrases.
- Ask new questions using well-known tags, which make it easy to categorize questions and answers as well as help moderators review unanswered questions.
- Answer others’ questions and promote knowledge sharing.
- Vote on answers so that the right answer emerges.
- Mark answers as favorite so users can filter by the content that most interests them.
- Reward people with badges according to how much and how well they contribute in helping others.
- Use a ticker to draw attention to announcements.
Another helpful feature of http://pointers is it ties in well to the email culture at Microsoft. When a user's post receives a response, an email message is sent to the user. The message provides the response to the post and also directs the user back to http://pointers to view the post. The email integration increases user productivity, because users don’t have to scan http://pointers to see if there is any activity on the thread. The links in the email keep the user interacting with http://pointers.
Microsoft IT has a two-part strategy for the http://pointers forum. The short-term strategy was to introduce a moderated community supported by Microsoft IT and product group experts as part of the Windows 8 and Internet Explorer 10 Developer Previews early adopter programs. The long-term strategy is to formalize and extend the http://pointers community as a self-serve support model to improve the user experience and user productivity across Microsoft products and services. In addition, due to a high level of interest shown by external enterprise customers seeking a similar solution, Microsoft is working toward creating a configurable Modern app, which will be available through CodePlex.
Microsoft IT took a phased approach to releasing the http://pointers forum, as follows:
- The Phase 1 pilot project aligned with the Windows 8 Developer Preview and launched in September 2011 with a few thousand participants. A large portion of the development during Phase 1 was a social engineering effort driven by the Microsoft Engineering Excellence team.
- The Phase 2 pilot project aligned with the Windows 8 Consumer Preview and released in February 2012. In Phase 2, Microsoft IT took the lessons learned from Phase 1 and widened the scope and availability of http://pointers to support Windows 8 and Internet Explorer 10 across Microsoft. Microsoft IT improved the solution by updating the http://pointers web application using a Modern-style design approach.
- For the next phase, Microsoft IT is working with product groups to determine how the http://pointers model can be extended to support other products at Microsoft.
Between initial project phases, https://pointers traffic more than doubled, indicating that the website scaled to the increased volume and improvements were well received.
Table 1. http://pointers site activity
Phase 1 (five-month pilot project)
Phase 2 (March through May 2012)
At any point in time, http://pointers may be used by a substantial number of Microsoft users, requiring the web application to be thoroughly tested before rolling out. Microsoft IT followed its standard deployment process during each phase.
Figure 2. Microsoft IT deployment process
User Acceptance Testing
Once the http://pointers web application was created, it moved into a pre-production environment where user acceptance testing was conducted. The http://pointers team validated the general stability of the solution, then reached out to the broader Microsoft IT organization and asked for voluntary participation to perform more formal testing. This approach to testing enabled Microsoft IT to better understand real user scenarios as participants tested using a variety of systems with diverse system settings and configurations.
The final, validated version of the http://pointers web application was deployed to production, hosted in one of Microsoft's production data centers.
http://pointers provided Microsoft with a new, nontraditional channel to capture feedback about new software. http://pointers was a primary location for employee feedback during the Windows 8 and Internet Explorer 10 Consumer Previews. The forum was well received by Microsoft users and the pilot project was considered a success. Activity on http://pointers remained steady across the Windows 8 Consumer Preview time frame.
Following are some specific measures:
- Site traffic analysis shows that, once users participate in the
community, they are likely to return as site visits greatly exceeds the number
of unique users (see Figure 3). Volume of badges indicates that, once driven to
the community, users tend to contribute in helping others (see Figure 4).
Figure 3. http://pointers site traffic
Figure 4. http://pointers recognition badge volume
analysis shows a near equal amount of users asking questions and answering
questions (see Figure 5) and a high rate of response to questions (see Figure 6),
indicating that http://pointers was building community spirit within Microsoft
where users are empowered not only to work through their own support issues but
also to help others and learn from others.
Figure 5. http://pointers questions and answers comparison
Figure 6. http://pointers site activity
Increased Customer Satisfaction
Customer satisfaction was a big win for http://pointers. Based on feedback from users, some of the top reasons why user satisfaction was high included:
Quick response to posts, where responses are typically made within days, not weeks as with some other forums. Microsoft IT made a commitment to make sure that questions are answered, with a goal of 80 percent of questions answered within 24 hours.
Real-time, dynamic, searchable, and archived forum content.
Improved Product and Processes
Microsoft continues to provide product teams with traditional feedback in the form of bug reports that are used for product improvement, but the integration of http://pointers with the existing processes makes it easier for users to become "the voice of the customer" by providing input and sharing their experiences.
Microsoft users were encouraged to use http://pointers instead of the Send Feedback Tool in the Windows 8 Consumer Preview to ensure their feedback was separated from public feedback and to provide a great place for internal users to interact with product experts about their feedback. When bugs were found in the Consumer Preview, users could visit http://pointers to ask about the issue and have moderators file the bug with Microsoft IT or the product group as appropriate.
http://pointers also provided rich and diverse feedback, which drove product improvements in Windows 8. Traditional support channels typically capture technical issues such as product or feature failures, whereas community support channels also capture nontraditional feedback such as user experience and feature improvement ideas to make the product easier to use.
All this helped ensure that Microsoft IT fulfilled its role in product development and gathering deployment best practices.
Reduced Support Costs
In 2009, Microsoft Services launched community support for Microsoft customers worldwide with the Microsoft Answers community forum. Microsoft Services found that the Answers forum received a lot of participation—a large number of users used the community and many questions were answered. Using the Answers community for customer support enabled Microsoft Services to replace its traditional call-center support model for certain lines of business. This created significant cost savings and reduced support overhead.
During the http://pointers pilot project, Microsoft provided both standard help-desk support and community support through the http://pointers forum. Based on data that Microsoft IT collected from the project, Microsoft sees early indications that http://pointers has the potential to provide a similar reduction in help-desk volume and cost savings as were seen with the external Answers forum.
With the deployment of the Windows 8 and Internet Explorer 10 Consumer Previews, help-desk incident rates peaked soon after launch in March 2012 (see Figure 7), with a progressive reduction in daily incident rates as the deployment proceeded (see Figure 8). Microsoft IT believes that http://pointers helped contribute to the quick stabilization of support activity.
Figure 7. Deployment volumes
Figure 8. Daily incident rate
Community support should be designed in a way that encourages use. Ensure that the solution:
- Provides an easy-to-use, friendly interface where users can locate the information that they are looking for and ask questions when they cannot find the answer.
- Is expandable to accommodate increased volume and support new programs and services.
- Creates and fosters new habits that encourage people to come to the community and become (part of) the community.
- Provides recognition, which in turn increases motivation and personal satisfaction. Badges were one way that Microsoft helped drive users back to http://pointers.
- Maintains a high level of responsiveness. In the community space, responsiveness drives credibility for the end user, which increases user participation.
Community support is about having a support solution where answers are exchanged freely and in a timely fashion. To accomplish that, you must have the right mix of people participating in and supporting the community, and you must ensure that questions are routed to the correct groups and are answered. Here are some tips:
- Ensure that the moderation effort is well planned and implemented.
- Identify subject matter experts for the different areas of product supported.
- Identify which issues require support professional help and which can be addressed through community help.
- Provide a good escalation path that defines ownership and accountability for resolving issues.
Features of a community support channel such as http://pointers can be integrated into existing community forums or other social networking websites within an organization. For example, you can:
- Implement search features.
- Provide feedback through votes to identify top issues, or provide user recognition through badges to foster community spirit.
- Promote existing community channels as a place of learning—both by enabling the IT team and users to provide answers to end users, and by providing the IT team with a means of identifying recurring issues when more than one user posts questions about the same problem.
The benefits of designing an internal support community like http://pointers include the following:
- By using social networking, you can tap into existing user expertise. Social networking is the way much of the world communicates these days; people use social networking channels to shop, solve problems, collaborate, and create personal and business awareness. Microsoft IT did not need to create a lot of content to teach users the fundamentals of communities; most users could participate fully, whether to ask a question, learn about a topic, or help other people.
- Community support helps improve productivity and empower employees. Productivity is increased with community-based support because it enables employees to quickly find answers (via posting a new question or searching the forum) and get back to what they were doing with a minimum of interruption. Employees are empowered to seek help when they need it and to provide help when others are in need. Unlike traditional support channels, community support provides a one-to-many model—a single post affects multiple users.
Community support functions as an early warning system for the IT team, enabling IT pros to identify emerging issues and understand the scope of issues, whether isolated or widespread.
- Moderated, real-time forums capture broader and more relevant feedback than traditional support channels, enabling the IT team to quickly resolve product, program, and service issues to improve the overall user experience.
- Community support provides a self-help means proven to reduce support costs.
Microsoft IT addressed limitations in its existing support channels by taking advantage of social networking to build a scalable solution using web standards and Microsoft technology. Through the http://pointers forum, Microsoft IT was able to drive community spirit within Microsoft and capture timely feedback during the Windows 8 and Internet Explorer 10 Consumer Previews.
Microsoft IT sees great potential for http://pointers moving forward. For example:
- While the initial pilot project was for deployment of the Windows 8 and Internet Explorer 10 Consumer Previews, it was such a success that other Microsoft product groups are interested in using http://pointers. This provides the potential to have all product and deployment efforts supported by the community—enabling a one-stop solution for users to learn, post questions, and find answers, regardless of the product or technology that they have.
- The http://pointers web application was built with the cloud in mind. The Microsoft IT http://pointers team is looking at moving http://pointers to the cloud—that is, deploying the web application on the Windows Azure technology platform. By using Windows Azure, Microsoft IT will have another means to demonstrate Microsoft business value, process excellence, and technology.
- http://pointers is an internal community, but Microsoft has already received requests from external customers wanting to make use of the solution. Microsoft is actively working toward creating a configurable Modern app that will enable our customers to deploy a similar solution in their own enterprise environment. Once the app is ready, Microsoft will make it available through CodePlex.
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