SUMO (support.mozilla.com) is the new community-powered Firefox user support site. If you have any questions about or problems with Firefox, SUMO is the place to go to find documentation, answers to frequently asked questions, a bustling community forum, and incredibly helpful folks in the new Live Chat facility.
David Tenser has been part of the Mozilla community for many years, and is now heading up the SUMO project. He took some time out of his increasingly busy schedule (Firefox 3 is just around the corner, after all) to answer a few questions for me.
Deb: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your history with the Mozilla project?
David: Certainly! Back in 2002, when Firefox was still known as Phoenix and wasn’t used by that many people, I started to help other users of the browser on the MozillaZine support forums and became more and more familiar with the ins and outs of the software. Although Phoenix was still very rough around the edges, it quickly became more popular. I noticed that people were asking the same questions over and over again in the forums, so I decided to do something about that and created a website listing the most frequently asked questions. From that point, my involvement with Mozilla got a lot deeper and I found myself spending several hours every day working on the site and helping people in the forums.
When Firefox 1.0 was about to be released, my help site was moved over to mozilla.org and became the official support site for Firefox. To show how much Mozilla appreciated my work on it, Marcia sent me a Firefox mug. From that day, I started to drink coffee like never before and four years later, it feels like something is wrong if I’m not drinking my morning coffee from that very mug. :)
To make a long story short, I was hired by Mozilla last year as the project manager for Firefox Support (SUMO), which finally turned my hobby into my full-time job, and made one of my dreams come true.
On a more personal note, I’m a guy who loves traveling, photography, animals, gadgets (sometimes referred to as the small units of proud men), and open source software. I live in Sweden with my girlfriend and our two cats in Eskilstuna, a city about one hour away from the glamorous Capital of Scandinavia. Oh, and did I mention I have a Firefox mug?
Deb: What is SUMO, and what purpose does it serve?
David: SUMO is short for support.mozilla.com, the official, community-powered support website for Mozilla Firefox. The main purpose of the site is to provide support for users of Firefox, helping them fix problems they might be running into, as well as teaching people how to use Firefox.
However, there are other important reasons why SUMO exists. Mozilla is a global community and there are many people interested in helping us promote the open web. Take me for example — when I started to volunteer for Mozilla, I wasn’t a particularly skilled software developer, so the thought of contributing code-wise felt unrealistic. Still, I wanted to give something back to Mozilla which provided me with the best web browser I’ve ever tried. To me, support was a way to contribute to the Mozilla project without the need for particular software development skills. During the process of helping people, my knowledge improved and I was able to become more deeply involved with the project.
Support is a powerful way for people to get involved with Mozilla, and really anyone can contribute with something. It’s also a fun way to learn more about your favorite browser while helping and interacting with other people.
Of course, Mozilla community support has existed for a long time. The difference with SUMO is that we are providing the infrastructure, empowering the community with a solution focusing on providing the best possible support experience. Hosting the website ourselves gives us the important benefit of learning more about our users. For example, we can see exactly which articles in the Knowledge Base are the most popular for any given week. Expect to see more around this soon as we just recently switched our site statistics backend. It’s also important to note that the increased knowledge about our users is helpful to everyone involved with the project, including all of our volunteers.
Deb: Who are the current staff of the SUMO project, and what are their roles?
David: It really depends on how you count, which I’ll get back to shortly. There are currently three people (aside from myself) working directly on the SUMO project:
Chris Ilias is the main administrator of the Knowledge Base and is, among other things, responsible for content review, user administration, and contributor documentation. He is also writing and editing support articles, and regularly talks to localizers to make sure they are on track and that their feedback is considered.
Jason Barnabe is the support forum administrator, and is also a skilled web developer who helps fixing bugs and implementing new features on the site. Recently, he has taken a more active role in this regard, and he has grand plans for making the forum a lot more useful for both helpers and end-users, which we’ll see more of soon.
Majken Connor is the administrator of Live Chat and is responsible for the helper training program and making sure the process of helping Firefox users is documented. She is also actively communicating with helpers to find out more about our shortcomings so we can continuously improve how we do things.
Although there is one person responsible for each of the three components of SUMO, everyone on the team also has an eye on the project as a whole, ensuring that the project is moving in the right direction. This is very important, as the individual components all play an important role in the overall project. Aside from countless discussions in the newsgroup, we have open meetings every Monday where we discuss aspects of the whole project. Anyone is invited to call in and participate, by the way.
Getting back to my original comment, SUMO is very much a community effort. As such, it’s hard to really define the different roles in the project. For example, we have Nelson Ko from the TikiWiki community working as our main software developer, implementing new features and fixing lots of bugs. He is working closely with the web development team at Mozilla, but he is also working with other TikiWiki community members such as Sylvie Greverend and Alexander Mette to make sure the changes we do in SUMO are merged upstream.
Then we have a number of key community members taking increasingly more active roles within the project. For example, Matthew Middleton and Cheng Wang have both done tremendous efforts recently with Live Chat and planning and executing events such as Support Firefox Day. Another example is Bo Bayles who is writing a lot of the excellent content in the Knowledge Base, as well as answering a lot of questions in the support forum.
So, the current staff of the SUMO project really includes anyone who wants to be part of the new support movement from Mozilla.
Deb: What are the various services SUMO provides to help Firefox users?
David: There are three components of SUMO, each serving very specific purposes. I’d like to talk about the services they provide both from a user’s and a contributor’s perspective.
The Knowledge Base is the heart of the website and is a large collection of support articles largely written by the community. The key focus of the Knowledge Base is troubleshooting — solving people’s problems with Firefox — as well as teaching people how to use the browser. If you’re experiencing a problem with Firefox, it’s likely someone else has had the same problem before, so from an end-user’s point of view, this is the first place to look for help because it includes well-written solutions to known problems. We make it very obvious to the user that they should search the Knowledge Base first by putting a large search box right on the start page.
Looking at it from a contributor’s point of view, the Knowledge Base is a great opportunity for people with basic writing skills to make a difference to the 170+ million users of Firefox. There is always room for improvement in any of the articles, for example, better explaining technical issues such that they are comprehensible for as many people as possible. Since the Knowledge Base is a wiki, anyone can sign up and make improvements. In addition, the content can also be translated into any other language, so if an article is not yet available in your language, it’s easy to just get started and translate it yourself, which immediately helps your fellow local Firefox users.
Naturally, because of the focus of fixing common problems, the Knowledge Base will never include the answers to all support questions a user can have about Firefox. The solution to this is the support forum, which is a way for users to get support for problems they couldn’t find the answer to in the Knowledge Base. Questions asked in there are seen by everyone browsing the forum, which means the chance of someone else reading a question and knowing the answer is high.
From a contributor’s point of view, the support forum is a fun and relaxed way to start helping other people, since you can read the questions and only respond to the ones you know the answers to. There is also no direct interaction with the user, meaning you can spend more time researching the problem before providing an answer.
Last but not least, we also offer a more direct way for users to get help, which we call Live Chat. Here you can have a direct discussion with a real person who will guide you through the process of solving whatever Firefox problem you may have. Sometimes following written instructions can be hard, and in these cases, Live Chat is the perfect answer because someone is right there to walk you through the process.
When looking at Live Chat in the point of view of a contributor, it is definitely a more challenging way of helping other people, since you can’t really just leave a chat session if you can’t help the user. It’s important to note that while you’re typically helping one user at a time, however, you are not on your own. Other contributors are working alongside you and you can always chat with them, or even invite another helper to join your session with a user. Live Chat is definitely the most social way of contributing to the SUMO project. It also gives you an interesting perspective on who our Firefox users really are, which I think even Firefox developers would benefit from experiencing on a regular basis.
Deb: For the Knowledge Base, what sort of tools are used to ensure the quality and accuracy of the articles?
David: First of all, we have a pretty neat review system in place to ensure that the accuracy of the articles are maintained. Although anyone can sign up on SUMO and start editing articles, a reviewer must read the changes made and approve them before they’re visible to our users. If a contributor proves to be a good writer whose edits are mostly approved without comments, he or she can become a reviewer as well. We currently have at least one reviewer per locale we support on SUMO.
Another important feature is the article feedback system. At the end of each Knowledge Base article, we ask two questions, one of them being “Was this article easy to understand?”. Answering this question is as easy as clicking Yes or No. The feedback we get from this allows us to continuously improve the quality of the articles. We also allow users to provide additional feedback, where they can specifically tell us what parts of the article are incorrect or hard to understand.
Deb: How many languages are the Knowledge Base articles being translated into, and how is that work managed?
David: All articles are treated as individual items and as such they may or may not be translated into a specific language. Because of this, it’s hard to give an accurate answer, because it depends on which article you look at. We have a set of articles that Firefox 3 links to from the help menu, and these are translated into more than 30 languages. There are other articles that are translated to around ten languages today. Finally, there are many articles that are not translated at all. We definitely need more help in translating Knowledge Base articles! If you spot a popular article that is not available in your language, please help us out by translating it yourself. It’s a great way to get involved with the Mozilla community.
For each locale, we have one person that is responsible for overseeing the contents in that language. He or she can also promote other contributors so they can help reviewing article edits. The localization features in SUMO are still a bit rough around the edges, and although we’ve certainly reached a state where the system is fully usable, we are continuously working hard to improve it even more.
Deb: How does the Live Chat system work, and how do users access it?
David: If a user can’t find the answer to their question in the Knowledge Base, there is a link at the end of the search results to ask a direct support question instead. From there, users have the option of either asking the question in the forum, or getting in touch with a Firefox helper directly using Live Chat.
A user who requests help using Live Chat enters his or her question and is then put in a queue. The helpers that are currently logged in with the chat application are then alerted with the user’s question asked upfront. If the helper knows the answer to the question, or wants to try to help the user anyway (often the challenge is part of the fun!), the helper simply accepts the incoming request and a one-on-one live chat session is started with the user.
As I said earlier, a helper can always ask other helpers currently logged in if the user’s question is too difficult or if the helper simply runs out of time and has to pass the user over to someone else. Live Chat helpers often get to know each other more and more so they’re really friends helping each other out.
Deb: The SUMO user support forums seem pretty active, how many support questions do you estimate have been handled through those so far?
David: Yes, the forums are indeed becoming increasingly active. We get around a thousand questions posted in the forum every week. A quick look at the posts from the last 48 hours shows that over 300 questions were asked, and seven of them are currently unanswered. This really shows the excellence of the SUMO community — they are really working hard to make sure our users are taken care of.
Deb: I know that SUMO is largely a volunteer effort — how many volunteer contributors do you estimate have helped out to date?
David: Taking content writers, localizers, and forum and live chat helpers into account, we’re looking at over 60 active contributors per week, which is nothing short of amazing. Based on stats going back a couple of months, the number is also growing every week! I think a large reason for this is because of the many different ways people can contribute to the project.
Deb: There’s a SUMO Screencast contest in progress right now. What’s that all about, and what are the prizes that can be won?
David: Glad you asked! As I mentioned earlier, the heart of SUMO is the Knowledge Base. We are constantly thinking of new ways to improve the content to make it easier for users to understand. As part of this ongoing work, we want to make the content more interactive by including screencasts that show a user how to perform a task rather than trying to describe it strictly through text. A screencast is basically a video clip recording the actions on a computer screen — think of it as an animated screenshot — where you can actually see the mouse cursor moving across the screen, clicking a button, or changing a setting. People who can’t understand the sometimes technical language used in computer software certainly benefit from a screencast compared to an article consisting of just text and screenshots. Even people who can understand the written information often benefit from the hands-on approach of a video.
The Firefox Screencast Contest is all about creating screencasts for the top 100 Knowledge Base articles of SUMO. Participating in the contest is super-easy. In fact, recording a screencast using e.g. Jing is often easier than creating a screenshot, because the result can be automatically uploaded to the web for you to share.
There will be one winner per article, meaning we’ll potentially have 100 winners! In addition, there will be one grand prize winner for the best screencast overall. Check out the Prizes page to see what you can win.
Finally, let’s not forget that if you’re one of the 100 winners, your screencast will be used in a Knowledge Base article read by thousands and thousands of Firefox users. Not only will you provide invaluable help for all those users, you will be credited for it as well.
Deb: Outside of the contest, what other tasks are you looking for volunteers to help with?
David: There are so many things we could use some help with, it’s hard to know where to start. It really depends on what you’re interested in, because usually that’s what you do best. So for example, if you’re a skilled writer, copy-editing Knowledge Base articles is a very good way to start. Just reading an article per day and fixing a few typos is enough to put your name at the end of an article.
If you’re more familiar with Firefox, browsing the support forum for unanswered questions is the perfect way to start your day. Helping someone and getting a thank you is a fun boost that has a stronger effect than your morning coffee (regardless of what mug you’re drinking it from!)
But really, there are so many other things people can do to help. One is to just sign up, log in, and browse around on the site and tell us what you think we could improve. Or reading the contributor documentation and letting us know if we’re missing any info. Or translating an article into Hebrew, discovering that the paragraphs are left aligned even though the language is right-to-left, and then filing a bug about that or even submitting a patch that fixes the problem. :)
There are so many ways to help out and get involved that there’s always going to be something for everyone to work on.
Deb: A lot of experienced Firefox users may want to help out but may think they’re not qualified or don’t have the time. What levels of experience and commitment are required to volunteer with the SUMO project?
David: This is the interesting thing about SUMO: there are no requirements! That you enjoy using Firefox is of course a bonus, mostly because you’ll enjoy hanging out with us more then. But really, volunteering with the SUMO project can be as simple as correcting a typo in a Knowledge Base article, or as challenging as organizing a full-day event around Firefox support.
There’s a way for everyone to help out with the SUMO project. If you’re not sure what you could do, just ask! Finally, if you don’t think you have the time, how about spending just a few minutes a day? You will definitely be able to make a difference.
Deb: If someone wanted to volunteer to help out with SUMO, what should they do? Who should they talk to?
David: Good question. We usually hang out on IRC (irc.mozilla.org, channel #sumo). Another great way to get in touch with us is to drop by the Contributor Forum and ask how you can get involved. Lastly, you can always e-mail me directly (djst at mozilla dot com).
There’s more information available at the Knowledge Base How to contribute article, as well.
Deb: Is there anything else you’d like to add or say to readers or potential volunteers?
David: Thanks for reading! If you’ve read this far you probably have at least five minutes to spare every day. You’re very welcome to spend them with us in the future and make a difference for other Firefox users around the world!