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Recently there has been some discussion of our site on sci.math. I was surprised to learn that some folks are having difficulty learning how to use our site. Is this a common experience? We currently have over 9500 users and far fewer questions on meta, so I presumed that it was fairly easy for most folks to get up to speed. Perhaps some folks might like to contribute to said discussion.

If there are still some rough spots for new users I suspect they are simply oversights that can be remedied quite quickly. To identify these rough spots I think it is essential to obtain feedback from relatively new users. But I suspect most new users don't frequent meta. So how can we obtain such feedback?

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  • $\begingroup$ I tried to add the FAQ tag but it's mod-only. Why? $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Jul 11 '11 at 18:06
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    $\begingroup$ «Who are the moderators? A clique, of course.» Such rotundity of reasoning there! $\endgroup$ – Mariano Suárez-Álvarez Jul 11 '11 at 18:26
  • $\begingroup$ @Mar One of the reasons for my posting here was the hope that others would chime in to help dispel such external misconceptions. Perhaps that one is rooted in old times when mods were appointed vs. elected. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Jul 11 '11 at 18:43
  • $\begingroup$ For the record, my actual comment was "@David: You're a new user, so the confusion is understandable, but for future reference, when you want to make a comment about a post, you should use the comment feature - click the "add comment" button on the lower left of the comment area (it is in light grey text). The way you had originally posted was as an answer." Not "Why was your post deleted? See the faq." (I find this distortion very curious.) Theo then reminded me that, having < 50 rep, David could not have posted a comment on a thread he didn't start, so I deleted my explanation. $\endgroup$ – Zev Chonoles Jul 11 '11 at 19:39
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    $\begingroup$ @Zev I suspect that the message "Why was your post deleted..." is a system message that only David can see, and that he never saw your comment before you deleted it. That is consistent with what he reported. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Jul 11 '11 at 19:55
  • $\begingroup$ @Zev Yes, my hunch is correct, you can see an example of that system-generated message "Why was your post deleted..." in this MSO post. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Jul 11 '11 at 20:06
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill: Thanks for the explanation, I was somewhat put off by the attribution of a particularly unhelpful comment to me when I made no such comment, but it was just system behavior. Perhaps having these comments made by the Community user in the future would be preferable... $\endgroup$ – Zev Chonoles Jul 11 '11 at 20:26
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    $\begingroup$ @Zev Yes, this is yet another example of where the platform puts words into a user's mouth via an automatically generated system message. Since it has confused and irritated both a new user and an experienced user, and will probably continue to do so, perhaps it should be reported as a bug. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Jul 11 '11 at 20:45
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    $\begingroup$ @Zev: Dear Zev, I think the optimal approach is to do as you did, converting the comment to an answer, but leaving an explanation along the lines of "As a new user with < 50 rep, you are unable to leave comments. However, as your post is really a comment rather than an actual answer to the question, I have manually converted it into a comment. You will soon have enough rep to leave comments directly yourself." Regards, $\endgroup$ – Matt E Jul 11 '11 at 20:46
  • $\begingroup$ Note: anyone with a Google account can reply to messages in said linked Google Groups web-interface to sci.math (no newsreader is required, but they typically are more powerful). I encourage folks to contribute to help dispel misconceptions about our site. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Jul 11 '11 at 22:05
  • $\begingroup$ @Matt: You're correct, of course. I think I intended to rewrite my comment but it slipped my mind. Your suggestion sounds great; I will post it. $\endgroup$ – Zev Chonoles Jul 12 '11 at 4:03
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill: the (faq) tag is not on questions about the FAQ, but indicates that the questions are actual FAQ items. This question is not an FAQ item. You can (ab)use the (faq-proposed) tag for this if you really want. But I think leaving it at (discussion) is good enough. $\endgroup$ – Willie Wong Jul 12 '11 at 10:01
  • $\begingroup$ @Zev, Bill: see meta.stackoverflow.com/questions/96342/… @Zev in the future, it is better to still leave a comment about migrating the answer to the comment section. It is best to inform the new users of these things. $\endgroup$ – Willie Wong Jul 12 '11 at 10:11
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    $\begingroup$ Just a comment about "over 9500 users"... I suspect the real number is smaller than that. There are hundreds of duplicate accounts that I don't have time to deal with at the moment (you can check for this on the data.stackexchange site), and tons of one-off users. Call me a pessimist, but I would peg the actual number of users somewhere around four to six thousand. $\endgroup$ – Willie Wong Jul 12 '11 at 10:21
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    $\begingroup$ Just to add my thoughts...as for new users' perspectives and experience, I made some of those thoughts clear three months ago...There seemed to be a significant period of time in which genuine respect was the rule, following that discussion. But of late, I'm seeing sarcasm again; I will follow up this comment with some examples (I'll track down a couple of such posts). Bill, unfortunately, I do not find it at all surprising that some new users are left with a "bad taste" in their mouths, upon their initial encounters here. It's not so much the learning curve that's a problem... $\endgroup$ – Namaste Jul 13 '11 at 1:29
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First and foremost, thanks to Bill Dubuque for advertising this in sci.math. I have more or less given up that due to its very low signal-to-noise ratio. May be I should try and locate that thread and try to give some (moral) support. Here we stick to the math. I'm not going back!

As a relatively new user I try to list the few problems I had, while I still vaguely remember what they were about. Can't say how typical they are?

1) Creating an account did feel like a turn-off at first? What the heck is an open-ID? I'm most certainly not giving you any of my passwords used elsewhere! None of the open-ID providers looked familiar at all. For one thing, they are all based in the USA! I didn't feel too welcome at this point. Luckily I had once created a Yahoo ID for the purposes of participating in an NHL-pool that we were running at work, so that saved the day. Was it actually possible to create an account without an open-ID? That's not the impression I got!

2) Ok, I'm in. Looks fun. But what is that error message about needing external Javascripts. Isn't that exactly the kind of thing that has turned the internet into a scary place, where you first get malware on your PC, and then suddenly get thousands of euros billed to your credit card or cell phone? Let's be safe. What does Adblocker say? google.analytics is used here. No way! I will not allow that! Something else from Google. May be that is it? If I'm lucky that has nothing to do with market research. Let's try. Ok. Seemed to help, but if Google (or somebody else) can now collect some data on my personal preferences I'm going to be so pissed...

3) Wow, now I can search for interesting questions. Why can't I comment? Oh, let's read the FAQ! Ok. I need a little bit of this reputation thing. Fine. Shouldn't be too hard. Rats, this FAQ is only designed to those, who primarily want to ask questions, and don't really know how. At this point it feels like I would mostly be answering questions, but this FAQ doesn't really help much there. What to do? Let's lurk and see how the regulars do it. Hey, I remember this guy from sci.math! Let's see! WTF? Why is he giving so many details to such an obvious homework question? What about this other? He's only giving hints. Feels more responsible. Live and learn. Post an answer. Yes, an up vote! WTF. A downvote? Did I give too much detail to an obvious homework problem? Oops, I seem to have included an answer. May be that was it? Note to self: finetune your approach. Let's try a more interesting tag. Wow, an unanswered question I can say something about!... Oops that seems to have been posted half a year ago. And the asker hasn't really been active for many a month... Hmm.

Enough blogging/streamin. Sorry about that. The other things I didn't get right away:

4) Messaging system. Well, this was explained to me in Meta, but not in the FAQ.

5) May be the FAQ should explain what kind of statistics and other data I can see by clicking my own (or anyone elses) username? Granted, it is also easy enough to learn this by the time honored method of trial and error. But it is very nice to know that there is a place that maintains a list of the discussions that I have participated in.

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks! That's precisely the kind of feedback I was hoping for. Perhaps after learning from such feedback we can put together a "quick start" guide that will enable new users to get up to speed as quick as possible. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Jul 18 '11 at 22:09
  • $\begingroup$ I don't really think (2) and (5) should be addressed in the QuickStart or FAQ. (5) at least you should treat like an interaction adventure game. (1), (3), and (4), however... I think @Bill's idea of a quickstart guide is a good one. $\endgroup$ – Willie Wong Jul 19 '11 at 2:28
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    $\begingroup$ @Willie: Yeah, addressing (5) in the FAQ is not necessary. The reason that item showed up on my list was that during the first week I kept hitting the 'next' link a lot in order to relocate those few threads I had participated in. If the volume of traffic were, say, fivefold, this would be too painful. So it is nice to know that the system maintains a list aiding that. Using a search engine does not come naturally to those who started using the internet before Google. $\endgroup$ – Jyrki Lahtonen Nov 29 '11 at 11:09
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If there are still some rough spots for new users I suspect they are simply oversights that can be remedied quite quickly. To identify these rough spots I think it is essential to obtain feedback from relatively new users. But I suspect most new users don't frequent meta. So how can we obtain such feedback?

Good idea!

New users can't even post here on meta until they have 5 rep.

The best way to get new user feedback is to directly ask someone to give the site a try, then report any specific feedback directly to you via ...

  • email
  • instant messaging
  • phone
  • newsgroup
  • message board
  • watching (without intervening!) over their shoulder

... that is, whatever preferred communication vector they are comfortable with.

As far as the philosophy of approaching new users goes, the golden rule is be very generous in leaving personal, helpful comments explaining what is going on. It means a lot more coming from fellow users than it does coming from our software.

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  • $\begingroup$ You mean treating new users like this? math.stackexchange.com/questions/53403/… $\endgroup$ – John M Jul 24 '11 at 4:33
  • $\begingroup$ I don't see anything particularly objectionable there; the question is barely on-topic, if at all $\endgroup$ – Jeff Atwood Jul 24 '11 at 8:27
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In the FAQ segment about asking good questions it says "Be specific." I think this segment could, itself, be more specific. Perhaps there should be some language like: Describe what your attempt to answer the question. This will help people respond at a level appropriate to your background.

My thinking is that two people could ask about finding the roots of $3x^2 + 5x + 7 = 0$. One OP might be looking for an answer at the level of using the quadratic equation. Another might be wondering how to use Galois theory to find the roots.

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