One thing that always bothered me about complex desktop applications like Adobe Photoshop or Eclipse, or even Desktop Linux is finding out how to use the more advanced features (or, truthfully, some of the basic features). I’ve always liked community response, so I’ve been on a number of mailing lists and it’s usually really helpful.

What if these types of useful feedback were available within the application itself? You could literally just type a question into your help box, and a minute later you would get answers. This would be incredibly helpful for hundreds of new users.

Answerbag has an available API that could be integrated this way. There are a number of other services that are similar and could be used as well (if they have APIs), such as answers.com, wikihow, or Yahoo! Answers.

An added benefit is now there’s a website with a VERY comprehensive FAQ that’s been indexed by google, and the people who aren’t even using the built in Q&A; process can still find answers to their questions. The result? A decreased learning curve which will lead to a bigger user base.

Advantages

  • Very fast response time

Answerbag was achieving about a 90% response rate on new questions within just a few minutes, and that’s just from general community.

  • Does not rely on paid tech support, although it can be augmented this way by a company that can afford to do so.

Yes, you can get great answers from the community. But sometimes an official response is appreciated. A site like answerbag could add tools so that a parter company could take ownership of a category, reviewing submitted questions and answers for correctness, and modifying or locking answers after they’ve been deemed correct. It would be a departure from the current model of the site, but certainly an authoritative answer would be appreciated by a lot of people. About.com has a similar model, where experts own a particular category and maintain the content there.

  • The community has more time to help people with new problems.

Since it would be easier to find older how-to pages, experts can spend less time solving the same problem over and over. They’d be more likely to help people more often, since they wouldn’t be so annoyed.

Disadvantages

  • Initial answers might be inaccurate

I think in applications with a larger use base, or more tech savvy areas, this would be less of a problem. I’ve gotten some amazing answers on mailing lists and IRC channels, and I don’t see why the quality of the answers would be any different.

  • Getting the first customer

Since no one is doing this yet, the hardest implementation will be the first. It’s likely a company like Microsoft or Adobe wouldn’t want to be the first in the pool for an idea like this, but they’re also the ones that could pull off the best implementation. The true power of social Q&A; isn’t really apparent till you get your questions put in front of a few million eyeballs.

This would be a great opportunity for innovation in open source, in particular at the OS level. Linux adoption is lower than it could be, and it has a lot to do with the difficultly of figuring out some of the more basic tasks.

Since I no longer work on Answerbag, or it’s parent company Demand Media, I have nothing to gain at this point, except for more useful applications.