10,000 Tech Questions Answered & Counting: Behind The Scenes at MakeUseOf Answers

We know how to solve issues. Since its launch, we have published and solved over 10,000 tech questions on MakeUseOf Answers. Presently, a small team of staff, contributors, and readers are processing dozens of technology-related challenges a day. If you wonder what happens behind the scenes, how we differ from other Q&A forums, and what we have learned over the years, be my guest.

Answers was launched in January 2010 as a small Q&A forum to support MakeUseOf readers in need of tech support. From the start, we aimed to offer something unique, a personal service for our readers. This starts with how we publish questions and ends in checking up on questions to make sure they get solved. No matter how many questions are submitted every day, we plow through with the aim to help readers find the best answer.

The Life Cycle of a Question

Questions are submitted via a simple question form. First, users enter a summary, which becomes the question title. Next, they proceed to adding details, i.e. a thorough description of their question. Operating system and browser are detected automatically, as we often need this information and have found that people forget to specify it. Finally, the question can be submitted.

MakeUseOf Answers runs on WordPress. Every submitted question lands in Drafts and is subject to editing before being published.

Before we go ahead and edit, we get an overview of all questions currently in Drafts. The title helps us spot duplicates and spam. The basic editing routine looks like this:

  • read and make sense of question.
  • if it can be published, go ahead and edit, otherwise reject with custom explanation.
  • edit question body to make the question easy to read and understand.
  • edit question title to summarize body in question form.
  • add tags and categories.
  • publish.

Steps 3 and 4 are what differentiates us from our competition. With step 4 we ensure that people who potentially have an answer find the question, open it, and respond to it. With step 3 we ensure that they don’t give up all frustrated because the question is hard to read. We edit grammar, punctuation, wording, and formatting of each and every question in an attempt to clearly carve out the issue.

Once a question is published, it typically receives its first responses within a few minutes. Every question has between 15 to 25 hours on the Answers front page, before it is replaced by new questions. However, that doesn’t mean it won’t get any exposure anymore.

We post selected questions to our Facebook and Twitter accounts. This includes interesting and popular questions, as well as those that did not get solved, yet. We typically browse through old questions a few days up to a week after they were first published.

Any question ever published on MakeUseOf Answers remains in our knowledge pool. We often point to previously asked questions, when we spot them in Drafts. Thanks to tags and categories, old questions are shown as similar questions. And finally, a lot of questions receive regular traffic via search engines and continue to draw in new solutions and follow-up questions.

Introducing the Team

Who are the people who keep Answers running smoothly?

Well, first there is me, Tina. I have been the editor for Answers since its launch in January 2010. In the beginning I did it all. I edited and published submitted questions, I answered some of them, I encouraged fellow staff members to support Answers, I wrote weekly question summaries, I read all the comments, I ran public and internal contests, and I worked with our web developer to constantly improve Answers. Answers was small and until around mid 2011, running it all by myself was manageable.

A lot has changed since the early days and meanwhile Answers is run by a small team. The first to join were volunteers. Readers passionate about technology started to show up regularly to answer questions. In the past they were rewarded by contests and now they can earn rewards points.

Several volunteers have been with us since the very beginning. About a year ago, we asked some of them to join Answers as contributors. Presently, we have 7 contributors and if you ask a question, you will likely hear from them: Bruce Epper, FIDELIS, ha14, Kannon (aka Smayonak), Mike, Oron, and Susendeep Dutta. Those people and the countless volunteers have made all the difference!

Thanks to thousands of questions and many great answers from competent contributors and volunteers, Answers has been growing steadily. At some point, it was too much to handle for just one person. That’s when first Matt and later Tim joined the team as assistant editors. Apart from editing questions, Matt is in charge of tags and posting questions to Facebook. Tim edits questions and manages Answers’ own Twitter account. Together, the three of us cover North American (Matt), European (Tina), and Australian/Asian (Tim) time zones, so that there is always an editor on duty to process submitted questions.

Lessons Learned

People are not stupid. They just care about and are good at different things and need help with the things that are clear to yourself.

Unfortunately, not every question can be solved. However, you won’t know until you gave it a good try. That’s what we do. I have found that even if a question isn’t solved immediately, it may continue to draw in comments for weeks or months after being published. And in some cases, there is a happy end with someone finally posting a solution that worked for them.

Some questions should never be solved in the first place. Today, we politely reject such questions.

The most interesting questions are those that were dormant for months, and suddenly receive a lot of attention and comments from people looking for a solution. It’s funny how similar issues seem to come up in waves.

The one topic that is always in high demand is Facebook. We receive dozens of Facebook-related questions every week and a lot of them have been asked previously. And if you saw some of the comments those questions receive, you would think Answers was Facebook’s official Help section. Well, sorry to break the news to everyone, but we are not Facebook support.

In the end, every business is about the people. What it takes is a passion and a lot of patience. With Answers, my personal passion clearly lies in organizing processes and solving issues. When I couldn’t solve every question or keep up with the amount of work, the solution was to find like-minded people who could help. That’s how you begin to build a team and a community will grow around it. Whatever you do, it takes a community of people to sustain it.

Have you challenged us with a question, yet? Why don’t you give it a try!

Image credits: Volunteer via Shutterstock

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