Shareware Beach

Sunday, 6 May 2007

First Attempt at User Forums

Filed under: Just Great Software — Jan @ 17:09

A few days ago I released the first beta of RegexBuddy 3. As usual, I did so without much fanfare. I’ve only announced it to a small group of people. There’s no need to torture casual users with the instabilities inherent to a beta version. If you didn’t get an email, you can still download the beta. The beta is open to all licensed RegexBuddy users.

RegexBuddy 3 brings a whole lot of new features that make it even easier to work with regular expressions with even more programming languages and libraries. What sets RegexBuddy 3 apart from all other regular expression tools (including RegexBuddy 2) is that it can emulate the limitations of all the regex flavors that it supports. So you won’t have to ponder why your regular expression works perfectly in VB.NET but not in VBScript. RegexBuddy will tell you why.

But the addition that will have the biggest impact on Just Great Software as a business are the new RegexBuddy user forums. A lot of people have been asking for forums for all our products for quite some time. It hadn’t happened so far, because I didn’t want to just slap some open source forum package onto the JGsoft web site and then see it only get used for spam.

I’ve seen too many forums on small publishers’ web sites where all that happens is the developer fielding support questions. If the support questions are few, the whole forum just gives me a spooky abandoned feeling. Such forums may still save the developer having to answer the same questions to a certain degree. But if people read support forums like they read help files and manuals, it’s not going to be huge. Then I’d rather go on keeping support replies in AceText. It takes less than a minute to send out a canned reply. If the reply is appropriate, it adds much more of a personal touch than reading a reply on a forum addressed to somebody else with the same problem. Many trial users make their buying decision when they get a prompt reply to a support email.

For user forums to be worthwhile, they have to be community forums rather than support forums. A place where people can discuss aspects of the product that they wouldn’t bore a tech support rep with. (It still surprises me how apologetic some people are when they run into trouble with our software, even if the problem is with the software. I wonder how many just carry their cross without ever asking for help.) Then the forums would add something to the product (community) without repackaging what’s already available (technical support).

For a forum to become a community, it needs plenty of active participants. To have plenty of active participants, the barrier of entry has to be very low. It has to be very low the first time, and each and every time thereafter. As a user, when I run into trouble with a product for which web-based forums are available, I do take a look at the forums. But if I don’t see an answer quickly, I give up and just fire off an email. The reason is the barrier to sending an email is much lower. I open my email client, write the email, and send it. But to get onto a web-based forum, I generally need to create a forum account, even though I’m already in another database as a registered user. Then I need to wait for some verification mail, and then I can finally ask my question. By that time I’ve dug up the CEO’s personal email address to tell him where it’s at.

The problem with web-based forums is that they’re disconnected from the software they’re about. Sure, the login issue could be improved by automatically creating forum accounts for licensed users. But I still need to switch from the application I’m using to my web browser to get into the discussion. I can do that if I have a pressing problem, but not to just chat a bit and see what’s up. I’m too busy.

Thus my plan to integrate the forums right into the software. In RegexBuddy 3, there’s one new tab, conveniently labeled “Forum”. The tabs are now dockable and floatable, so you can rearrange them as you like. Click the Login button and you’re on. RegexBuddy will automatically use your license details to log you in. No hassle. If you have RegexBuddy (legally), you have instant forum access. The forum system is multi-threaded and cached, and should be much faster than traditional page-based forums on the web.

Instant access could still be done with web-based forums via a menu item that launches a special URL with embedded account info. But I believe the real benefit of the integrated forums will be the integrated handling of attachments. Copying and pasting a regular expression from RegexBuddy into an email or web forum is easy. But people always forget to mention which options (case insenstive, etc.) they’ve set. In the integrated forums, clicking Add and then Regular Expression will attach the regex with all options. Readers can click Use to instantly load the regex into RegexBuddy. The same trick works with test data, the library, grep, and source code templates. The beta version will even naughtily attach the debugging log without being asked, if it notices there are new errors in the log. A good picture is said to be worth 1,000 words. But actual data is worth 1,000 Outlook.bmp screen shots in which an error box covers up the action. Instead of trying to explain what you’re doing, just show it with two mouse clicks.

Of course, it remains to be seen how successful RegexBuddy’s forums will be. Of all the people who requested support forums, 100% did so while requesting technical support, hoping for somebody to bail them out quickly. Nobody requested support forums because they wanted a platform to share the love of Just Great Software and help others reach enlightenment. But if a community grows, the plan is to implement the same system in the other Just Great Software products as they get major upgrades.

I’ll keep you posted. In the forums.

4 Comments

  1. As for the forums, I can’t wait to check them out–I really love how you’re integrating them into the software itself. I can see how some users may complain about it–people who don’t want anything added into the software necessary for the task (ala those who hate the built in e-mail handling in Opera). I, personally think it’s a brilliant concept and one that I hope is generally well received. I’d especially love to have it make its way into EditPad pro and AceText — by far the two applications I use the most. I, personally, am not set on using them just for a quick help–I’d love to be part of a community that centers around (and is built by!) software I’ve been using for so many years. I’m thrilled to see you’re looking into forums, hopefully it is something well accepted.

    Comment by Allen Day — Tuesday, 8 May 2007 @ 16:00

  2. [...] Integrated forums: RegexBuddy 3 is the first application I’ve seen which includes an integrated, exclusive forum system which is not available outside of the software. This offers some advantages (e.g., almost no spam) and conveniences (e.g., you can attach a regex together with modifiers and target data with the click of a button), but it’s a fairly novel idea. I’m curious to see how well it will do since it’s only available to licensed users. I’m sure you’ll be able to find me there from time to time. Author Jan Goyvaerts talks about his concept for it on his blog. [...]

    Pingback by RegexBuddy 3.0 Beta — Sunday, 10 June 2007 @ 22:09

  3. Congratulations or the new beta, Jan. I’ve blogged about it here: RegexBuddy 3 Beta.

    One question… When RegexBuddy 3 is released, will special upgrade pricing be available? Also, will you possibly offer a free upgrade to people who purchase RegexBuddy 2.x after any particular date?

    Thanks,
    Steve

    Comment by Steven Levithan — Monday, 11 June 2007 @ 1:06

  4. Steven: Yes and Yes, as always.

    Comment by Jan Goyvaerts — Monday, 11 June 2007 @ 7:33

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