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Community products: Reflections & looking ahead

Community products: Reflections & looking ahead

In 2023, Stack Overflow started exploring how generative AI capabilities could support and accelerate the developers’ experience by honing in on the unique problems developers face with technical discovery and solution design. We’ve documented our experience along the way, launched several concepts and tests, and learned a lot from our users through this exploration.

We believe that Stack Overflow is a unique and critical platform, where learners and experts come together to share and create knowledge of the highest quality. As we consider integrating AI into our platform through partnerships and new features, we remain committed to preserving the essence of Stack Overflow: a space driven by human connection and genuine knowledge sharing. We believe in using AI thoughtfully and purposefully to amplify and extend the work done by community members, rather than simply for the sake of it, and will continue to keep Community at our center as we evolve our partnerships and products.

In order to ensure we are delivering on outcomes that bring value to developers and technologists around the world, our product team created a set of guiding principles that ground the projects we take on:

  1. Solve real user problems – If AIs are to be part of the community at large, they should only do so in ways that support and solve real user pain points and needs.
  2. Instill trust and reduce harm – A user’s trust in data, trust in technology products, and trust in community knowledge is more crucial than ever. This principle speaks to transparency, content quality, and moderation.
  3. Encourage and celebrate human contributions – The tens of thousands of questions, answers, edits, and reviews made on a daily basis by the community is what makes Stack Overflow so special. Encouraging and celebrating these contributions is incredibly important and we want to do this every chance we get.
  4. Prioritize community building – Community is where members of common interests learn, grow, and share together. The features we build should support and enable connection, growth, and positive contributions.
  5. Build cohesive experiences – AIs shouldn’t create silos between people or systems. Rather, they should support connected experiences that enable content discovery, creation, and curation across the product ecosystem.

As we look forward to a new fiscal year, we are focused on initiatives that support community health and growth by making it easier for users to find the information they need, making participation on the platform more approachable, and promoting high-quality content to continue to build on the corpus of knowledge that exists today.

In the spirit of experimentation, we are concluding the OverflowAI Search Alpha (conversational search and search summarization features) as it exists on Stack Overflow today. We saw high interest and intent from users, with over 50,000 developers raising their hands to participate! We are grateful to everyone who provided direct feedback to our teams in a variety of ways through interviews, surveys, working groups, and in product feedback

The alpha phase was instrumental in helping us understand how AI can support our users’ unique needs to not only be successful on Stack Overflow but ultimately be successful in their work. For instance, it deepened our understanding of how users perceive and measure the quality of content. It reinforced that technical correctness is just one aspect of quality, and that users also highly value the usefulness and helpfulness of information. This insight emphasizes the importance of developing metrics that capture not only the accuracy of content (AI-generated or otherwise) but also its practical value to users.

Other interesting insights:

  • There was a sense of optimism regarding Stack Overflow’s AI entry and in remaining a valuable resource for technologists.
  • The combination of community-driven verification with AI generated excitement about improved trust and reliability of technical content; however, user trust in the accuracy and relevancy of content is paramount. Transparency is key.
  • AI-powered search features helped developers cut down on time in low-complexity situations, but sometimes ran into hallucinations when dealing with answers to more complex problems.
  • AI-powered search allowed users to continue searching on Stack Overflow to find an answer to their question. Users reported less reliance on external search engines and the need to open multiple tabs. Including sources meant users could dig more deeply into the full context and the comments, if needed.
  • We still have work to do to ensure we are not surfacing out-of-date content, and sometimes the sources were not completely relevant to what the user was searching for. For instance, the answer may have provided information for a different software version that did not align with what the user needed.
  • Lack of personalization meant that users had to be a lot more specific in their queries in order to get relevant answers, putting more burden on the user.
  • Search and conversational AI experiences were siloed experiences and lacked mechanisms to contribute back to the community, or for the community to help vet the answers that were being provided.

We are being thoughtful about how interactions with AIs on the platform support our mission to empower the world to develop technology through collective knowledge. Community growth, content creation, and quality remain our top priorities, and we will leverage AI where it serves the needs of the community, facilitates knowledge creation, and reduces the manual toil on curators and moderators.

As we look forward over the next couple of quarters, we see many use cases and opportunities for AI integration. The initiatives we are prioritizing aim to solve real user problems, some include AI and some do not. But all of them are focused on answering core questions around how we can better serve our community: What pain points are users facing? What tasks are they trying to accomplish? Where do we think we can make the most impact?

Our goal is to ensure that when developers use Stack Overflow, they find more than just answers, but they also find the satisfaction of contributing and being part of something bigger. We’re focusing on simplifying and making the platform more approachable, enabling everyone to have those “aha!” moments more frequently. We believe if it were easier to participate, more users would.

We’ll start by getting more users onto the platform; a project has already kicked off with experiments to optimize the sign-up flows. We will continue this effort by acquiring new users and providing lower-effort ways for users to participate. By simplifying how users interact on the platform and providing guidance to learn community norms, we can help users feel successful while maintaining a high bar with content health.

In 2022, we tested a concept in beta called Staging Ground—a sheltered environment where new askers could get help from experienced users to iterate on and improve their questions before posting to the broader community. This test was received positively by new askers and reviewers alike. We saw higher rates of successful questions making it to the platform. Askers felt supported and welcomed by more experienced users as they learned the ropes of how to ask a good question. Reviewers were happy to see their contributions lead to higher-quality content on the platform. It was a win-win for everyone. However, while the initial tests were positive, it wasn’t a scalable solution. Now, we can explore how to leverage AI to scale this feature to all askers—something that wasn’t possible just two years ago. We are excited that we will be revisiting this concept and believe Staging Ground is a multifaceted approach to supporting community growth and content health on the platform.

Developers’ questions and problems cannot always be solved through traditional, fact-based Q&A. There are plenty of topics that call for opinion and debate. Moreover, community building happens in spaces where such conversations can take place. Discussions is a concept we recently introduced that creates space for deeper dialogue and diverse perspectives. We’ve expanded Discussions to all topic tags and will be evaluating outcomes in the coming months. Our intent is for Discussion to support developers in areas where Q&A isn’t the right fit while promoting problem-solving through community building and human connection.

Stack Overflow is almost 16! That means we’ve got some important technical investments that need to be made and plenty of smaller requests from the Community we want to address. Some projects you can expect:

  • Image hosting: Imgur has been our image hosting provider since the early days of Stack Overflow. We’re actively moving image hosting in-house. This is a non-trivial effort as we need to continue to support the features that are heavily utilized by users across millions of images.
  • Moving to the cloud: Stack Overflow and the Stack Exchange Network still run on physical hardware in an on-prem data center. The time has come for us to begin planning a cloud migration for our public sites in order to improve our monitoring, stability, and focus on new community features. You can learn more about the experience in migrating Stack Overflow for Teams in this two part series (1, 2).
  • Product Advisory Council: we’re lucky to have lots of inputs into product feedback through user research (interviews, surveys, etc) and meta sites. This year, our Community Management team is working to build an advisory council as a consistent and direct line to our product team for feedback on everything from small bugs and feature requests to strategic initiatives.

This is not the last you’ll hear about these initiatives and how they tie back to our guiding principles. For more about these and other new projects, continue to visit Stack Overflow Labs, our hub for innovation and experimentation. As we make progress, we will share each initiative in much more detail. If you’d like to provide your input, we invite you to join the conversation on meta.stackexchange.com, meta.stackoverflow.com, or opt into our user research list.

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