At Experts Exchange, one of the problems we’ve all struggled with is the ever-changing nature of technology. New programming languages, new software tools, new platforms, and on and on… And yet, our topic system has been fairly inflexible. The gatekeeping, second-guessing and debate before a new topic goes live causes such delay that we fail to promptly respond to the needs of our community.
We can do better.
Last year there was a significant infrastructure update to how the topic system worked behind-the-scenes. That change laid the foundation for developing a more flexible system, for which we’re now ready to take the next steps.
The main vision is for the community to naturally generate new topics based on demonstrated need and use, via a proposed topic system that is fully integrated into the topic selector.
The general flow when selecting a topic will be as follows:
- The system parses the content and attempts to find about two topics that it thinks will fit best. If they’re wrong, delete them.
- If you want to add additional topics and/or the recommended ones weren’t good choices, then just start typing and based on matching topic name and synonyms, the system will suggest existing “official” topics, that you can choose from a drop down list.
- The auto suggestion system will also start to include “proposed” topics as options for you. While those topics are not “official” and don’t have topic pages or award certifications, by being able to select them, we can help consolidate proposed topics and track which ones are popular.
- Still not getting a topic you want to use? You can enter in your own free-form text to recommend it as a “proposed” topic.
These proposed topics will then appear in a sort of leaderboard which shows how commonly members are attempting to use them. Top ones can then be promoted to full “official” topic status.
Since the content was already associated with the “proposed” topic, the new topic will already be populated, points will get allocated towards certification and levels in that topic, and the “chicken and egg” problem of new topic generation is solved! (We hope.)
That’s enough words for a bit. Here’s a screenshot of current progress on the topic selector. You’ve probably seen other systems like it, so it should be kind of familiar.
As part of this project, we also wanted to tackle the problem of mis-categorized questions, especially from novice askers. So we’re also expanding the ability for members to edit topics. Upon hitting a rank of level 5 (50,000 points) members will get the ability to edit topics on questions. No more having to tell the asker to open a request for attention and go through that whole process. Now, askers and level 5 experts can easily fix things when a mistake is made.
These updates will be rolling out incrementally over the next couple of weeks. The new topic selector (without the ability to propose topics) has already been integrated into the existing topic edit system and as part of the Courses Beta. We’ll be rolling it out to other locations as soon as next week, along with the expanded topic editing permission.
Next comes an employee version of the proposed topic moderation tool. This will let us seed some proposed topics into the autosuggestor, so we can kick the tires a bit before releasing the entire system into the wild. Barring any disasters, we’ll then allow users to start entering free-form text to propose new topics as well as opening up the moderation tool to the community.
After that, we’ll also be working on ways to help make sure everyone can know about new topics as they’re made official.
Finally, we’re exploring ways that we could let people ask questions without requiring that they provide a topic. Ideally, the topic recommendation system is good enough that there’d always be something, but if not, we’re considering a page that could list questions that don’t have topics, and community members could then review and help determine what topics would be best for them.
With any luck, this project should help Experts Exchange be far more adaptable to the changing needs of our community and do a better job of keeping pace with the exciting world of technology!
Senior Product Manager