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Should MSDN & TechNet get more narrow-minded? (the 90/10 rule)

Should MSDN & TechNet get more narrow-minded? (the 90/10 rule)

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Recent comments by Steve Ballmer are getting a good amount of attention. James Kendrick posts that what Steve is clueing into is the "90/10" rule that most people spend 90% of their time using 10% of a product's functionality. While this makes sense for consumer products like phones, I wonder if it makes sense for reference/support sites like MSDN and TechNet.

On the one hand, we hear frequently that we should just fix search, that everyone uses search for navigation, that we have "too much going on" with our pages... On the other hand, when we engage with customers on building new applications like our new forums or social bookmarking apps, we're presented with laundry lists of all the specialized features it needs to have.

Now, up until recently, I've been a Program Manager and a Product Planner at Microsoft. I understand that any product receives requests for 542 features, and it's our job to figure out which 10 features will have the most bang for the development buck--which ones make up the "golden 10%" that James is discussing. I get that. My point is that I think Microsoft users in particular have been conditioned into a type of schizophrenia: I want it all, but make it simple. If it's too complex, I'll bash you for being over-engineered and for performance / compatibility issues. If it's too simplistic, I'll bash you for being... well... narrow-minded.

Our new forums platform is a good example. You'll see on a forum page like this one (if you're signed in), that we finally landed on 11 different filter options (7 in the dropdown), 6 sorting options, and 4 other controls in the toolbar. That's cut down from the original requests. We'd love to simplify this down to a Zen(Zune?)-like 3 or 4 buttons, but we'd have a revolt.

forum filters

We also have this nifty new preview feature that includes a link to reply from the preview. It saves a ton of page refreshes, and people love it so much that they're now asking to add features to it. We'd like to stop at just adding "mark as answer" and "quote", but we're definitely getting requests from heavy users to make this page so functional that the actual thread page is no longer needed. Not a very Apple-like approach, and that's coming from our customers, not from a presumed predilection of Microsoft engineers for feature bloat.

I'd love thoughts/comments about whether MSDN and TechNet should strike a different balance on the simplicity factor than consumer products, and why...

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  • The problem isn't the scope, the problem is the direction. I really enjoy keeping up with new technologies and trying to make the best decisions, but I also understand I am not the norm. There are a ton of developers out there that are completely lost with no clue what they need to do. MSDN isn't going to help them. I dropped in a meeting of a local user's group meeting last week and there was an older lady there complaining about how Microsoft is always giving her too many options. Though she loves Microsoft products, she never knows what way she should be doing anything, because there are always 50 different ways to accomplish a single task... not so with the Mac. You will use Objective C. You will use MVC. And you will use the 100 classes in their library. You don't have to make a lot of decisions, because you don't have a lot of options. While this sucks for someone who likes options, a lot of people find the reduced complexity gives them a ton of freedom to actually focus on getting things done.

    You have a billion articles all plopped into one gigantic pile and no way to know which direction to head. IMO, it isn't that MSDN needs to get smaller, it just needs to be split up. The .NET framework could use a bit of this as well. People need to know what approaches are for small applications, what approaches are for enterprise applications, and what approaches should apply to every application you build. Right now, that is nearly impossible to tell unless you are the type of guy would could be writing the articles anyway.

    The bottom line, choosing the wrong tools for the right job can have disasterous consequences. While MSDN does a great job of describing the tools, the average person doesn't have time to read every article to decide which tool to use.

  • This isn't an exact answer to your question but close enough. I read blogs.msdn daily along with another several dozen RSS feeds. Without sounding anglocentric, I want to be able to get blogs.msdn RSS feeds only in the English version. About half of the 100+ blogs in the feeds are in languages that I cant read, take up bandwidth, and require me to scroll thru several times per day.

  • Two suggestions:

    1. You probably have a couple of different types of users interacting with your forums. Someone who's searching for an answer to a specific problem might need a very different UI than someone who's browsing for unanswered questions he/she can help with. It would be cool if I could pick an interface based on what I was trying to accomplish, rather than having one interface that tried to do everything.

    2. And since I don't want to be left out of the feature request stampede: As someone who's primarily looking for answers it would be nice if answered forum posts could be linked to back to their relevant MSDN articles and vice versa. So if someone answered a question and the answer features a StringBuilder they could somehow tag it as associated with the StringBuilder class in the .NET Library.

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