Building a support network in the community
In free software projects, the best "support" is often available directly from your own community. However, that support happens on informal channels - such as IRC, mailing lists and web forums. It can be difficult to capture those discussions, to turn them into a more structured knowledge-base.
Launchpad's Answer Tracker provides a framework for just that. It's also useful as a way of tracking system administration requests - for example, to create new accounts in the project if you have shared systems for developers.
Questions show up in lists for each project in the system. For example, here are the latest questions for Ubuntu:
And here's a snapshot of those at the time of writing:
Note that some of the questions are general "Ubuntu" questions, and others are focused on the use of a specific package.
There's no joy in posting questions into a vacuum. Launchpad lets members of your community become "answer contacts", who are notified each time a new question is asked. Here are some of the answer contacts for Ubuntu:
In the case of Ubuntu, you can become an answer contact for any package, or for the distribution as a whole. This lets people focus on the areas they know best, or choose to be generalists who try to help whatever issue a user has.
Follow-up through email
When answer contacts receive email notifying them of new questions, they can reply to the question directly from their email client. The conversation between the person asking the question, and those helping them, can happen entirely by email, with no need to move to the web interface. In fact, any interested user can subscribe to any question and participate in the discussion by email.
Local language support
Free software is a global phenomenon. By and large, developers of free software speak English, so much of the correspondence about bugs and features happens in that language.
When it comes to end-user support, however, local languages are key. Launchpad allows you to specify the languages that you speak. It then tries to connect people asking questions in a given language with people offering to answer those questions in the same language.
By default, you will also only see questions in the languages that you have set in your Launchpad user profile.
The Answer Tracker is one of the pieces of Launchpad that we intend to make entirely accessible in your local language, because it's designed to bring together communities in every corner of the globe to harness their shared knowledge and to help new users become comfortable with free software.
The best answer
Some questions take a few rounds of Q&A before the problem is diagnosed and the correct answer is given. For this reason, the user can specify which answer was the one that solved his problem. Launchpad then displays that answer more prominently so as to help the next user who has the same problem.
Here's an example of part of a page with the best answer highlighted:
An incremental knowledge base
When a user asks a question, they will see a list of similar questions that have previously been answered:
Each answered question builds the knowledge base for your project.
Escalation to developers
Sometimes, a user's problem is actually a bug in the software. It is easy for one of the answer contacts to create a bug report from the question, preserving the link back to the question and ensuring that the person who found the problem stays involved in the discussion.
Of course, at this point language can become a barrier, but in many cases the person who was trying to help answer the problem can act as a translator, facilitating communication between the developers and the person who discovered the issue, until the developers themselves can reproduce it.
In summary - Launchpad makes it straightforward to build a community team that is dedicated to helping solve end-user problems, and acting as a "first line of defence" in detecting problems that might be indicative of real bugs. Importantly, it specifically handles people asking questions in their language of choice.
And that leads us nicely to the next stop in our tour - Launchpad's software translation service, which we call "Rosetta".