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My job is to build a new site. It is supposed to be a kind of knowledge repository, fed with user-generated content. Users who have a certain kind of know-how are going to describe it, so it becomes easily findable for everybody interested in it. It will be available for the colleagues from our organisation of course, but we expect others from across the world to contribute too. It is not much of a social site, even less so than Stack exchange, as we don't have (yet) direct interaction between users on the site. But it is a community in the sense that we are relying on people investing their time to contribute to the greater good. It is also expected that they will communicate (through channels external to the site), for example A is going to ask B to license to them the technology B has described.

The project is the baby of the head of a department in our organisation, I'll call her "my client". She got funding, she recruited us programmers, she was the sole source of requirements, and she is going to be the person who will be responsible for the content quality. She will look over and possibly edit each new post before releasing it, and she is going to be the users' contact person for non-technical issues.

The problem is that I see signs she is not currently suited for this role. First, she is on the wrong side of the digital divide, has never been a part of a digital community, and has no feeling for how such a thing works in practice. I think she still hasn't gotten it that she's going to have to deal with spammers and trolls and anything else than people seriously wanting to contribute to her idea.

She also insisted on a highly complex entry form, so the data entry is rather tedious, and doesn't always work the way users imagine it. I did my best to improve the UX, but in its core, it's just too much structured information. But her expectation is that everybody will fill it out just the way she wants it. We have a similar application used internally on a much smaller scale, and with a less complex data structure. Still, users take shortcuts there, which sends her into a rant about how that application's content administrator can allow that to happen. I am afraid that, when such entries start coming into her application, she will either start editing them radically, alienating users, or outright rejecting them. I already feel that we will have problems with adoption - the business model suffers of a strong tragedy of the commons distortion, where everybody profits from reading others' know how, but not much from others reading his - and we cannot afford her scaring away users for not entering what she wants to read.

The third, most major problem, is that she is oblivious to the issues facing her. She still hasn't realized how much time she will have to invest in moderation. As for the shortcut taking, she does it all the time when she enters her own know how, entering data in a way the form is not meant for and rendering the result hard to search for or understand.

I would very much like to see this project succeed. But I cannot do the moderation myself, nor would she seek my help with it. She will talk to me about the problems she faces, and sometimes listen to my opinion, but never give me any responsibility in what she sees as her domain.

In this situation, my question is: How do I help her become a good moderator? Is there something I can do to prepare her to deal well with the problems which lay in store for her? To teach her to handle issues in a way which does not scare away users, while maintaining content quality? And how do I do that without alienating her through meddling and heaping unsolicited advice on her?

  • Are you sure you can't get the resources to appoint someone else/ let someone assist her? Then scare her out of moderating by commenting about the trolls and the amount of work? It's not exactly an honest approach, but less confronting. – Jan Doggen Feb 10 '15 at 9:58
  • Is it a platform like Wikipedia? It sounds like one. Do people need to have accounts, or logins, to contribute? – Zerotime Feb 10 '15 at 15:05
  • @zerotime it's much more closed than Wikipedia. People need accounts, and their bosses have to approve them having an account. The entry barrier is quite high. Also, users cannot modify each other's entries. – rumtscho Feb 10 '15 at 17:24
  • @JanDoggen Sadly, no. We tried this writing the help pages. We had a team member who had time, technical knowledge, previous experience in technical writing, and the skill to write it directly as HTML with semantically relevant CSS classes, so we could display it directly online. She refused to let him do it, and wrote it herself, which resulted in technical errors, a writing style everybody on the team agrees is confusing to users, a significant time delay, and the need for our coworker to copy-paste her Word document into HTML, manually adding tags. She is even more committed to moderating. – rumtscho Feb 10 '15 at 17:29
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It sounds like your problem is a special case of a more general problem: Your client wants you to implement a system that you don't expect will work well, as specified, based on your superior knowledge of the system's domain and technology.

This question on The Workplace Stack Exchange about a graphic designer dealing tactfully with a boss who is ignorant of graphic design principles seems pretty parallel, and the answers there offer some advice that can be adapted to your situation.

  • Ask lots of leading questions.

    Although your client has autocratic control of the project, its requirements, and her ultimate behavior as a moderator, you have some leverage, as the person implementing the project, to tweak the technical solution and also nudge your client's thinking toward a system behavior that will work better. You can ask questions about how she wants certain aspects of the project implemented in ways that bring up issues you are concerned about. For example:

    Should I add a filter that automatically rejects submissions that don't include a TPS number? What should it tell the user about why that number is necessary?

    How do you envision the review/improvement cycle working? Should I include a messaging system that you would use to explain what work is needed to improve a submission before you'll accept it?

    What do you think of this streamlined version of the entry form?

  • Introduce third-party sources.

    Your client is apparently uninterested in learning about what it's like to moderate an online forum, so it may be difficult to get her to listen to third-party sources. However, you may be able to sneak them through the door by bringing them in to help with your implementation. For example, say that you and the rest of the implementation team want to get some fresh ideas about designing a forum like this, and bring in someone with experience doing so to give a little seminar to the team, and invite your client to attend. Similarly, you could read a book or authoritative online resource, ostensibly for the purpose of getting implementation advice, and then "discover" some interesting ideas about how such a project should be designed and run, that you can share with your client, "which she might find interesting."

  • Create ways to let your client have her way.

    If you succeed at driving changes in the project's requirements and your client's expectations, your client might feel like you are usurping her authority, so it could be judicious to make sure that there are aspects of the project over which she can assert expertise and control. Whatever about the project is within your client's expertise, make sure to ask her about how best to do that. In addition, as Joel Spolsky explains in "The Iceberg Secret, Revealed", graphic design is a good aspect of the project to ask your client to make command decisions about, since its perceived importance is much greater than the difficulty involved with changing it.

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