Frank blogs often about how blogs and social networking are really not a revolution but more of a "rapid evolution"... just the latest in a long string of evolving communications mediums.

I have long agreed with his perspective (summarized succinctly here). Certainly the most recent technological advances are amazing, they seem to happen faster every year, and they enrich my life... but it's just an evolution that happens to have taken some quick jumps in recent years. There will be something new next year that is only an idea right now - which let's face it, makes it all the more exciting.

What's most interesting to me is how these mediums have facilitated conversations between softies and customers. From my own personal history with these technologies:

  • When I started at the company in 1998[1], I was very active in the beta newsgroups for Outlook 2000 (and that's where I first met the awesome[2] Outlook MVPs)
  • The next year I branched out to the public newsgroups - using my personal identity, for some reason I didn't feel comfortable using my microsoft email alias as my identity at that time [3].
  • Over the next few years I stayed fairly active in the public newsgroups, but after moving to the Exchange team in 2000 I started to use my microsoft email alias and there was even a period of time when I was the official Communities Program Manager for Exchange[4].
  • Of course there was also the most excellent MEC, aka Microsoft Exchange Conference, for those few glorious years which was always a great opportunity to talk to customers.
  • I started this blog in 2003[5]
  • The blog lit me on fire - it was a fascinating new way to hear from customers. So a few short months later I followed up by starting the Exchange team blog, You Had Me At EHLO. That in turn has been an excellent experience (which, thanks to Nino, is still going strong) which has helped us learn so much more about customers, and although we didn't post the end-to-end story of every customer feedback exchange, the "ship on DVD only" decision was a well-documented one where blog feedback in particular was very helpful.
  • Newsgroups began to evolve into web forums although my personal participation dropped off around this point as I changed jobs, and I'd long been more active in the various exchange mailing lists instead and kept tabs on issues raised by the MVPs as a proxy for customers.
  • At some point when Google News Alerts became available, I registered for several alerts related to Exchange stories in the press, and I would occasionally do some exchange-related searches on google, technorati and bloglines. I recently signed up for the alerts via google's blogsearch which is mighty handy.
  • Most recently has been the very enlightening experience of tweetscanning for exchange... turns out nobody twitters about exchange if it's operating fine :-) I wish I could heal the world...

A recent technorati search is what led me to this blog post by Tyson Kopczynski, and I put the author in touch with the PM for setup to help resolve his issue which I suspected wasn't as simple as what he posted about... Fortunately I was correct, and although the issue isn't resolved yet, Tyson posted a very nice followup about the experience which is what started me on this trip down memory lane in the first place:

Now, I've seen MS people trolling discussion threads, and to some extent blogs.  But, it never really occurred to me just how actively they use social mediums to better support their products (Or, maybe this is just the Exchange product team).  In other words, it appears the Exchange product team has taken a very proactive stance in order to head off current and future problems, maybe even figure future feature requirements, etc.

In my book, that what they are doing is pretty cool.  Such a stance can only lead to better products, which leads to less wackiness, which then leads to more time I have to do other things.  :>)

Which brings me back to my original point: The evolving communication mediums are just the latest in an evolutionary line which help us better connect with and understand our customers' scenarios and pain points. Blogging in particular (and its easy integration with search engines) has been great as a scaling mechanism since the previous mechanisms were far more 1:1. These days I manage a research and design team, and I treat these technologies as just another way to do user research.

I can only hope that our efforts in this area will continue to improve, which will lead to better products, which leads to less wackiness, which leads to improving end-user productivity and delight, and letting IT pros get on to do other things. :-)

 

[1] Holy crikey. It's been ten years?? I need to start buying M&Ms...
[2] Exchange MVPs, you're awesome too. But I'll always hold a special place in my heart for the days when I learned more about my own product on slipstick.com than from internal specs, or having Ken patiently scrutinize my absolutely awful VBA macro code to help me find a bug without once making fun of my coding skills...
[3] To this day, I think SVP Jeanne Sheldon is an incredibly awesome exec because she was A) reading the outlook newsgroups on her own (!!??!), B) saw a post from me using my personal email address, C) recognized me for some reason which is a little unreal considering I was a fairly n00b leaf node and D) sent me a very lovely email that I have saved in my mailbox to this day lauding my skillz and giving me kudos for participating in the community. Seriously, Jeanne - you rock.
[4] Whatever that means. ;-)
[5] Three weeks after coming back to work from maternity leave for my oldest child. I think I probably didn't have enough to do, at the time. Good thing too :-)