For my May 2005 Hey Microsoft! column, I surveyed readers about how they use Microsoft’s Customer Service and Support (CSS) Web site at www.support.microsoft.com. I was interested in the fact that in April 2004, this site began to feature content written by Microsoft’s Most Valuable Professionals (MVPs). Of the 523 responses to my survey, about 62 percent were aware of this third-party content on a Microsoft site, and 77 percent said they would use such content. The foremost concerns respondents expressed are whether the site identifies that content as non-Microsoft content and whether Microsoft verifies MVP-provided content.

In my discussion of the survey with Microsoft’s Kurt Samuelson, general manager for Service Automation, Customer Service and Support (formerly Microsoft Product Support Services—PSS), I asked what Kurt thinks of readers’ responses about this content. He replied, “We’ve got over 500 or 600 pieces of content in the few months it’s been available. The MVPs provide content that Microsoft isn’t able to provide. For example, I noticed in the survey comments that some people wanted more information about how our products work with other products. MVPs are in a better position to provide realistic scenarios around interoperability than anybody at Microsoft—we work primarily with Microsoft products.”

I noted that some readers were worried about how the MVP content is presented. Survey responses included comments such as, “I would like it CLEARLY identified as non-Microsoft content,” and “I am never sure whether I am using MVP material or not.” Kurt explained, “The key is being able to provide the right kinds of clues to users coming to our online experience. We need to distinguish something from Microsoft from something from a third party. That was really important when we did the MVP content: Customers want it, but they also want to know that it’s provided by an MVP and not by Microsoft.”

I asked Kurt why he thought that distinction was so important. “It’s not because customers don’t trust the MVPs,” Kurt assured me. “They just want to understand where that content’s coming from. So we have to figure out exactly what that MVP content experience looks like.”

How can users tell if a piece of content comes from an MVP? “In the search results list there’s a little icon that says Community. It has a picture of two people, which tells you that this content is from the community. When you go into the article, at the top you see the author’s name, the MVP’s name, and then a disclaimer in bold that says this is provided by a third party, by the MVPs. I always encourage feedback, but we did put that through usability studies and most people were able to find those identifiers.”

I then asked Kurt to address reader comments such as, “As long as the MVP content was verified by MS tech support, I have no problem using it.” Kurt’s response put this question into an interesting perspective: “We don’t verify MVP content today. Part of its benefit is that it remains a truly independent voice for Microsoft, and there’s a lot of value in that. If we start saying that this is Microsoft-stamped with a seal of approval, the MVP content loses some of its credibility, especially if the content covers third-party products interacting with ours. It’s the word of the person using that product versus the word of Microsoft. The trust factor is going to be higher if somebody outside Microsoft writes about how third-party products work with Microsoft products. I think there’s just huge value in us not going down the path of verifying MVP content.”

Readers also raised the question of how Microsoft validates its internally created support content. Kurt explained that for the Knowledge Base (KB), “We start with an idea for a piece of content, and that can come from user feedback, or from issues that are handled in our technical support center, or people call on the phone or send us email requests for support. A professional writer creates the content. Then subject matter experts review the documents for technical accuracy. Those subject matter experts are typically in the support center, supporting the product. Then we do an editorial review for language and appropriateness and things like that. Then it gets published.”

Other questions raised in the survey asked “how frequently is the content updated?” and how Microsoft handles “expiry/support articles for End of Life products.” Kurt replied, “One thing we commit to as part of our product support lifecycle policy is that we will keep the KB around even if we expire support for older products. For instance, I still have Windows 3.1 content. I still have LANMan content out there. Some people use it. In fact, a lot of people use Win9X content because a lot of people are still using that platform. We’re committed to keeping it.”

Kurt continued, “Do we review that old content at lot? No. We review the newer content much more. We review content in a couple ways: When we release a new product, we sweep through all the old articles related to the old product and see if they’re relevant to the new product. Through the product cycle, we will touch most of the content one way or another to determine if it will apply to this new product or not. Lots of updates occur article-by-article based on feedback from customers, support professionals in the call center and the support centers, and survey results. Lots of articles get updated outside of that cycle as well, but we don’t necessarily put an expiration date on a piece of content. If we know that a particular problem has been solved by a service pack, we might note that on an article, but it will probably still be around. If the problem has been fixed in SP1 or SP2, not all customers may be on that service pack, so we keep the article.”