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Web browsing is supposed to just be a point-and-click exercise, but there are times when a user has a question or encounters a problem with their browser and needs help.
For the millions of users around the globe using Mozilla's Firefox, that's where SUpport Mozilla (SUMO) aims to come in, with a support forum and live chat features to help users get answers for their browser problems.
At Mozilla, support is serious business. The group claims that every week, support.mozilla.com handles 2,000 questions on a wide range of issues.
"There are no commercial support plans at the moment," Tenser said. "Firefox support is free for everyone and powered by the Mozilla community, just like Firefox."
Yet SUMO pays off for Mozilla in other ways, serving a critical role in the development of Firefox -- making it important for both existing and future versions of the browser, like the forthcoming Firefox 3.5 release.
"SUMO is in a powerful position when considering our direct connection with end users," David Tenser, Mozilla's support lead, told InternetNews.com. "There are a lot of insights we can make by just paying close attention to what our users are telling us. What are the most commonly reported issues our users are experiencing with Firefox? What are the most common complains? This information can be used by the Firefox development team in their planning of the next version of Firefox."
For instance, according to Tenser, the current, most-common Firefox issue is related to clearing private data like browsing history. SUMO lists the ten most popular support articles on its start page.
Helping to drive product features and fixes isn't the only way Mozilla SUMO differs from the pack. It also considers SUMO itself to be a platform, designed to be constantly evolving with new features to better meet users' needs. The system is currently at version 1.0 with a 1.1 release set for May.
Support as a platform
That approach comes into play as Mozilla looks to refine and extend SUMO's multiple layers, which include a knowledge base, a support forum and live chat.
"The support forum is a place for users to get support for problems they couldnt find the answer to in the Knowledge Base," Tenser explained. "Questions asked are seen by everyone browsing the forum, which means the chance of someone else reading a question and knowing the answer is high. The answer can be sent to an e-mail address, if the user provides one."
Meanwhile, the Live Chat option is a direct, one-to-one offering aimed at helping in cases where following written instructions can be hard for a particular user or issue. With Live Chat, Tenser said users benefit from having someone right there to walk them through a process.
"Also, some users simply need more personal help and might use Live Chat even if the solution to the problem is already in the Knowledge Base -- not everyone is comfortable reading written instructions about computer software," Tenser said. "This need of a more interactive form of support is something we're hoping that the addition of screencast [video of recorded screen activity] support in the upcoming milestone (SUMO 1.1) will address."
Having support mechanisms alone is not enough to guarantee that users are getting what they need. Mozilla also looks at a number of key metrics that indicate how well they are performing, Tenser said.
"The ratio of users that proactively tell us they got their problem solved and the number of visitors is one of those metrics," he said. "The ratio of forum threads marked as solved is another one. Furthermore, we ask users to rate their experience with getting support on SUMO and monitor the CSAT (customer satisfaction) score."
Page 2: Benefiting from open source
Benefiting from open source
While Mozilla develops a lot of software in its own open source community, SUMO also benefits from open source projects outside of the Mozilla family. One such project is the TikiWiki open source wiki project.
Tenser said Mozilla has received help from the TikiWiki community in solving problems, fixing bugs, and getting advice. On the other side, Mozilla has contributed its wiki enhancements back to the TikiWiki project.
"We always try to be a good open source citizen, which is why we take care to make sure our patches in the TikiWiki code are also applied upstream," Tenser said. "That's the Mozilla way of software development and we are proud of it."
The future of SUMO
In its 1.0 release, Mozilla addressed performance issues that were affecting SUMO. Tenser explained that the database, which had been a performance bottleneck, was recently migrated to dedicated hardware.
In 2009, Mozilla is planning on further improving the support experience in a number of ways, such as screencasts -- video showing on-screen movements and directions.
"The planned support for screencasts [makes] the support documentation accessible to a wider audience since it's often easier to watch a video than to follow written instructions," Tenser said.
Mozilla is also working on improving the accessibility of the Live Chat function as well as making it easier to edit and create support articles.
"We're not like the typical corporate support help desk," Tenser said. "The motivator for the amazing people providing support within the Mozilla community isn't money -- it's gratitude, appreciation, recognition, and a feeling of making a difference by helping people with Firefox."
"SUMO is all about that."
This article was first published on InternetNews.com.