A New SAP Community Platform And The Road Ahead
It is just a couple of days before the launch of the new SAP Community platform, and a big launch like this is always a challenge. With 100.000+ regular active members and millions of SAP professionals per year that depend on getting answers to their questions, a slow soft launch is simply not an option.
On Monday, October 10th, all traffic will get redirected to the new SAP Community applications like Answers, Blogs, Former Member, Activities and Archive, and all these new applications will have to cope with the huge traffic we see on a daily basis in our community. But when I talk to the people in our technical teams, I experience a high level of confidence that we have done our best to deal with this exceptional situation. I attribute this in large chunks to the way how we have changed building web applications by adopting Continuous Integration and DevOps, which allows us to automate nearly every repetitive task in such technical setup, from functional and load tests, content migration, application configuration and deployments.
Another key factor is the distributed, message driven architecture of this new platform, which tries to avoid single point of failures as much as possible. By having dedicated applications and (micro)services for Q&A, blogging and our 3+ million archived discussions, we ensure that even if single applications or services break, other parts of the architecture won’t get affected and our community members are still able to get their work done.
Lots of efforts went into technical key capabilities that we all consider to be a given these days. For example, providing a mobile experience using responsive design has been absolutely mandatory. This is now available across all applications. In addition, we have implemented zero downtime deployments for all core applications so that regular deployments or system upgrades won’t cause major disruptions for our users. With our best of breed approach, having SSO in place while switching between applications was also of high priority, and I think we mostly nailed it (and it’s probably worth its own blog post). While the new profile application looks beautiful and simple, it is the most integrated one of all, pulling profile attributes, user content and reputation from various sources, while still being highly performant. I’m confident that replacing spaces and their nested hierarchy with a central taxonomy is the right approach, serving the need for flexibility and future extensibility. Thing that appear to be simple, such as implementing a single, unified header across all applications, have created major challenges and required significant effort to get right, but are definitely worth it. All of the above and many more smaller details contribute to the technical and conceptual foundation that we were striving to build, and which hopefully doesn’t make a major re-platforming necessary for the foreseeable future.
While their is a healthy confidence in the platform, we also don’t underestimate the technical challenge of building and maintaining this new platform. What started with a vision of a new foundation for our community, has become a highly flexible but also fairly complex architecture, and nobody in our technical teams had done anything like this before in a similar fashion.
Of course we do expect there will be growing pains and we try to anticipate and mitigate them as much as possible. But the challenge and commitment needed to go from an open beta period into 24/7 operations with the size of this community (while still delivering bug fixes and feature enhancements with our regular pace) are something we are highly aware of and well prepared for.
One key lesson we’ve learned from our last platform change was that we need to better prepare our community members for the changes to come. This is why we made the new SAP Community available in open beta at SAPPHIRE NOW. Even though it was still early (and some might argue it didn’t deserve even the BETA label), it was important for us to show where we are heading with the new SAP Community. Even more important was to get feedback from our most committed community members and let it influence the priorities in our backlogs. While getting positive feedback is always nice, I personally consider critical and even negative, feedback more valuable. It shows us where we have to improve and where we didn’t get it right from a user experience perspective. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter for every application to be performant and highly available, if our members tell us that it doesn’t feel right or if they are missing features that they consider vital to their day-to-day work.
Keeping this continuous feedback process going with our community members after the launch on October 10th is absolutely necessary to best serve the specific needs of our members. While being at TechEd in Vegas, I had the great pleasure to meet in person some of our most committed and engaged community members, like Jelena Perfiljeva and Jeremy Good. And while getting their feedback in our online feedback forums is valuable, sitting down with them and discussing the critical gaps of the new SAP Community, from their perspective, provided me invaluable insight and an even larger appreciation for their regular work in our community.
SAP Community Roadmap
We have setup the implementation project from the get go on a two weeks schedule, allowing us to regularly release new features and bug fixes to our users. Beside a small safe guarding phase shortly after go-live, we will continue on this release schedule. Also, based on your direct feedback we identified the most important topics to fix and improve between now and the year’s end.
We understand that the current capabilities to filter and search for content aren’t sufficient and that this needs to be fixed ASAP. Although we have language filters in central search, and searching for content is possible in the new community topic pages, we need to improve here. A language filter for the community topic pages is already in the works. In addition, we will focus with highest priority to provide a new single search experience that will allow users to filter by tags (products, solutions, topics, etc.), language and content type. Ideally we will also allow users easy access to filter by tags that a useralready follows. The goal is to provide a single place for all users to find the most relevant content for their specific need. Even though this probably doesn’t resolve all issues around content discovery, we see this as the most urgent gap to fill at this point.
We also have been told that, although powerful, the new taxonomy is not intuitive enough to use if the user is required to always find and enter SAP products, solutions etc. while creating a new question or blog post. The effort to support acronyms and synonyms is too big to achieve short term, but we think that providing quick access to the tags a user already follows should simplify this a lot. Support for tag acronyms and synonyms is planned for early next year.
The filter capabilities in the Activity Stream don’t sufficiently replace yet what we currently have with the SCN Communications stream. Also the activities themselves don’t provide enough information and interaction. While the technical capabilities are in place, we simple didn’t find the time to properly focus on the Activities application, which is something that we see as another short term priority.
Currently there is no ability to receive Notifications via email, which is something that needs to be fixed. Many of our users live in email, and having to rely on the notifications showing in the header is simply not sufficient, especially as it requires to visit the community in order to see them. Our goal is to send an email for each notification that shows up in the central header / notification stream. Providing more configuration options would be a next step.
We love our moderators and the invaluable work they do for all community members. Even though we have already build a dedicated Moderation Service, we need to further improve it by providing more detailed information about reported issues and members to simplify their efforts.
While still delivering small enhancements and of course bug fixes, we are fully committed to deliver these priority items till end of this year, if somehow possible.
We are very much aware of other capabilities that are/have been available in SCN and aren’t available yet, like @ mentioning, announcements, content recommendations, better topic overview pages and many others. The same is true for the SCN Wiki, which is a great source of valuable information and didn’t get the necessary attention in the past. Therefore we will publish this year a long term roadmap this year that provides more detailed insight into which features we plan to deliver in 2017.
When we started working on the new SAP Community 2+ years ago, I assumed that the hardest part would be to make these handful of single purpose applications look and feel like a single integrated experience. Looking at it from a purely technical integration perspective I think we achieved a lot. A unified header allows switching between various areas of SAP.com and the Community. Community topic pages, the profile and search provide different ways of content discovery across Blogs and Answers. Tags representing our SAP taxonomy provide contextual cross linking and filtering across all content providing systems.
That said, the technical integration is only a means to an end. What counts in the end is a good, overall user experience and this is where I personally think we haven’t done a great job yet. I only got this understanding in the last couple of month when I started working with new people coming into the teams that brought in a heavy UX focus. They pointed out for them obvious short comings which we would have to address, and while we didn’t find the time to even address some of the most critical issues, I can assure you that there is a focus now on getting the UX right. For me, UX is about providing the user the right information in an easy to understand UI at the point in time when s/he needs it. It is most important to understand what our community users need, from research and your direct feedback, and to provide impriovements where we identify gaps.
During this coming weekend the switch from SCN to the new SAP Community is going to happen. At the latest on Monday all requests to the old domain will get redirected to these new applications, and the vast majority of users will for the very first time experience this brand new SAP Community platform. A big change like this will require learning and adoption from everybody involved. Jerry Janda has been publishing a large amount of learning material that gives you a head start into the various aspects of the new platform. But I also want to ask you directly to please support us in helping other community members, to continue to report issues that you find, and by providing us general feedback and new ideas in order to help us continuously improve.
As Eng Swee Yeoh described it in his recent blog post, the true value of this community is in its people. We have been building this new platform for you, our community members. And while me might not get everything right from the get go, we are truly committed to make this the single best enterprise community experience.
PS: in case you discover this blog post during the go-live weekend and find yourself not being able to comment, please come back on Monday 10th. The blog post will have been migrated to the new Blogs by then.