company November 9, 2017

Why Channels?

This post refers to “Channels”, a product which is now called “Teams.” As we continue to work on Channels, we wanted to share with you our vision, the thinking behind the product and its intricacies, and insight into the process behind developing it. Not all product problems have been solved, and we hope that we can…
Avatar for Chance Heath
Product Manager (former)

This post refers to “Channels”, a product which is now called “Teams.” As we continue to work on Channels, we wanted to share with you our vision, the thinking behind the product and its intricacies, and insight into the process behind developing it. Not all product problems have been solved, and we hope that we can take you along for the journey. This post is the first in a series on how we’re making Channels.

A year and a half ago, we launched Stack Overflow Enterprise to help large organizations share internal knowledge in private, stand-alone communities. It addressed several frustrations that large companies face: manual upkeep of knowledge bases, single points of failure, inefficient employee onboarding, and overall, quite simply, wasted time. And for larger companies, it works incredibly well; the feedback we’ve gotten exceeded even our expectations. Giving developers a place to discuss proprietary information in a system they were already comfortable with proved extremely useful to our customers.

Because Enterprise is designed to be a self-sustaining Stack Overflow community, it works best when there are lots of people (roughly 500 technical members seems to be the magic number). However, developers on smaller teams also have problems getting answers to questions they can’t ask on public Stack Overflow. That’s why we decided to build a product specifically designed for technical teams that aren’t big enough to support a standalone community.

Understanding the problem

When we started developing Channels in earnest, we learned a lot more about the problems that developers are facing when sharing and maintaining internal knowledge.

For example, when developers need to ask their teammates questions, they tend to default to the tools that they’re already using daily: namely, chat and email. But those tools have their own problems. Chat is ephemeral and tough to search, and email is inherently limited to the people included or copied in. Both tools put a lot of strain on the few developers at a company who know the answer to a given question, and neither method excels at storage and recall.

Tools like wikis or documentation are useful, but they require a lot of upkeep, and developers aren’t necessarily visiting them on a daily basis. We heard from many people that the pain of managing their wikis and docs left them stale and outdated. More often than not, knowledge is locked up in the minds of a few individuals who find themselves repeating answers over and over every time a problem crops up.

As we learned more and more about the problems that developers have with knowledge management, we became more excited about Channels. Most developers are already visiting Stack Overflow on a regular basis, so including internal knowledge management feels like a natural extension of our existing product, and means they don’t have to add a new destination to their workflow. Its searchability resolves any issues with ephemerality, and its ad-hoc nature eliminates the heavy upkeep of formal documentation and wikis.

How Channels fits into our business

While solving internal knowledge sharing problems is the primary focus of Channels, it also fits in really well with our broader business objectives:

  • Be the best technical Q&A site – Channels plays to our strengths. Technical Q&A is our specialty, and extending it to internal knowledge sharing is a natural extension of what we do today.
  • Help developers in new ways – Not all problems are public ones, and not all code can be posted online. Channels gives developers new ways to solve their problems without leaving the site they already know and love.
  • Make money – This one’s probably obvious, but as a business, we have to make money! Channels will offer a paid service that we think many companies will be excited to buy.

What the Channels solution will be

Once we understood the user problems we were solving for and identified how they relate to our business objectives, we set out to determine what the fundamental pillars of the product itself would consist of. There are three key tenets of the Channels product:

  • Exists right on Stack Overflow – Channels will bring all of your knowledge sharing into one place. Whether you’re seeking a solution to a problem with a common framework or debugging an internal system, you can get it done on stackoverflow.com.
  • Private & secure space for your team – Security is our top priority (make sure to bother Nick Craver about writing that post). Your team will be able to interact with their Channel in a secure and isolated space within the public site, where internal knowledge is completely walled off from the broader community.
  • Deep integrations & notifications – Small communities require additional effort to get the right questions in front of the right person. Channels will work with the existing tools at your disposal. We plan to launch with Slack integration, an API to connect Channels to your own tools, and updated subscription options to stay up to date with the most recent changes.

What’s next?

This December we’re launching the Channels alpha, where we’ll be testing an early version with a small group of companies. We plan to use this time to learn a whole lot and make sure we’re building the right product the right way.

By early Spring we hope to be moving into a public Beta, where organizations can create their own Channels and start using Stack Overflow to collaborate in a new way.
In the meantime, we invite you to provide feedback or become part of our alpha and beta group as we test and grow our Channels product. If you have any questions for the team or me, feel free to drop them in the comments or ask a question about Channels on Meta.

Podcast logo The Stack Overflow Podcast is a weekly conversation about working in software development, learning to code, and the art and culture of computer programming.

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