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 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 We heard from many people that the pain of managing their wikis and docs left them stale and outdated.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.


Chance Heath
Product Manager

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  1. I honestly detest it when people use seasons as a date estimation. It’s like you only care about people in the northern hemisphere. Just use quarters or months!

    1. Chance Heath says:

      I honestly hadn’t considered that. It’s a great point! I’ll be more mindful of that moving forward.

      1. I feel bad for being so harsh now. I assumed it was something you did intentionally. Glad you see my point though! 🙂

  2. Martynas Saint says:

    I really miss https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aardvark_(search_engine) .. It would be cool to have some features implemented somewhere 😉

  3. So no freemium model (supposing Channels has unique features compared to regular Stack Overflow)?

    1. Chance Heath says:

      Determining the exact pricing is part of the Alpha period, but we do anticipate offering Channels as a Freemium model.

  4. Here we go again…. Another Documentation(https://stackoverflow.com/documentation) or Teams(https://stackoverflow.com/teams). Also this appears to just be Slack. Bit behind the times here. SO caught on because it solved a problem that no one else had solved. This appears to be trying to solve a problem that Slack, MS teams, Basecamp, etc. etc. have already solved.

    1. They are really getting better at failing. The failures possibly help build other sticking points or improves the user experience in places that needed work. Don’t ask me to name where they have reused this functionality but I can only imagine somewhere it has helped them.

    2. Chance Heath says:

      Slack is a fantastic tool for communication, but it’s not designed for internal knowledge management. It’s ephemeral and knowledge tends to get buried. Most users I talk to don’t find it to be an efficient way to solve their internal knowledge management issues. Usually they default to Google Docs, Wikis, or bugging the same person over and over. All of that being said, thanks for your feedback!

      1. I mean this is my point, every company I’ve worked in has a wiki already. Why would they abandon this and pay SO for the pleasure? Having been burnt on documentation I’ll be giving this one a miss. Maybe I’ll eat my words when this becomes incredibly successful but somehow I doubt it. I do think SOs stock with the development community is running low. People are happy with SO (though it has significant problems around poor quality Qs&As). I for one am fed up with the constant attempts at side projects that I can see zero benefit in. I’m not alone either https://meta.stackoverflow.com/a/359109/542251. I’d much prefer SO spending some time and effort on their core (and very successful) product. It seems you’ve had success in large multi nationals, these are very strange beasts. Most It teams I’ve worked in (up to about 20 devs) have already solved this problem many, many years ago.

    3. I recently worked with a team that built an internal knowledge preservation system for the company I’m working with and I can confirm that Slack doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of internal documentation and knowledge sharing, it wasn’t built for that, as it was built as a simple communication tool. Within a matter of a few weeks we had questions/answers flood in and due to our constant growth at the company, this was particularly useful as newer team members had a place they could find questions that had been asked by other(newer at that time) team members, and because of our culture, it was easy for anyone to ask any kind of questions to anyone within the company technical or not and be sure that people would respond, in fact we discovered there were other subject matter experts in different facets of the organization. We also did a Slack integration for this, and were building on one of the AI engines that was recently acquired by Google to make this robust.
      We saw it as a problem that needed to be solved and wasn’t being sufficiently addressed by Slack and especially because of the nature of Slack conversations, which may not really be easy to get back to and Slack threads weren’t particularly useful for this grouping.
      So, in a lot of ways I don’t believe Slack is a competition, but an enhancer to this kind of things, moreover do you see yourself as being in competition with your co-worker?

    4. Everyone seems to be jumping on the Slack comment. My point here is that this is not unique. There are tons of other options for this out there . I also kinda think if I wanted a private Q&A site I’d write one myself. This wouldn’t be rocket science. Would I pay SO to do this for me, probs not.

      1. Tyler Hibbard says:

        Writing a Q&A framework is not a simple webapp task. People love Stack Overflow’s Q&A; this is SO cashing in on their brand power to sell a new product to users – wikis done *well* are valuable and worth paying for. As for all the constant side projects – yes, I agree I’d like to see them put more focus and effort into their core product – Q&A, but I don’t begrudge them trying new things. If they never try new things, they will certainly never find the next “Stack Overflow” product that becomes a huge hit. If Google stuck with search only, then we would still be using Mapquest for directions and android wouldn’t be a thing and non-Microsoft companies/orgs would be using LibreOffice, etc.

  5. Tyler Hibbard says:

    Please do a blog post on why you put a big useless graphic at the top of each blog post that forces us to scroll down to see even the first word of content.

    1. I’ve mentioned that several times and no one seems to listen at stackoverflow. They love huge images.

    2. what do you mean “useless” that graphic perfectly portrays whatever it was the marketing person had been thinking about on that day, whenever that was. I mean it’s obviously there to…erm…you know…improve…no,no, portray the brand dynamics and….. agile…….border less….dynamic…brand awareness and stufz.

    3. Kroltan Bahuman says:

      It’s called a Hero, and it has a purpose: Since sites load slowly, put something to fill the viewport while styling happens and things jump around.

      1. Tyler Hibbard says:

        It doesn’t serve a purpose when all the content is below the fold anyway. It’s also counter intuitive – sites load slowly so lets put an additional graphic in the mix that they have to load before the site finishes loading. The graphic is *325KB*. You can’t make the argument that it’s there to improve load-time-related UX.

  6. This isn’t incredibly hard to solve – I don’t understand the big flux about it. There is logic (fields) somewhere in the db keeping content specific to private companies filtered out of the true SO dataset that flows out in the public. This isn’t difficult folks! This isn’t autonomous driving – this is a filter.

    1. that’s what i thought–ie, create a view against the relevant tables, set permissions on it

    2. Chance Heath says:

      For a company that was built to be default public, it’s actually quite a feat to secure all of this data! Nick Craver is working on (quite a long) architecture blog post about the challenges we’ve faced while building Channels. I hope you enjoy it!

    3. Yes, I agree it may look trivial, given it’s just to filter some data based on the specific company. However, you’re forgetting about the database update needed to support this, some specific expectations of each of SO’s environments; also note that different companies have specific instructions on how their data is managed, regional restrictions, load balancers; caching configurations to support this and some other Devops tasks, this is also noting that SO may want to give companies an easy way to migrate their data away from the platform, which I don’t believe had been supported before on SO, not to mention the new integration requirements there would be for this, given the communication tools setup within the companies and in some cases there may be a need for a conversational bot to interface with this new api. Although, this is just thinking of the Engineering part, however, when you think of getting approval from Management/Investors etc to conduct this, it becomes a different conversation entirely as, the development efforts required for this, would also need to be translated to the bottomline somehow(i.e this isn’t a charity organization), different management/investors meetings, along with Sales and Marketing discussions to ensure this is a product that companies would want to pay for etc.
      So while this may not look like a particularly huge task, it indeed is a huge task, when you think of the new requirements and the underlying architectural decisions to be made along the line. @chance_heath:disqus looking forward to the post by Nick Craver.
      SO: StackOverflow
      company/companies/enterprises: StackOverflow partners that would be subscribing to Channels

  7. “…we have to make money” > and here lies the biggest problem $$$. Enter where product design begins to fail…just look at Ford and GM. Someone at Ford was sitting there 10-20 years ago saying…holy sh** they are paying us money to do this…lets continue the same path we have been on for YEARS. This is why companies like Tesla and Comma.ai will eat them up for dinner because there focus isn’t so much on money but on knowledge. Then again in 10 years Ford will probably buy some startup that is trying to solve things like autonomous driving. I’m going off topic but I sure hope $$$ won’t change the vision – Q&A was always good. When someone starts talking cash things start falling apart.

    1. Chance Heath says:

      Thanks for the feedback, Jon! If anything, I think that Channels brings us back to our roots of Technical Q&A. Channels is simply an extension of what we are already doing. We solved for Public Q&A and now we’re solving for Private Q&A.

  8. Vadim Peretokin says:

    This seems like a nice idea. Looking forward to it.

  9. At the point when engineers need to ask their colleagues inquiries, they will in general default to the devices that they’re now utilizing every day: in particular, talk and email. In any case, those instruments have their very own issues. Talk is vaporous and extreme to search.

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