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Our site offers some good information, but it can be confusing for new users. It has a different structure than traditional discussion forums. It happens frequently that a new user finds the site, has something to say, and writes it into the most obvious field - the field reserved for new answers. Many times, what the user writes is not a thing which is considered an "answer" by our strict rules. The community edits or removes the post, mentioning the broken rule to the user. This annoys and confuses the new user, who just wanted to participate and was "chastised" (from his/her point of view) for doing so.

We have several places which contain a collection of rules. The [faq] contains some considerations the user should take into account before asking a new question. But even users who have read it are sometimes confused about which reply should be posted where. The Privileges page explains all tools available on the page, how they should be used, and when they become available. But they are like any tool explanation - they are sorted by the solutions they provide, not by the problems for which they provide a solution, and so very hard to comprehend for newbies. Also, they are not immediately visible to the new user. Meta has lots of discussions which set rules, but it is practically impossible for a new user to wade through all of these, even if they had the inclination to do so.

The practical result is that many users go through an unpleasant phase of adapting to our rules before becoming part of the community. I remember going through it myself - I snivelled for a question of mine to stay open because I felt strong about it. Months later, as a moderator, I went back and closed it because it was indeed off-topic. Today, I have accompanied a good number new users through this phase. Many of them perceived our deleting/removing/downvoting of their misplaced posts as rude and left before integrating into our community. But even the ones who later stuck around and became valuable contributors went through a period asking for more guidance than I could easily provide.

I want to present two such cases from recent times.

First Sunishta's experience, explained in a chat room: http://chat.stackexchange.com/rooms/7770/room-for-sunishtha-singh-and-jefromi. Note that before this conversation happened, we had deleted some of her answers for being off-topic, using the canned response "this should have been a comment". So obviously, she tried to do it "right" by writing an off-topic comment this time. It got flagged and I had to delete it. She considered it rude, and I can understand this. We are doing what she perceives as a punishment, and when we give her hints about what behavior would be correct, they turn out to be misleading (mostly because the situation is different, but we have not provided her with the tools to recognize different situations).

Second SAJ14SAJ's experience, with a representatvie example documented at Get list of reference meta questions added to FAQ. This user went on to achieve 10K rep in about two months, which is a record for our site. They were very eager to earn the rules in their first days here, and I am sure that they found any easily available information before posting on Meta. The fact that they requested a better source of information on the rules tells me that the one presently available is not good enough. It is a bit hard to discover, but even after discovering, it requires a lot of effort to wade through it.

And I have also seen countless users write a few answers, only to get disheartened after the first few downvotes/deleted answers and just leaving the site forever.

Question to the community: How do we create a welcoming process which does not frustrate new users the way the current one does?

  • Just to let you guys know: we're working on a major overhaul of the FAQ page right now (to include consolidating some info that's scattered all over the place right now). It's great that you're getting the discussion going about what to do on Seasoned Advice specifically; just know that you aren't alone in your efforts. :) – Laura Mar 14 '13 at 20:13
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We definitely need to keep this information bite-sized; the general quirkiness of Stack Exchange is already intimidating to the non-"web audience".

I'd suggest a single-page, point form, list of "what [not] to ask" and "what [not] to answer", each as separate FAQs and community-maintained (community wiki answers).

Ideally each would come with an example of the type of question/answer we don't accept and the types of similar questions/answers we do accept. For example:

Off Topic: What type of cooking oil is the healthiest?
On Topic: What are the key differences between various types of cooking oils/fats?
On Topic: Which oils or safe for deep-frying?

Off Topic: What can I add to mashed potatoes to make them less bland?
On Topic: How can I make mashed potatoes that are firm but not too dry?
On Topic: I added too much pepper to my mashed potatoes. How can I fix it?

Not going to make a complete list here, but... you get the idea.

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    I have to give a big +1 for the first sentence. That should be our guiding principle here. Exhaustive rules for dedicated users (like SAJ14SAJ) are the reason meta exists, and though we can summarize them in better ways, that's not what we need to focus on for new users. We're all here primarily because we want to talk about cooking, not to talk about talking about cooking. (That is, the main site is the main site, not meta.) – Cascabel Mar 6 '13 at 22:37
  • This is a GREAT idea. People generally have an easier time understanding (and remembering) rules illustrated by concrete examples. I would suggest, for now, keeping the list fairly small and editing it into the existing FAQ page. – Laura Mar 14 '13 at 20:14
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There are two main aspects to the welcoming process: creating good information about how the site works and interacting with new users, likely pointing them to this information.

I generally stand behind Aaronut's answer with respect to the kind of information we need to provide. We have to aim for concision and generality, not comprehensiveness - that can come later.

But the actual interactions are important too. I think there may be something that goes missing sometimes when we explain our actions, whether it's mods deleting posts or just any user saying "this is off-topic, has to be closed." We're doing a lot of it right already: we explain the rules that lead us to do things, and point to more information. But there might be a missing piece: we must explain why we enforce rules like these. The primary motivation behind all of it is trying to maximize the amount of good information readers see. So rather than:

Welcome to the site! Unfortunately, your question is very broad and open-ended and must be closed. See the faq for more information.

we should perhaps aim for:

Welcome to the site! We try to keep things tidy around here, and this means avoiding posts that won't be useful to future readers. Unfortunately, your question is very broad and open-ended, which tends to lead to lots of iffy answers, and so we've voted to close it. See the faq for more information.

There are of course variations for answers and comments, and cases in which we can suggest improvements rather than closing/deleting. And again, as Aaronut suggests, having concise, topical information to point to rather than just the faq will help.

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My first idea is to have a post which explains the expected behavior in the situations a new user is most likely to find themselves in. I wrote it here, you are welcome to improve it or also to suggest other ideas.

  • The question is how to get it in front of the users who need it.... I still think adding the FAQs to "Community Bulletin" would at least get them rotating on the main page. – SAJ14SAJ Mar 6 '13 at 1:41
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    @SAJ14SAJ That might be a good suggestion, but in the end, it's unfortunately mostly pointless to worry about that issue, because there will always be many users who don't even read everything that it says right next to the box they're typing into. At some point we'll always have directly refer plenty of users to the thing they need to read. – Cascabel Mar 6 '13 at 22:36

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