March 15th, 2011
Symantec Connect is an enterprise-class, community-driven, social business support and information portal for Symantec products, offering users of Symantec’s deep catalog of applications and services a platform to interact with one another and Symantec employees through rich web-based tools. Connect enables the rapid publishing of information about the day-to-day use of Symantec products through key community-centric features which facilitate the customer’s ability to:
- Ask the community for help with issues and flag solutions when they are posted for easy discovery in the forums
- Suggest and vote on product enhancements
- Publish helper applications and scripts as community downloads
- Publish user-submitted screencast videos for enhanced knowledge sharing
- Build online/offline product-centric user groups with events, private content publishing and messaging in the groups
- Keep up with content on a variety of topics within the IT and security-related fields through articles and blog entries
- Enjoy a highly qualified community experience enabled by a suite of Symantec employee moderation, organization, and publishing controls.
All of these features also empower Symantec employees to quickly publish official versions of forum discussions, blog entries, articles, events, downloads, and videos while moderating and vetting content, helping steer the community in the right direction.
A Brief History
Symantec, founded in 1982, is one of the world’s largest software companies with more than 17,500 employees in more than 40 countries. The company provides both security and storage and systems management solutions. Their customer base includes consumers, small businesses, and some of the world’s largest global organizations. The company’s phenomenal growth can be attributed to a combination of market acceptance and strategic acquisitions.
In early 2008, Symantec’s Customer Experience team began crafting a roadmap designed to consolidate several existing support and discussion sites into a consistent, best-of-breed community offering. The goals of this consolidation were to:
- Give Symantec customers a single point of contact where they could engage with the company’s support, marketing, and product management teams,
- Draw on other customers experience and expertise,
- Reduce the support and licensing costs of maintaining a collection of disparate community offerings.
After considering the landscape of both proprietary and open-source solutions, Symantec decided to use Drupal as a foundation for their community initiative. Symantec recognized Drupal to be offering:
- a wealth of out of the box CMS and social media features and functionality
- the ability to scale for high usage sites
- the theme and development flexibility to customize the user experience quickly without the typical lag they had experienced requesting new features from proprietary vendors
- a recognized developer community from which to draw quality development talent
Symantec’s internal UX team even installed and configured rough prototypes in Drupal leveraging the vast library of existing contrib modules to experiment with various use cases for the upcoming project. This ability to rapidly create functional prototypes further cemented the choice of Drupal as the platform for development.
The project was structured to allow Symantec Customer Experience team to provide input on the design and planning of the site while collaborating with a group of Drupal experts. Symantec’s internal team is augmented with Drupal expertise in the key areas needed for successful Drupal development.
- WebWise Solutions Inc. leads Connect’s project development and is the principle contact on the project providing long-standing expertise in Drupal-centric project management and user community development. WebWise handles all day-to-day operations and oversight of everything from server deployment to administering the rewards system and offering a first line of customer support for the site’s users, all of which enables Symantec to focus on utilizing Connect to serve their customers instead of having to worry about maintaining the platform.
- Tabs & Spaces Inc. brings the heavy lifting of custom module development creating upwards of 50 custom modules to augment and extend Drupal to meet the unique needs of building a customer support community around a deep catalog of products and services.
- Jeffrey Dalton Design Inc. adds the “hot sauce” of user experience centered design and theme work leveraging Drupal’s powerful theme system to tailor the interface to the specific needs of the community. After the initial launch the redesign process allowed Jeffrey Dalton Design to fully invest in re-visioning the theme and leveraging user feedback collected throughout the initial months of Connects operation. During this process the Symantec Corporation even went through a brand change of their own which was easily rolled into the new theme.
- Tag1 Consulting delivers the performance and scalability tuning that is essential for Drupal sites with millions of users. With multiple layers of content caching in multi-server configurations, world-class scalability expertise allows Symantec Connect to continue it’s rapid growth in a high demand environment.
This augmented team approach allows for rapid expansion of area-specific development expertise when new features and functionality are requested while minimizing Symantec’s development overhead.
The initial effort (which took place over 6 months) involved merging the content and users from three disparate Symantec communities including:
- 110,000 members from the “Symantec Technical Network” (STN) running on the Lithium platform
- 10,000 members from the “Altiris Support Forums” running on FuseTalk
- 20,000 members of the Altiris “Juice” community already running on Drupal in a separate Drupal 5 site
- Hundreds of thousands of existing nodes and comments from these three systems.
As of this writing Symantec Connect has matured to become the community destination for Symantec products with stats boasting:
- 3,000,000+ unique page views each month
- more than 206,000+ registered users
- content base with 600,000+ combined nodes and comments (and counting)
After the successful launch of Connect in March of 2009, the Connect team spent a portion of the next 18 months gathering user feedback and iterating through ways to improve the site experience. In the beginning of October 2010 Connect launched a totally redesigned theme. The redesign brought with it the freedom to use a more flexible iterative design processes in shaping the new interface. The team was able to focus more on the user experience side of the application and bring out new features aimed at improving the usability of Connect. The overarching goal being: make Connect easier and more intuitive to use and the community will grow both in the quality content and overall responsiveness.
One area of detailed focus was the site navigation. All site content, both official and user-generated, is created around a combination of content type and taxonomy terms categorizing nodes into “Communities” (ex. Backup and Archiving) and “Utilities” (ex. blogs, articles, downloads, videos, etc). A new site navigation system was needed that would make it easier to move between these communities and utilities and would clearly explain the relationship between them. Moving away from the original tabbed interface, a combination of an interactive two level drop down menus with the breadcrumb model of a site depth path was used to illustrate both the relationship of community to utility, and show a visual representation of where content lives in the hierarchy of the site. The selection of a community and its corresponding utility became possible with a single mouse gesture and click greatly simplifying the navigation tasks. The menu dropping down and then expanding on a per community basis also allowed for the interface to list all utilities available for the current community, while keeping the interface clean and uncluttered.
After some initial user testing a secondary utility only drop down was added, which becomes available in the second level of the breadcrumb once a user is within a given community, making it possible to quickly switch utilities within the same community.
The breadcrumb model then extends beyond the community > utility selection and, when in context, offers further details as links to forum name, blog name, etc. and a single dynamic RSS feed element that remains contextually aware as the site is traversed.
Subtle JQuery animations further enhance the user experience of the menu with quick yet smooth state transitions. All animations were carefully refined to enhance usability without adding unneeded cruft solely for the sake of eye candy.
Below the global navigation an authenticated user menu was added with:
- a user “Account” menu for quick access to account features
- a “Create content” menu with easily identifiable iconography and short text descriptions making a direct one-click route to add content
- a custom “Share” menu to better visually integrate the share widgets into the site
- an expandable video screencast help system to allow for in-page video help and user training
The main site search bar was enhanced making it contextually aware as the user browses into each community/utility. The search box sets community name and utility type as initial facets automatically aiding in search relevance by assisting the user to search within the community/utility category of the content they are currently browsing. An additional tab is offered to easily select “Entire Site” and run a global site search. The context also changes when viewing user-related pages to make searching a username quickly accessible. All of these facets and more are also interactive on the Solr search results page so searches can be further refined.
The Drupal Solr search results interface was enhanced by introducing facet state icons and subtle colors to cleanly and clearly layout the relationship of search facet blocks and the effect they will have when clicked. Of particular interest on a site where so many visitors are seeking answers to their questions is the “solved” facet, which returns all of the forum discussions that have been marked as having a recognized solution attached to them. This aids the user to quickly find possible solutions to the subject they are searching.
The overall visual design of Connect was retooled towards simplifying and modernizing the look and feel of the site to better represent a set of content focused around technology and technical users. The theme was aimed at a more open and spacious feel using grey tones to set the theme elements and UI into the background when not needed and allow the content to carry the focus of the page. A restrained use of JQuery elements throughout the site were added to reduce page clutter and reveal content through simple clicks of tabbed and carousel interfaces. This allows community moderators to feature content through node queues without overwhelming the lists and community pages with volume.
Features of Note
Though still in it’s infancy, the video screencast help system has the potential to be a powerful help feature for site users. The Screencast Help system is an inline JQuery element that expands revealing a set of How-To screencasts created to get users up to speed on step-by-step ways to use Connect and participate in the community. The videos are loaded directly into the expanded element so the user never loses the page they are trying to get help with. The initial implementation is a static set of cached videos, but by leveraging the existing taxonomy system, this feature will be easily enhanced in a future iteration to become contextually aware and show relevant video help as the user browses the site.
The discussion forums are the centerpiece of the Connect community. The forum feature set allows users to post product and support-related questions to the huge community of Symantec customers worldwide. In a recent study, Symantec noted that 90% of questions posted to Connect are answered by other users on Connect.
One of the custom features built into the Connect forums is the ability for a forum poster to mark a particular answer to his/her question as the “solution”. Marking solutions in this manner make it much easier for subsequent users to quickly find answers to commonly-asked questions. Symantec terms these answered questions as “deflections” that save the company money because they don’t have to be answered by a paid support employee.
This approach to “solved” posts also allows Symantec Community managers to select posts that need to be solved and push those into featured blocks challenging the user community to find solutions.
Following the lead of other sites like Dell’s Ideastorm and Ubuntu’s Brainstorm, the Ideas area on Connect allows users to suggest and vote on product improvements. Market researchers know that some of the best new features and product enhancements come from the minds of users who actually deploy and use the product. The Ideas area on Connect allows product users to suggest a new feature or function while giving other community members the power to validate an idea by voting it up or down. Popular feature requests — as voted by the community — get the undivided attention of marketing and development teams. With Drupal’s improved voting API modules we were able to easily skin the voting widgets for various uses both as thumbs up/down widgets and the Ideas up/down widgets.
A much requested feature from site users, Known Issues allows Symantec Support staff to create official notices of product bugs with various status/severity tags and links to technotes in other Symantec web tools, which can then be used to collect votes from users who are experiencing the issue. Support staff can then interact through node comments to dialogue about Symantec’s plans for fixes and bug handling. It is worth noting Known Issues is an excellent example of a user generated site feature. A user submitted an “Idea” asking for the basic outline of functionality and over 245 other users voted that Idea to the top of the board. This brought the Idea to the attention of Symantec’s community managers who requested the feature be developed into “Known Issues”. Many times the best ideas come from dedicated product users expressing potential solutions to problems they face and companies can benefit from creating channels to listen to those Ideas.
Groups are areas within the community where users with similar interests can gather to share ideas, plan meetups, and self organize to support each other. Symantec uses Groups, powered by Organic Groups Module, to give their more than 100 regional user groups a place to schedule meetings, communicate with their members, and post agendas and presentations — all from within their Group space on Connect. Private groups give the company’s beta testers, advisory board members, and early adopters a quiet, confidential place to exchange messages, information and files.
Some users would rather upload videos that discuss their tips and tricks in writing. Symantec Connect makes this possible. In this “YouTube” generation, almost anyone can create a screencast, and in many cases, these visual communication tools do a better job of communicating a user’s ideas than an article or blog post on the same topic. Connect was designed to make submitting these information assets as quick and easy as possible while also empowering Symantec staff to publish their own official videos and screencasts for the community.
Technical users can submit in-depth articles to Connect so other users of the community can learn from their experience and expertise. Connect articles have been submitted by users around the world. Teachers, trainers, systems administrators, and end users have all shared their tips, tricks, and detailed solutions to technical challenges via articles posted to Connect.
Community members are welcome to post blog entries to Connect that describe their experiences with Symantec software. Symantec also leverages the blog platform to spread information from company and industry experts. One example of this is in the extremely popular Security Response Blog.
IT departments around the world are constantly writing code snippets and utilities that make working with their enterprise infrastructure easier. Symantec Connect gives them a place to share those tools and utilities with the community. Users are encouraged to submit scripts and utilities they’ve written to solve their own IT problems. The idea being that others who have run into similar obstacles can use some of these user-contributed tools to solve the same problems in their local environments.
Quality content and genuine community participation are foundational elements to Connect’s success. Symantec recognized this by taking the more traditional user rewards of account status and badges a step further and offering an innovative points and rewards program. Users earn points by making quality contributions to the community through posting new content, solving outstanding threads, and aiding in the general growth of the site. Points can be tracked and redeemed from within Connect for gift certifications to Amazon.com and other online retailers around the world. The rewards program is a good example of a large company valuing customer feedback and rewarding the efforts their customers make to help each other succeed.
Multi Language Support
Like all global companies, Symantec addresses a worldwide audience of partners and customers, many of whom prefer to communicate in their native languages. Concurrent with the site’s redesign, the Webwise team integrated Symantec’s existing in-house localization workflows to provide localization of Connect into German, French and Spanish, with other languages scheduled to follow. The flexibility of Drupal’s localization modules allowed Symantec to leverage their existing resources to cost-effectively translate the Connect interface into its destination languages.
As Symantec Connect’s content and audience continues to grow so does Symantec’s confidence in the power of Drupal as an enterprise-class application framework. The flexibility of Drupal as a platform, combined with solid design and development resources, creates the possibility for rich user experiences and large-scale web solutions. Symantec Connect stands as solid proof that fortune 500 companies can combine the robust flexibility of the Drupal platform, with the world-class skills of dedicated designers and developers from the Drupal community, to build rich content workflows and social networking features into a powerful web toolsets to serve and support massive customer bases globally while eliminating licensing and residual costs from competing proprietary solutions.