Software Support is Hard

If you build and sell software then there is no escaping the need to support your product. Even open source software that is built for free with no expectations of use creates an overhead of issues and support. Dealing with users and their issues has been something I have been grappling with ever since I released my first free WordPress plugin back in 2012 and it has been a love/hate relationship ever since.

I used to get excited about receiving emails from users, even though they had issues, because people were actually using my plugin. It quickly got to the stage where every email and new bug made me feel personally responsible for the issue and I would stress about it until I could get it fixed. Having the support purely via email with that account on my iPhone meant i was effectively on call at all hours of the day. I would receive an email late at night and immediately jump on the computer to respond and fix. I would spot an email about a bug on a saturday morning and it would put me in a bad mood for the rest of the day because I hated the idea something I had built wasn’t perfect.

Every Cloud

As much as it got me down and became a chore I firmly believe that support is a necessary part of software. You aren’t just building for yourself so support identifies problems and potential ideas and features you haven’t thought of. It can inform documentation and FAQs to try and taper support over time. I can understand how many people just don’t want to do it and perhaps outsource. But there is mileage in being a developer who answers support. You are best placed to answer more detailed points about the software and can immediately recognise when an issue is a bug and log it for a future fix.

A Good Workman is Helped by His Tools

I later moved the support from email to a bbPress forum on my WordPress site. This helped organise my approach a bit more and at least made common issues visible to users in an effort to reduce new questions.

As much as I love WordPress and think bbPress is a great plugin, I just couldn’t get along with it for providing support. I was constantly battling spam and had issues editing posting code in replies. There were just far too many clicks involved to work though replying to new issues.

It wasn’t until I started regularly helping out with the support for Dev7studios that I realised there were other solutions dedicated to making support simpler and easier to get on top of. They were using a product called Sirportly as a ticketing system that runs off emails but with a intuitive administration area and support discussions driven from email conversations that are made public. I couldn’t believe how nice it felt responding to a ticket, moving to the next one, resolving them and moving on. I was also pleasantly surprised to find out that the company behind Sirportly is the small but gifted aTech Media based in a Poole, Dorset where I used to live and work. I was sold and almost immediately signed up for my own support and migrated my bbPress forums across to the new system.

A More Positive Approach

After reading a post from Dev7studios founder Gilbert Pellegrom, I was relieved to hear other people have had the same issues with support and have felt the slump in motivation. The post gave some good advice in the form of Gilbert’s new approach; do support early in the morning, every morning. Spending an hour when you are fresh means you can get it out of the way before starting ‘real’ work but it also stops you from reacting throughout the day and firefighting issues. It also means that all tickets are answered within 24 hours.

I have been doing this since I moved to Sirportly and my early morning routine is now firmly in place with a strong coffee to tackle the support for my plugins and then for Dev7studios. How do you handle support and what tools do you use?