Fostering interaction between LabVIEW R&D engineers and LabVIEW users

A few of us had a good discussion this Friday on the different interactions engineers in the LabVIEW team have with customers. Some of the people in the room should be familiar to many of you and included Brian Powell, Kennon Cotton and Deirdre Walsh. We talked about a number of things, this included what is it that motivates some engineers to be more actively engaged with LabVIEW customers through NI discussion forums, non-NI sponsored forums like Lava or by blogging. The part of the conversation I enjoyed the most and was hoping for some insight into from actual LabVIEW customers is what types of interactions they value the most.

I’ll start by listing some of the opportunities LabVIEW R&D engineers, managers or product managers have to interact with customers:

  • Local NI organized events like LabVIEW Developer Education Days, NI Technical Symposiums or NI Days internationally
  • User groups that are hosted by local organizers
  • Virtual user groups where NI engineers present a web cast
  • NI discussion forums where customers have a specific question on something they’re trying to do or having trouble with
  • External discussion forums not hosted by NI or customer blogs
  • Visits to customers at their work location with local Sales Engineers
  • Blogs where engineers discuss tips and tricks or details about a business issue or trade-off

The type of information discussed also varies:

  • Tips and tricks on how to do something with LabVIEW are often the focus of local events, user groups or blogs. An example of this is the virtual user group presentation on how to avoid cross linking of your VIs or the nuggets on LabVIEW programming from Darren
  • Information on the internals of LabVIEW and how things are implemented and their side effects can be answers to questions on discussion forums or of blogs
  • Active brainstorming on some features in active development is the focus on the developer brainstorm forum as well as lead user programs
  • Policy discussions and feedback are things John Pasquarette has recently been spending time on in his blog
  • Road-maps and future directions are often discussed in visits to customer sites and in one-on-one interactions.

All of these are performed to different extents and by different people throughout R&D and product management. As we were discussing these different things one of the questions in our minds was what do LabVIEW users find the most valuable in their daily work and also on a long term basis. Also, what are the ways you as a LabVIEW developer prefer to get each type of information and at what frequency?

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5 comments

  1. One if the interactions I find as most useful is when an engineer that is intimately involved with developing certain features in LabVIEW goes out and responds to questions on non-NI sponsored internet forums and mailing lists. The most famous example of this is Stephen Mercer on the LAVA Forums. He has become a legend there and has expanded the use of LVOOP in the LabVIEW community, far beyond any marketing effort that NI can muster.

    Stephen is not paid to respond to those questions. he does it for the love of it (or at least that’s how it comes across to me). That’s what gives the contribution more weight. There are other NI engineers that have started to make a significant contribution on LAVA, but Stephen was the pioneer that showed others that it’s OK to contribute outside of the NI shell.

  2. Personally, I find that interaction in the online forums is what makes the most difference, in several ways:

    1. It makes the users feel there is someone actually standing behind the product.
    2. It helps the users understand how things work and get some explanations which would not appear elsewhere. There are many times where NI employees posted useful information which would not be available otherwise.
    3. It’s text (which makes it searchable), it’s public and it stays available.
    4. It gives the users a chance to have an actual conversation with the developers.
    5. You would need to ask Stephen about this to get a more qualified answer (or Greg), but I’m fairly sure that this gives LV R&D a better picture of what users actually want and how they perceive the tools NI provides.

    Blog posts are nice, but most people have trouble maintaining a blog with high quality posts, as it requires more effort and you get less feedback. In the forums, you usually don’t have to be as official.

    I would suggest that you encourage all the R&D personnel to try to take part in the online communities. LAVA is generally better, as it has less traffic and a higher SNR.

    The tutorial videos NI had (has? I haven’t looked recently) are also nice, but aren’t interactive and don’t really require R&D to create them. The virtual user groups seem to be the right option in this case, and keeping them available is good, although I personally find that reading a tutorial is generally faster.

  3. I appreciate Yair’s reasoning behind why forums are an ideal mode of conversation. There are people behind the NI eagle and we like to talk about engineering stuff just like anyone else. I agree that the “conversation” is perhaps easier to conduct on a forum thread rather than a full-fledged blog.

    But how about Twitter? Micro-blogging? It seems to capture the same informal, conversational essence of forums, without acutally navigating or being confined to a specific site. Of coure, you’re limited to 140 characters and you can’t provide attachments. But what I like is that I can track any conversation on any particular subject matter, tweeted by any random being, all through one twitter client.

    Are there any users out there finding Twitter as a useful tool to spark conversations with NI or non-NI employees?

  4. There is one other big way that customers interact with R&D: bug report escalations. It may seem strange to mention that, because it sounds like it would always be negative feedback, but a lot of good feedback on LV functionality comes in as a side comment attached to a bug report. Sometimes we get bug reports about edge cases for features that make us wonder “Why did the user ever attempt to do this?” which leads us to discover aspects of LabVIEW that can be improved or promoted.

    Yair mentions that a lot of people have problems maintaining a blog with high quality posts. That has always been my hesitation with starting a blog, but I have considered it more as I watch what Christina Rogers has done with her Eyes On VIs blog. I had seen blogs as similar to newspapers or magazines, which need regular updating, but Christina only posts every couple months, irregularly, and still gets high reviews. Having said that, I finally decided that posting on LAVA or ni.com suffices for me: it gets the same, possibly better, visibility as an individual blog, and I have the same ability to write an article and get feedback on it.

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