Can AWS re:Post replace stackoverflow?
A few days ago AWS announced AWS re:Post as a successor to the AWS forums. When I saw the announcement in Werner’s keynote, I immediately thought: wow, they
copied re-imagined stackoverflow. In fact what they’ve done seems to be very close to the idea of stackoverflow scoped to AWS. Since I like stackoverflow, I signed up for re:Post and here are my first impressions.
For context, I’m fairly active on the
aws-* tags on stackoverflow myself, which have a substantial number of questions already and a fairly active user base answering them. This means I’m not completely unbiased here, but I have a feeling that this is true for most people, since stackoverflow is such a prominent repository of knowledge in the computer science space. I have not personally used the AWS forums to ask or answer question, but occasionally I’ve seen them pop up in Google results - usually far behind stackoverflow or an AWS blog post.
If you’re used to the AWS forum you’ll know that you had to have an AWS account to ask questions there. The same is true for re:Post. In my opinion that’s very annoying, because I need to log in to my AWS account first to use the platform. If I happen to be logged in to the wrong AWS account at the time, re:Post has no clue who I am and I need to log out of the wrong AWS account, log back into my re:Post AWS account and then finally access re:Post. I get that this is probably so AWS can tie questions to AWS accounts and potentially help users by looking at their resources, but for me as somebody who’s looking to contribute to the community, it’s just frustrating.
If you’re looking to use your re:Post account independent from your employer, you better use your personal AWS account to sign up for the service - I can’t seem to find an obvious way to migrate your profile should you choose to switch employers at some point during your career.
My first wish is: Allow users to sign up independent from AWS accounts. Many contributors have multiple AWS accounts and would like to have an identity they can take with them if they choose to switch employers at some point. (There’s a discussion about that on re:Post)
After accessing the website again on day 2 I realized my session had ended and I needed to login again - going through the ordeal of logging out of the current AWS account, logging in to my personal AWS account, logging in to re:Post and then finally log in to the project AWS account to get back to where I started. My second wish is that AWS extends the session duration substantially. This account doesn’t have access to highly sensitive information and right now it’s just inconvenient and disrupts my workflow.
After signing up with my Account, the system asked me for my username, first and last name (both optional) as well as an email for notifications. Having verified that one, I had the option to add some certifications to my profile in order to get reputation points in re:Post. The process is fairly easy; you have to copy the credly URLs and add them to your profile, but this only works if your notification email is the same as your credly email.
Here’s how much reputation point each type of certification is currently worth:
- Cloud Practitioner: 10
- Associate Certifications: 20 each
- Professional Certifications: 60 for the DevOps Professional and 80 for the Solutions Architect Professional
- Speciality Certifications: 100 for each
I don’t understand why the DevOps Pro is worth less than the Solutions Architect Pro, but it doesn’t matter that much. In your profile you can also add your areas of expertise within AWS that’s essentially a list of up to 7 AWS services you feel knowledable about. You can also manage your notification settings and the first thing I did was hit the turn off all link. Later I discovered that as I started following tags etc. they were added to the notifications even though I had clicked on the link that clearly said “Turn off all”.
My third wish is: Please implement a permanent opt-out of all notifications (checkbox?) no matter which topics I choose to follow, I don’t want spam in the mailbox associated with my certification account.
This is what one of these notifications looks like, unfortunately there isn’t even a link to unsubscribe in the email and I need to access my profile in re:Post again to do that. As a result of that wish four is: Add unsubscribe links to email notifications.
One more thing before I focus on the actual point of the website. It is slow. I’m located in Germany and as far as I can tell the whole thing is hosted in Oregon (us-west-2), so latency will probably account for some of it. Pretty much every action that I start or link that I click takes 1-2 seconds at the lower end and sometimes 4-5 seconds at the higher end to load. It just feels sluggish compared to stackoverflow where everything is pretty much instantaneous. I haven’t done any structured performance tests besides looking at the developer console in Chrome, but I think AWS has people that are far more capable in this area than I am. Wish #5 is: Make it faster, it’s not fun to use.
Questions and Answers
Now on to the core aspects of re:Post. It’s a Q&A site, you can ask questions and receive answers for it. Both questions and answers can be upvoted and if you ask a question you’re able to accept on of the answer. I’m coming at this from the perspective of somebody looking to answer other people’s questions - it’s something I enjoy doing. For me discoverability of questions matters.
The home page has the most recent questions at the bottom of the page and shows only six before pagination without any options of filtering, so clearly this is not the intended starting point.
The questions tab allows you to see questions organized in a grid (default) or a list, you can filter by things like most recent as well as answered and unanswered questions. What I would really like to see here is a filter that allows me to see all questions related to the technologies in my skill profile. It seems like a sensible default filter. There’s also a “sort by relevance” filter, but I’m not sure what that’s actually sorting by. Another feature I’m missing is the ability to ignore specific tags and hide those questions. There are certain technologies I just don’t care about or don’t want to engage with.
Tags are another way to add metadata to questions. Right now there is a predefined list of tags that are mostly AWS service names and some general concepts like “Windows Provisioning”. You can follow these tags, but I’m not entirely sure what this does besides getting you potential email notifications. Tags don’t seem to have any meta information attached to them. Other platforms like stackoverflow have a small wiki entry attached to the tags with some guidance on when to use them, this is something that AWS could probably benefit from as well to keep things organized.
Then there’s also Topics and Community Groups, I don’t fully understand what’s the idea behind those. Topics seem to be a collection of tags and Community Groups just list of users interested in a topic.
Talking about user interfaces is always subjective, but I’m going to mention my impressions here as well. Overall I’m okay with it, it’s definitely a step up from the old forums. Unfortunately there are also some major grievances. I was browsing re:Post from my notebook (14 inch) and noticed that about 25% of the vertical screen real estate is always taken up by the header bar. It’s sticky and doesn’t go away when you scroll down. That’s really frustrating, especially because there is a (useless) legal banner on top, which you can’t close. On mobile devices the header isn’t sticky, I don’t know why they chose to dedicate so much space to this.
The search bar has a quirk as well. When you start typing your search term it starts searching and generating results, but if you go back with the cursor and add something in the middle of the search term while it’s searching, the cursor jumps to the end. Seems like a bug to me.
Another bug is that the interface only sometimes remembers the grid or list layout I chose for the question view. It seems like it retains this information as long as I’m logged in, but after my session expires and I have to log in again, it forgets about that and I have to set it again.
In the question view it also shows the current question in the list of relevant questions, which seems unnecessary. Yes, the current question is relevant to the current question (one might even say identical), but that doesn’t add useful information.
On a more positive note, I think the experience of authoring question is fairly good, you get some recommendations for similar question and the interface doesn’t get in the way. What I’d like to see though, is syntax highlighting for code blocks, that’s currently missing. Another thing that’s missing are common aliases for tags, so if I search for S3 in the tags I’m getting “Amazon S3 Glacier” but not “Amazon Simple Storage Service”, which is a bit weird. The same is true for SQS, but for SNS it shows up because it has been added to the tag name. The filter is also a bit broken, because the recommended tags don’t show up when you search in the list. Answering questions is a painless experience and I like how it’s implemented.
There are quite a few things here that I’ve given feedback on to the AWS service team using their feedback form:
- Current question is also in list of relevant questions
- Search bar is quirky when editing already entered search term (cursor jumps to end)
- Interface forgets list/grid preference after session ends
- Question authoring: recommended tags can’t be searched for
- Header bar continuously takes up 25% of vertical screen real estate on my 14" notebook, that’s too much
- Add unsubscribe link to the notification emails
- Add a permanent opt-out of email notifications
- Add a filter to the questions view that shows questions related to the skills I added to my profile
- Add login that is separate from an AWS Account
- Extend session duration
- Improve performance/responsiveness of the interface
- Allow me to hide questions with certain tags
- Add syntax highlighting to code blocks
- Add common tag aliases (e.g. S3 for “Amazon Simple Storage Service”)
In my opinion re:Post seems a step up from the AWS forums, but as it is today there are lots of things missing to drive traffic away from the aws-* stackoverflow tags. I don’t know if that’s the goal though, so I may be comparing apples to oranges here. Although the look and feel clearly suggests that it’s intended to be a similar experience with the benefit of having AWS employees also answer questions to give authoritative answers.
Stackoverflow collectives offer something similar to companies and one of AWS' competitors (GCP) is already using it. The benefit is that this allows companies to utilize the hundreds of thousands of volunteers on stackoverflow while also allowing them to put a special stamp of approval on certain content. According to the launch post re:Post has been used internally for about four years now so it’s probably older than collectives. Still, maybe AWS should consider starting a collective.
I’ll revisit this service in a few months when it has (hopefully) matured, right now it’s a little bit too annoying for me to volunteer my spare time there.
I want this to succeed, if somebody from the service team wants to talk about this in mroe detail, feel free to hit me up on twitter (@Maurice_Brg).