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In various contexts, websites try to boost activity in user-driven question-and-answer sections by actively inviting users to participate. Stack Exchange does something like that with the statement

Know someone who can answer? Share a link to this question via email, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook.

Amazon, on its Q&A section, sends out mails to at least some previous buyers of the same product, asking for whether they have an answer, with a mail that reads something like this:

As someone who owns , can you help this fellow customer?

Unfortunately, the latter seems to attract answers whose writers know do not answer the question. Typical examples include:

  • I don't know.
  • I am not sure which product you are referring to.
  • I believe it will, but I do not have this product.
  • I have a different product, and it works there, so maybe it works for yours, too.
  • Sorry, I can't answer this.
  • I have researched online because I do not have this product, and it seems it is possible.

Obviously, these answers are not very useful. At best, they are not any better than what a random person could have told you (irrespective of whether or not they own the product the Q&A section belongs to). The primary problem appears to be that users feel compelled to answer even if they do not have an answer.

How can a system reliably encourage users to participate, but only exactly those users who actually have something to contribute to the particular problem at hand?

Answers I could imagine point out specific ways to phrase the invitation mail (that makes clear that if the user doesn't have an answer, they can just ignore the message), or maybe a more promising system (or user pre-selection) altogether.

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I think you have answered your own question pretty well, so I'm just restating it:

Need:

...boost activity in user-driven question-and-answer sections by actively inviting users to participate.

Challenge:

Unfortunately, [certain approaches for eliciting Q&A participation] seems to attract answers whose writers know do not answer the question...

Problem-Solution Hypothesis:

The primary problem appears to be that users feel compelled to answer even if they do not have an answer. [To solve this problem, we should] encourage users to participate, but only exactly those users who actually have something to contribute to the particular problem at hand...

As for how to approach experimenting your way to improvement, you mentioned 2 variables that are likely to qualify your Q&A responses a little better:

  1. Screening - user pre-selection - target the right people in the right context in the first place.
  2. Messaging - Specific ways to phrase the invitation mail that make it clear that if the user doesn't have an answer, they can just ignore the message.

You contrasted Stack Exchange and Amazon. Take closer look at them in the specific contexts you're thinking of and consider what they're doing the same or differently.

Then go ahead and just start trying some things on your website. If you already have a baseline to compare to - wonderful. Go with what improves the quality of the answers. Otherwise, if you're just getting started then at least you're establishing a basis for future comparison and can build on that.

Good luck.

  • "You contrasted Stack Exchange and Amazon." - well, I named them as two examples off the top of my head. I am very well aware that they are so inherently different with respect to this topic that their methods and success cannot be directly contrasted. Users sign in to, or possibly visit, Stack Exchange for the very purpose of taking part in Q&A. Most users visit Amazon rather in order to buy something, while the Q&A is just an extra activity that is not within their original realm of intention. – O. R. Mapper Mar 11 '18 at 16:22
  • They are comparable in some ways but not others, but the point you make about the fundamental intent is pretty important. Stack Exchange is a self-selected audience of question askers and answerers. Amazon is "search click buy done." To get back to your original question: "How can a system reliably encourage users to participate, but only exactly those users who actually have something to contribute to the particular problem at hand?" I guess it depends on the needs of the system and users of that system. It would be great to hear a little more about the real life context you're designing for. – Luke Smith Mar 11 '18 at 22:30

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