Q&A or forum - what’s the difference?

Posted by on April 6, 2009

When trying to describe a social question and answers system I frequently have to compare it to a forum. Forums have existed longer so they are more wellknown and I’m often asked what Q&A software can offer that a forum can’t. This post will go through the main traits that makes Q&A systems different from forums.

Both Q&A systems and forums are oriented towards people asking, answering, commenting and discussing online, but there are some key points that I think are important to describe how the Q&A system differs from a classic forum.

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  • To sum it up question and answers systems -

    • are focused on problem solving
    • motivates through a point system
    • more userfriendly

    Focused on problem solving

    Where a normal forum lends itself to long discussions and exchange of opinions the Q&A system is more focused on solving problems.

    On social Q&A sites the user who asks a question has a problem that needs a solution and the users who responds are other users with an expertise to help solve that problem. The answers are rated, the best get rewarded and for future users it’s easy to see what the solution to the problem was, since the best answer is highlighted. And when the solution has been reached the question is closed. There is also a race to get first with the right answer, since the first correct solution is normally the one rewarded.

    So for users that are looking to solve an issue, Q&A systems are an excellent tool for doing that.

    Motivates through a point system

    A key difference is the point system that Q&A systems utilize. There are different versions of this, but the point systems enables subject matter experts to be rewarded within their fields of expertise. Whereas in a classic forum the only way of measuring a user is by his activity (how many posts he has made or how old his membership is), a Q&A system allows the experts to gain points based on the quality of their contributions.

    An expert on a Q&A site is able to earn points by answering questions quickly and correctly and since the questions are associated with specific categories, so the expert gains category specific points that can be used as a measurement of the experts knowledge and ability to share it.

    And where the classic forum is based mostly on altruism and the users wanting to be part of a community, the Q&A system introduces a gaming element to knowledge sharing. Through leaderboards (general, category specific, period specific etc.) and different levels that can be achieved the experts compete against each other and gain public prestige and measurable proof of their knowledge.

    Q&A software is more user friendly

    Now this is a very bold statement since there are so many types of forums and Q&A systems and generalizing will not do justice to all. But there is a tendency for Q&A systems to be easier to use and understand for an inexperienced user.

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    The concept itself is easier to understand. You want to ask a question, not start a topic, or you can propose solutions, not argue your opinion. If you’re happy with an answer, you give it a thumbs up, if not a thumbs down. It’s simple to understand, both for person with a problem and future users with the same problem.

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  • And since best answers are highlighted, the question has a status that indicates whether it’s been solved or not and since there is no paging or threaded discussions, it’s easier especially for future users to reuse the information given. There is no landing from a search engine on the sixth page of a discussion, where you have to read through all the other pages before you understand what has been discussed and where the offspring topics distract you from what you were looking for.

    Depends on the purpose - and your budget

    I will not argue that Q&A software is better than a forum in all cases. But if your subject matter is focused on issues that can be measured as solved or not I definitely think that a Q&A system is a better solution. On the other hand if you want your users to engage in discussions or exchange ideas a forum will serve your needs better.

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    And of course there is an economic side to take into account as well. In general there are many more forum products available on the market (from open source to expensive proprietary solutions) so this gives you more choice and room to get something that fits your needs. But as Q&A software is being more and more demanded, solutions are coming up from pretty cheap downloadable software packages to more expensive, customized and scalable solutions with accompanying support and maintenance plans. If you can do with a standard product you can definitely find something easily available, and if you need a personalized solution you should just make sure that your provider or own development team has the expertise and time to give you that.

    My own company, Lumin Creative, does sell several different types of Q&A solutions and you’re welcome to contact us if this has your interest.