One of my favourite services on web right now has got to be the Q&A site Quora.

Quora feels like it’s been quietly growing in quality over the past year after getting a hammering by various people and blogs in early 2011. Some felt it was just a site for people to ask questions to show off how clever they are with no real depth, others (rightly) had issues with the email notifications.

Since then there have been tweaks and UX improvements across the site but in my opinion what has made the biggest difference is that Quora now attracts a much wider range of people answering questions – nurses, soldiers, bus drivers, NASA scientists, scuba divers you name it . It’s even seen celebrities such as Stephen Fry, Jason Siegel, JJ Abrams and Ashton Kutcher answer questions along with entrepreneurs Jimmy Wales, Kevin Systrom and loads more.

Quora is a tool just like Twitter, getting the most out of it is down to the user. It’s easy to find questions that are fun and interesting once you follow your interests and people in your network. Here’s a couple of my recent favourites

“What are some places with free Wi-Fi where you wouldn’t expect it?”

“What are some of the most mind-blowing facts about U.S. history?”

 “Which are some of the most badass photos ever taken?”

Those are some light-hearted questions but dig a bit further and you can find some powerful answers to questions and it makes for fascinating reading.

That’s why the recent program to allow prisoners in San Quentin State Prison to answer questions on the site has really wowed me.  It’s received very little press coverage or fanfare but once you read through some of the answers you really see what an amazing tool Quora can be.

Arguably the most gripping is the answer to “What does it feel like to murder someone?” by inmate Tommy Winfrey,

I continued to justify my actions for a long time, but somewhere deep inside I have always known that there was never any justice in taking someone’s life. Admitting to myself I was feeling scared, lonely, unworthy of love and respect was just too hard. Also, by admitting these feelings of mine, I would also have to come to grips with what I really did, and how I affected the world. This was a hard prospect for me, but I am finally there over fifteen years later.

Another answer to “What are some aspects of incarceration that could not possibly be guessed at by someone who hasn’t experienced it?” by Kenyatta Leal is especially powerful

One aspect of incarceration that couldn’t be guessed is the degree to which our physical absence disrupts our interpersonal relationships. Prior to entering the prison system, I had a robust social network. I knew a lot of people and I spent a lot of time hanging out with friends, going to parties and getting involved in activities that most young people experience. At the time, I believed my relationships were stable and that somehow we’d always be connected. I thought I had a lot of real friends and people I could count on no matter what, but today I know differently.

Imagine life without the internet? When James Houston was incarcerated he had never been online

“Most people can’t imagine life without the internet or their mobile phones. I am trying to imagine life with them where I can send real-time messages, photos, my resume and job applications. Thinking about all I have to learn can be overwhelming at times. Hopefully in the near future, this issue will be addressed. I think becoming computer literate can help lower the recidivism rate.”

I recommend taking a look at the answer to these questions too

“What should everyone know about prison?”

“What does the first day of a 5+ year prison sentence feel like?”

How would you design a prison according to UX / user experience principles?

“How common is violence in prison?”

“Do you remember when the gavel dropped in court with the verdict and what that felt like at that moment? Flash forward to today looking back on that moment — how have you changed your life behind bars?”

“Do emotions like empathy, love, and compassion exist in prisons?”

“Where is it worse to be imprisoned, in a state or a federal prison? And why?”

 “What is a typical inmate day like in San Quentin? What’s the schedule?”

Read more about the Last Mile Program allowing San Quentin prisoners to answer questions here.