Guardian comment system changes: The perils of designing for all users, not just the vocal ones

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 9 November 2012

The Guardian are currently trying out some changes to their commenting system. Like most changes to a major website, the backlash amongst some users is very, very vocal, and everybody gets to watch:

“It looks like Fisher Price were allowed to design it, and it kills linear conversation.”

“Too late; this reader is leaving. Taking my click throughs with me. Bellis [Julia Bellis, a product manager at the Guardian] you have my email, if you want real professionals to work on this get in touch but otherwise I outta here.”

“Who ever designed this system and decided it was a good idea should be fired.”

“This format is not merely ‘pants’ - this is pure, organically grown, ‘M&S tramp pants’, dipped lovingly in rancid urine, and smeared with faeces spattered forth from the rectum of someone suffering from dysentery.”

I don’t want to keep rocking up at the Guardian’s table like the Ghost of Banquo, but it does perhaps give me a chance to publish a little bit of context. Over the last decade I’ve been involved in a lot of site re-designs, re-launches and changes, and have often been one of the public faces in the comment threads afterwards engaging with the users about them.

One of the things that is incredibly hard to get across to the really active members of a community is that on a site the size of the BBC’s or the Guardian’s, or any news organisation for that matter, the people who leave comments every day are very much the statistical edge case. They may be the main users of the existing comment system, but they are not the main users of the site.

If you think about it, a site like the Guardian claims an audience of around 60 million uniques a month. The number leaving comments will be in the low tens of thousands, possibly less. The number leaving comments every day and “living” in the threads will be in the hundreds.

The design challenge isn’t always about super-serving the group of people who are participating, but designing for the majority of people who aren’t participating but might be encouraged to. So when you see a comment thread with two, three or four hundred comments saying this is dreadful, you don’t know what you are doing, you aren’t listening to your audience, you have to remember that this is a self-selecting section of a much larger total audience, and that the Guardian will have also canvassed that larger group for feedback.

Away from the regular users, that feedback will often be along the lines of not wanting to take part because they find the commenting system intimidating, and that the existing users feel like a clique with lots of in-jokes they don’t get. A design that works to be more inclusive, and tries harder to get those people engaged, is always going to be in tension with the requirements of the users who are already comfortable with the system.

The trouble is, of course, that the vocal minority are right. Sometime new features do ruin their experience and the way they interact. I’ve often thought that some of the more fun bits to get involved in at the Guardian site were where the threads were more like an open IRC channel that just happened to be underneath a Guardian article. But there aren’t that many of those, and there aren’t a huge number of people taking part, compared to the number of people who are visiting the site and who are possibly taking away a negative experience because of the existing comment format.

Those using the current system are concerned that their conversation and banter will get splintered and fragmented. What they can’t see is that there is a pent-up demand for being able to simply scroll past all of their puns and banter to get to the next substantive point.

One of the changes the Guardian is currently rolling out is the nesting of comments. I have to say that despite it being one of the most requested features on the site from users, I did once proclaim that the Guardian website would have threaded comments “over my dead body” because personally I hate them. But then I had my mind changed by the user data. The first tentative steps towards this was almost exactly a year ago with the introduction of a “response” button. At the time — guess what — the community on the whole didn’t like the change, and lots of people vowed that they would never use the button. In fact after a month or so it transpired that around 40% of comments on the site were a specific reply to another comment.

Likewise, in earlier trials on the site of threading, it didn’t work in a couple of places — one football blog post in particular was an absolute train-wreck — but after a few days running it consistently in a couple of areas of the site people adjusted to change, and the key metrics of participation and moderation costs moved in the right direction.

Inevitably in the comment thread about the Guardian changes, someone has said “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”. What the vocal edge case can’t see is that it is broken for the 98%-or-so of users who never comment.

Still, what do I know?

According to the most vocal bit of feedback I ever received on my work at the Guardian, I’m just “some fuckwit in IT” who “got promoted and decided to change some thing.”

41 Comments

Excellent Martin

(But I'll never forgive you for rejecting my idea that emoticons would raise the quality of debate on CiF.)

:)

The question is why do those millions who visit but don't post visit? If they do so simply to read the above the line article then the changes won't matter.

But in that case they are pointless.

If, on the other hand, they like to read the comments as well as or even sometimes instead of the article, then those people you have pissed off and seem to be dismissing here are actually the producers of the content that attracts the browers. At least they are surely a major element of that content. In which case, what they think of the system is much more important than you are giving credit for.

Secondly, the response system was a good idea. It did make it easier to follow particular lines of argument. It was compromise, allowing both a generalised reading and picking particular threads out. But more is not necessarily better. As in this case.

Only one thought - why do we have this wonderful ambition of a utopia where everyone comments on everything?

Not that I'm against encouraging greater levels of interaction on websites, but sometimes it seems you can easily lose the active 'minority' in failed attempts to try and engage a bunch of people who never wanted to comment in the first place.

One other thing. I was one of those people who browsed but never commented for a long while as I suspect is the case for many of the commentators. I did not not comment because of the way the threads were formatted. And now I do comment on some threads but not all of the ones I read by any means.

As a lurker before and after I started commentating I liked the old system. And the popularity of the Guardian boards compared to any other newspaper site suggests that I am not that unusual.

And so I really think that this is a non solution to an imaginary problem.

Away from the regular users, that feedback will often be along the lines of not wanting to take part because they find the commenting system intimidating, and that the existing users feel like a clique with lots of in-jokes they don’t get. A design that works to be more inclusive, and tries harder to get those people engaged, is always going to be in tension with the requirements of the users who are already comfortable with the system.

That's specious at best. You can't design a system against "in jokes". No way to deal with in the name of inclusion. Or simply plain and utter nonsense.

@Dan - “Only one thought - why do we have this wonderful ambition of a utopia where everyone comments on everything?”

I don’t think that is the aim, but I think it is no secret that the comment threads on news sites could be healthier, and that can in some cases be toxic and brand-damaging. Trying to get a wider range of commenters might be one way to improve that.

@Spencer / (Tybo) - “And so I really think that this is a non solution to an imaginary problem.”

Given that comments with one level of indentation have emerged as the industry standard on platforms like Disqus and Facebook, I personally suspect that the imaginary problem is more likely to be in the minds of the people who say that switching to it will “destroy CiF”. At the end of the day, it is a box where you put some comments in, and they appear next to your name on the webpage. Whether they are then threaded, listed in reverse order, oldest first, latest first, provided that people are motivated to contribute, people will contribute. And if nobody ever presses the “reply” button, there won’t be any threading.

Martin, as you know, I'm probably considered one of the vocal "cliquey" ones,
I like you, I like your writing but it's nonsense to say you have 60 million unique hits and only those few that use the comment system complain.

Whose to say the rest even read the comments? How many look at the blog articles, rather than a recipe, a headline news article or a football table?

Whose to say those who don't comment come to the site to read those who do? Those who are so unhappy they may not bother to comment anymore?

Also, the main complaint of the respond button was that it doesn't blockquote what you are responding to so the point gets lost unless you scroll up, a response on its own loses the argument to the "casual reader" and turns a forum for "60 million readers" into a one-to-one conversation / argument.

Lastly, you didn't address how the lessons learnt from the train wreck on a high traffic football blog were learnt?

I acknowledge threading works if you come to the comment section late and want to read what went down, it doesn't work for those involved, those trying to keep pace with the debate, that in itself risks people not bothering with the debate in the first place meaning you may get conclusive proof the 60 million are there for everything but the comments.


Should note, I appreciate IT, my undergrad degree is computer science (1996) but, as you know, I'm not a fan.

Shit, made the classic mistake of commenting on the article before I read the comments, only to see many of my points have been made already.

Makes me wonder further why they have placed a comment box above the comments on the new system.

And people thread to themselves which is fucking annoying!

@Defnotashark

If I’d had a bit longer to write this earlier, I’d have probably put in a line about it not being a likely ambition that 100% of readers comment, but that there is an aspiration to get more of the people who don’t to comment.

“Whose to say the rest even read the comments?”

That actually is kind of a typical response from not seeing the whole picture. When you are running a site like the Guardian, you can see the dwell time on a page, the click-throughs on the next buttons in the comment threads, and correlate that with whether the user has left a comment.

“you didn't address how the lessons learnt from the train wreck on a high traffic football blog were learnt?”

That was just at the point that I was leaving, so I don’t really feel qualified to speak on behalf of the team there anymore, I was just trying to put forward another point of view. One of the problems there was that the change was sprung onto a busy live blog totally unannounced, I think partially to see just how bad the reaction would be.

“I acknowledge threading works if you come to the comment section late and want to read what went down”

And that is the primary use case for most users.

You know there aren’t that many people at the Guardian prepared to stick their neck out to join in comment threads like the one today — and generally the people who do are the ones who get told they are shit at their jobs. There’s no one right answer here of course. It may be that the new design tanks, comments die on the site, and that is the final nail in the Guardian’s coffin. It may be that a sizeable chunk of users decide to go elsewhere. That has happened before to the Guardian, notably with the Talk boards.

All I can say is that often it feels like the vitriol aimed at the people building the site is mostly from people who’ve never worked on or built a website serving that scale of audience, or can see any other point of view than their own. Part of my job when I was there, and when I work for clients now, is to make design decisions based on research and evidence. I myself don’t like threaded comments, you can see I’ve not implemented them here. But as I say it was one of the most requested features: here’s someone on Twitter asking for them from a couple of days before the change for example and here’s someone pleased with the change. The metrics indicated that they seemed to increase people responding to each other and they didn’t increase the moderation overhead, and my understanding is that they’ve user tested positively when people have been shown the design.

Martin,
I've had a bottle of red wine and my prerecorded episode of the wire is over so this isn't my time nor place.

The overwhelming reaction of the threading format imposed (not threading per se) is its fucking awful. There's no debate whatsoever about that. If most people don't comment and those that do are biased and conservative what about those that poll? Surely the G should do a poll then?

You link to someone on twitter asking for them and someone (note 1) praising the change. That pretty much makes a mockery of the 60 million unique users comment, a man of science should know better.

As I said Martin, I like you, I liked you primarily as you engaged with me even when I felt I was unwanted at the Guardian. I went 5 years being a buyer and a web reader of the guardian before commenting. Dumbing down in the current retrograde step is not going to help achieve either a higher level if debate nor more clicks. I'm willing to bet on that.

As I said, I'd rather you had an opinion than sat on the fence but in this instance I disagree.

Martin should note, I doubt anyone at the guardian should give a flying fuck If I should withdrawing from commenting but worth noting that Tybo above and Montana Wildhack in a reply to you tonight are above the line folks as well as bottom feeders.

Both people you don't want to lose.

Hey, “man of science” is a bit of a cheap shot there - there are people on that comment thread demanding that the Guardian reveal “the names of the real users you used throughout the process” as if it is a lie to suggest that anybody in the universe could ever actually want threaded comments. Took me four seconds to find one on Twitter with a simple search so I linked to it. I wasn’t presenting it as peer-reviewed research :-)

I didn’t design this change to the Guardian’s system so I’ve got no personal stake in it. Having been on the receiving end of this kind of public reaction to website changes about a zillion times before in the past, I just thought I might chip in. I’m not in any way saying that the current users of the comment system don’t have a valid gripe, but I can guarantee you that in 15 months time when the system changes again, everybody will be screaming blue murder that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and bitterly defending the design and functionality they are currently screaming blue murder about. You know, how this lot in 2008 were appalled with the new BBC News website which everybody was mourning when they redesigned it last year.

1. I stopped using the bbc football site after that redesign

2. You prob got flak for putting your head above the parapet, that's to you credit, the silence on the site at the mo cements the view this is being forced through as its been paid for.

3. The "man of science" prob was cheap for for every random user you find on twitter I give you a tybo, an above the line, sensible fellow whose headband heart is in what's right for the guardian rather than whether he hates it because he can't work it.

4. I hate to say it but you piece includes a comment criticising threading from a regular commenter whose complaint wasn't threading but how amateur the effort was. He gave examples of sites where the format worked.

5. I know you didn't design this but it does seem like you're standing up for friends. In business you invent a product, you test the product to see if it works, then you market test the product.

In my book, this product doesn't work ( the obsession with social media means I can't respond even if I wanted to as Facebook etc is firewalled) and isn't want by the target market.

6. Guardian readers by design aren't conservative and from my experience know their stuff with regards to IT, if its a matter of a button being in a different place I doubt this would be an issue.

7. Quite simply it's dumbing down of the debate. I expect a defence of the introduction of a "thumbs up, thumbs down" button for the site on the basis that 59 million people didn't say it was shit!

Ps I still wish you were back at the guardian, at least everyone knew who to complain to.

Martin, I don't consider myself someone who's automatically against change. On the contrary, I switched the commenting system on the Untrusted from Blogger's own commenting function to Disqus when it seemed that Blogger's commenting system was having too many problems and I happen to be one person who loved the "Respond" button on the Guardian's site from day one.

But this threaded/nested comment system that they're switching to really is pants and I just don't undestand the mentality of alienating the active commenters that they already have for the sake of chasing people that will probably never comment much, if at all, regardless of the commenting system that is in place.

Equally irritating to me is the patronising attitude taken by JulianF and joannageary. You did a better job above of explaining how/what caused the Guardian to take the decision to switch to nested threads than either of them. I realise that they probably feel a bit defensive, but JulianF actually said in one comment that one of the ways they 'tested' the new format was by asking random people in coffee shops! FFS, how are people like me who have been commenting on CiF for years now supposed to not be insulted by being told that the Guardian cares more about the opinion of some schmuck they approached at the Starbucks on the corner than mine?

Hi Montana, thanks for dropping by and commenting over here

Like you, no doubt, I’ve been on the Guardian website long enough to remember everybody moaning about the software used for the Talkboards, moaning when the software was Movable Type, moaning when the comments were done by Pluck and the red-and-white “barber’s pole” loading progress bar happened before the comments appeared and they didn’t work on phones, moaning when the red-and-white “barber’s pole” loading progress bar was ditched, and moaning when the “respond” button was added.

My guess is that what will play out in the comment threads is that there will be uproar for two-to-six weeks, where comment threads keep breaking out into outbursts of “we hate the comments”. Then people will be unable to resist the urge to go back to talking about the news and chit-chatting. Then there will be a phase where a small group of people are constantly moaning about the format to the point that they begin to alienate the rest of the community because they become a single issue disruption — just like the Peterloo massacre avatar brigade did. And then in 15 months the comment system will change and everyone will be defending to death the new design as if it had always been the main design.

I think what you’ve said is a bit unfair on JulianF by the way. As I recall, in the thread he was asked what kind of research had been done, he reeled off a list, and then everybody shot him down for the coffee shop comment. It wouldn’t have been him doing it or making that decision.

But I do think it was really telling the way you just phrased it that the Guardian “cares more about the opinion of some schmuck they approached at the Starbucks on the corner than mine”

I used to do a lot of that type of lo-fi testing - in fact I’ve even done conference talks about the methodology I used at the Guardian when doing it.

The point isn’t that the “some schmuck” is more important than existing users, the point is that user research is about researching all parts of the audience, not just getting a wish-list from existing users.

A session in a coffee shop will usually start with the question “do you use the Guardian website?”. If the answer to that is “yes”, then why wouldn’t that “schmuck’s” opinion be just as worth listening to as someone on the Cif “You tell us” thread? I used to always go to the British Library where I would usually find that 4 out of 5 people were Guardian website users anyway.

Secondly, if they say “no” they don’t use the site, you want to validate that if they do ever visit it, the commenting functionality is going to be clear and obvious to them. Why wouldn’t you want to check that? If you built something that the regular users loved, but the design of which made people on the whole think the site was more confusing or difficult to use, you are shutting off routes to audience growth.

The Guardian has got a whole customer insight team with a massive panel of people that they can survey, have built/are building a usability lab in the office, have a dedicated UX researcher, and have access to all of the metrics about how a system is being used before / during / after any changes.

The point I was trying to make in this blog post isn’t that the Guardian shouldn’t listen to the regular commenting users, but that they are only one part of the audience for the website, and in the context of that comment thread, they’ll be the only bit of the audience represented.

There's repeated reference to lots of research that backs up the format change. Wouldn't it help by actually presenting this research, or an article summarising it?

For example saying that the format change is designed to encourage more new commentors. Surely with all the piloting that has been described there is data to back up this assertion?

You say "The metrics indicated that they seemed to increase people responding to each other and they didn’t increase the moderation overhead" - this is exactly the thing that would have helped justify the change - though with more detail and certainty than 'seemed to'. Though from a qualitative point of view is 'responding to each other' what makes a good discussion? Are people responding to each other in an interesting/informative/entertaining way? Or does it just increase the 'yes you're right', and 'no you're wrong' type of comments, i.e. increases your superficial metrics, but degrades the quality of the conversation.

Isn't one lesson that if you are rolling out a major change to a site, and that you already know the change will annoy a significant number of your 'core' audience (core in terms of content creation not clicks), then you should have a robust way of explaining the rationale for your decision so as not to alienate this core? Aka change management. Given that you cite examples of this happening over and over with change to the site, the inference is that The Guardian doesn't need to explain itself.

JulianF's attempts to justify were welcome, but pretty poor - saying 'most of our readers prefer it' is clearly untrue - unless of course i missed the part were every Guardian reader was surveyed. Mentioning that surveys have been done, then not providing results suggests obfuscation. And as for saying that feedback was welcome unless it was 'I don't like threading'.... how could that fail to get a reaction?

Martin, I take your point about regular commenters only being a part of the audience, and thus the stream of negative comments about the change not necessarily reflecting the majority view of all site visitors.

However, I wonder if the Guardian isn't shooting itself in the foot here. The Graun's comment threads provide a completely different reading experience to those of the Indie or the Telegraph, and I wonder if losing that USP* will lose the Graun visitors - or at least reduce the number of repeat and remain visitor numbers.

I'm not sure many non-commenters would necessarily voluntarily identify the comment system as one of the reasons why they visit** - and I've done two Graun surveys on user-experience and (as far as I recall) 'reading the comments' wasn't one of the 'what brings you to the Guardian' options. The future performance of the site (assuming the changes do have a detrimental effect on the threads***) is probably the only way to really find out.****

* Sorry
** Like voting Tory - no one wants to admit it, but lots of people do it.
*** I reckon they will.
**** Like the smoking ban - we found out that all those people who claimed they'd go to the pub more often if there was a smoking ban actually only go out once a year on their birthday.

The point I was trying to make in this blog post isn’t that the Guardian shouldn’t listen to the regular commenting users, but that they are only one part of the audience for the website, and in the context of that comment thread, they’ll be the only bit of the audience represented.

I guess the point that I'm trying to make (and quite a few others, I suspect) is that all of this talk about surveys of casual users and people who are encountered in Starbucks or the British Museum is that, whatever they may say, they are probably highly unlikely to ever comment regularly on the Guardian's or anyone else's site, regardless of comment format.

I used to read AlterNet a lot, but never bothered much with the comments below the articles because they were impossible to follow any sort of thread. I occasionally read articles on the Independent and Telegraph's sites. Sometimes I even comment on those articles. But I never return to the threads. Ever. Why? Because they are nigh well impossible to follow.

I just returned to the Inside the Guardian thread about the new system and couldn't find any of the comments that I'd made last night. It quickly became obvious that I was going to have to scroll through all four pages of comments to try to find my comments to read whatever has been said on that thread since then. Most people -- including people who don't currently comment on the Guardian's site -- simply aren't going to devote that much time to trying to follow threads.

Now, if JulianF or Joanna Geary or whoever else from the Guardian were appointed to (or foolish enough) respond to us with an answer to the effect of:

"Our data indicate that, while this new format will probably push away a lot of long-time users and will change the nature of comment threads below our articles, it will increase page hits and ad revenue for us and that is ultimately what matters to us. We are, after all, a business and we have to consider our financial position first"

I would respect and accept that. I wouldn't like it and I'd still be very sad and upset to be losing something that really has been, in many ways, a very important part of my life these past four years, but I would understand where they were coming from. The insult and the anger come from being told, "We care about our community and this is what our community wants" when the community very much doesn't want it. The Guardian's community is not the millions of people who casually read articles and threads without ever (or only occasionally) commenting. They might make up the majority of the Guardian's online "customers", but they do not make up the community.

Also, I get what you're saying about the way people complain every time there's a change, but surely you appreciate that this is a much more fundamental shift than whether or not there's a barbershop pole progress bar when the comments are loading or even whether comments load on pages or all at once?

The only way I can see this nested comments thing working is if it were like the good old days of Usenet where the only comments that appeared for you were the ones that were new since your last visit to the thread.

> I just returned to the Inside the Guardian thread about the new system and couldn't find any of the comments that I'd made last night

All your comments and replies to them are on your profile page, if you click on your username.

There really is no great way to do this. There are benefits and drawbacks to every approach, including the one just dispensed with.
That's why there are legions of UXperts like Martin, and executives above him, expending considerable resources on this decision.
People are generally averse to change, and heavy users of a comment system will be most vocal about it. They also won't like to hear, of course, they aren't being valued as highly as hypothetical future users, particularly in the setting an online "community" in which they're personally invested.
And they tend to disagree with data that contradicts firmly held or deeply important beliefs - the psychological principle of "confirmation bias." There’s a great case study in the entire Republican Party the past few months, culminating last week.
I have to say, though, that even if you bump the heavy commenters up to 1,000, that’s still just .01 percent of the 60m. You can certainly argue about that figure, but they could be doing a lot better – and they have to do something. If the new UX is polling better, and it was your company, what would you do?
I live in the US, and I was a journalist for most of my career. I parachuted out and now work in tech consultancy, but remain naturally interested in the nexus of these fields. The greatest challenge is getting people more engaged - and, for many/most, keeping the discourse civil. Most sites - particularly newspapers - have started using Facebook for messaging. They reason that people will be nicer if they can't "hide" behind usernames #Except for fake Facebook profiles, of course#
I almost never comment, but I constantly read them. Even when I *know* what they're going to say. And I don't think I'm alone there. Many means of organization make sense, but chronological listings frequently force the reader through a lot of irrelevant one-to-one discourse. At least that's the way it usually is here - though the Guardian seems more thoughtful.
Last thought: The NY Times has what I believe to be the most sensible comment UI. There are three choices: The default, last-in, first up; and then tabs for "Reader Picks" and "NYT Picks" for best/most interesting comments. Keeps things fresh, while still rewarding gems.

I think my main beef with the Guardian redesign, the way it was rolled-out, and the feedback handling, is quite easily justified in business terms.

It doesn't align with the Guardian's Business Strategy of "Open Journalism". And they really are betting the newspaper on that strategy. From Alan Rusbridger's interview earlier in the year.


http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/mar/25/alan-rusbridger-open-journalism

- It encourages participation. It invites and/or allows a response

>> from the arguments above, the changes are quite justifiable on this basis

- It is not an inert, "us" or "them", form of publishing

>> I'd say this one is neutral. The UI-Upgrade leaves that unchanged.

- It encourages others to initiate debate, publish material or make suggestions. We can follow, as well as lead. We can involve others in the pre-publication processes

>> The change impacts this negatively.

- It helps form communities of joint interest around subjects, issues or individuals

>> The change impacts this negatively.

- It is open to the web and is part of it. It links to, and collaborates with, other material (including services) on the web

>> Neutral impact

- It aggregates and/or curates the work of others

>> Negative impact.

- It recognizes that journalists are not the only voices of authority, expertise and interest

>> Negative impact.

- It aspires to achieve, and reflect, diversity as well as promoting shared values

>> Negative impact, in the sense that it will mostly be drop-by comments that remain.

- It recognizes that publishing can be the beginning of the journalistic process rather than the end

>> Negative impact.

- It is transparent and open to challenge – including correction, clarification and addition

>> Negative impact. Drop-by posters don't do this.

Hi Martin. Nice e-meeting you even if it's simply via a comment post in here.

My problem with the format of Guardian's blogs is not the format per se. Every business has the right, if not the obligation, to keep their online presence fresh and refreshed, in line with the standards set by the greater Web. No major website is (or should be) the same in 11/2012 and in 11/2009.

This factor notwithstanding - I am not a UX expert, but am in the digital media business, and an avid message board / forum / blog / you name it user for years.

The way comments used to work in the Guardian before a couple of weeks: It resembled a forum. In a very basic format, of course. The users were encouraged to develop the "thread of discussion", which, like in a forum, could have an effect where a given response might be relevant to the post directly above - or not. "Respond" helped differentiate this. A "Respond" with an automatic quote would help differentiate this further, creating sub-threads in the thread.

Now - It resembles a crippled Twitter. Twitter works with the assumption that latest Tweets can be clearly distinguished. Can't do that in that system. As I wrote today in fact:

"The thing is, as kizbot rightly stated, nesting as it is now at least puts you in a "mini-dimensional bubble" with only yourself in it, and people responding to you specifically may join the bubble.

If kizbot's or lmvho1's bubbles rock, Sovjohn has no way to find out unless he spends half his bloody day going up and down, left and right, page to page and keep track of how awesome -or not- every single nested bubble has become.

I have better things to do, so whoever came up with this idea and specific implementation should really have their IQ checked. "

So - I do not have thousands of posts in Guardian, must be in some dozens - But I tend to write when I *really* want to offer a constructive, detailed opinion, and not in a "Hey, wazzup dude?!" context. If you take a look at my user profile there, you'll see what I mean.

I think ballymichael just above me is a quality commenter and writes very interesting comments day in, day out.

If we can't keep track of the discussion, neither ballymichael nor me have any meaningful incentive to continue providing useful insight and justified opinions. Because:

a) The general 'level' of comments will have become more friendly to a "Hey dude, wazzup?!" audience, thus there's no reason to enhance a debate which never existed.

b) It's very easy to lose track of a good reply if it's made in response to someone, and stuck in a nest somewhere and most importantly...

c) It takes A VERY LONG TIME to actually do a perpetual back-and-forth and try to see which reply may have any good points in a given nest.

In conclusion, they could do best of both worlds: Default option as it is now, and a per-profile option to change the display. All these comments are pulled from a database more often than not, it's not that gigantic task to sort them differently.

But they don't - And while this would work perfectly for a cooking blog ("Great recipe! Thanks very much!"), it does not work perfectly when discussing business, eurozone crisis, and what have you.

Since BBC changed their comments to allow max. 400 characters everywhere, I stopped commenting there as well - but before they did, I can surely say that there were some excellent responses and thoughts posted in their serious blogs (Paul Mason, Stephanie Flanders, Robert Peston, Gavin Hewitt, Mark Mandell, et al).

At the end of the day: It's great for analytics to attract some thousands of "Omg LOL DUDE!!!" users in your website. It's not that great for the quality of a debate you are supposedly trying to stir / maintain, when you offer 'regulars' or people who can actually provide insight on 'serious topics' a platform which can't be used for discussion purposes.

Quality vs quantity - A well known golden rule.

Good night!

I think this could almost be a non-issue if the "sorted by" options included a choice of threaded or unthreaded (i.e. purely chronological).

Leave the order of viewing up to the viewer, then everybody could be happy, or at least a bit happier.

Isn't that treating the readers/commenters as intelligent grown-up people, rather than making their choice for them?


It would also have to retain the features of the old format, i.e. having links to the post being replied to. I can't remember if the old system gave the option to automatically quote the text of the post being replied to but if it didn't, it should have done, and so should the new system.

The Guardian could simply have had an additional setting, either on the pages or as a user preference - Threaded or Chronlogical

Hi Martin
I am no enemy of innovation. The formatting options are great (even if almost no one has learned how to link). The 'Response' button is good too, taking you back to an earlier post if you need to clarify what a dispute is about. Similarly 'Preview' so you can check what you have written, and how, without all the tech gobbledegook in the way.

What's deficient, I suggest, may be an understanding of 'community'. It is actually many communities. I have little idea about the posters on football threads. I don't read them often enough or pay enough attention. On those I frequent, passively or actively, I do.

I have a familiarity. With who generally has common sense and who does not. Who is helpful and informative on one kind of thread yet on another kind talks utter nonsense (in my view). Who handles facts or statistics with care and who simply sprays anything convenient around. And so on.

Who you can have a sensible discussion with and who you cannot (who you learn not to bother with, at least I tend to). Who is tough and will give as good as they get. Others, you may learn in the course of a single thread, may deserve more care.

Perhaps you sense after several posts, they are young, inexperienced, lack formal education, or don't have English as their first language. Yet they are eager to debate and learn.

That to me is community. Perhaps the Guard does not wish or cannot afford to support it. That will be a pity.

It's a lazy morning so I won't go into too much detail. Martin, I respect your honesty and time taken to engage openly. You haven't been overly defensive with differences in opinion whilst offering yours.

Sovjohn highlighted a crucial element on the Guardian comments "debacle" and that's the forum feel. A user reads the article and is then placed in this room where opinions are offered, discussions are had, ideas are shared. Many people are attracted to the Guardian because of the comments system and the liberal views offered all round.

Also, I think the Guardian is set apart from most websites because of this very system and feel. The forum style is what eventually led me to comment on an article and it wasn't on the article itself but a comment I disagreed with. I had been following discussions on the Guardian for quite a while and "got to know" many different characters through the comments.

The Graun is a leftie operation and I think the attraction held by comments as well as users has been underestimated. I would finally add that the profile page helps to track comments which also serve as "bookmarking" articles of interest, especially so in the wake of clippings being removed earlier in the year.

By the way, I've really enjoyed reading and learning from this comment section. I might visit the site in the future to see what's going on,it's quite a draw you know... ;-)

The new format will only increase the cliquey in-joke nature, IMO.

If one person makes an injoke on the first page, then all responses to that injoke will appear on the first page, thus relegating all the "original" comments (those not responding to the injoke) to the next page.


The new format will only increase the cliquey in-joke nature, IMO.

I’m fairly certain that the ability to skip past uninteresting sub-threads will be introduced in due course.

The Guardian could simply have had an additional setting, either on the pages or as a user preference - Threaded or Chronlogical

Hi FrogStar, the team did look at options around that. One thing against it is that those with threaded conversations switched on know that their comment will appear below the one they are replying to, and so are less inclined to blockquote or @username people. Which then makes it really hard for people in the unthreaded view to follow what is going on. And people in the unthreaded view make lots of effort to blockquote and refer back to each other, which then looks like a load of unnecessary clutter in threaded view...

The UXer on the comments team spent a lot of time earlier this year with lots and lots and lots of cut up bits of paper of real conversations assembling them in lots of different UI permutations to see how all the options would work.

Anecdotal evidence of course, but I was speaking to someone at one of the places I’m working at the moment. We started talking about the comment threads on the Guardian, and they said how frustrated they had been with the old system. They’d see that a comment had four responses, and then be dismayed knowing that they might have to pick through another forty or fifty comments, and remember the username and time of the comment, in order to put the replies into context. There’s no one system that will please everybody in this debate.

Which is why a good UX designer will support the different ways people like to interact with the data right? Like supporting both a flat and nested view or making it possible to see which threads have had new posts on them.

I think it is perfectly reasonable that the default view is based on sensible user metrics and testing but there is literally zero reason and a lot of benefit to making it more customisable so people can work in the way they find efficient.

That said the current nesting view is not fit for purpose. They haven't even met the minimum feature set required to make it usable.

I agree to disagree. ^^
Yes. The main income arent the ppl which write a comment, but in some cases they are the reason why ppl come back to, f.e. a daily blog. So where is the more users for guardian, because some suddnly leave a stupid short comment like.."yes" "no" "§$%§".
And byside that, im angry because the way it got installed. I possible have missed some informations or so, but it feeld for me like a "eat or die" install...and the best why to build acceptence for new things in a software system is, to at least try to do you would listen to the users. If im unimportend then why should i waste my daily time to produce contened for them for free?
And to my exp with nested system. Before i started to discuss on guardian i was on cnn page...then they made this change too...what happend...the before conversations turned into smash talk with half truth which, before you could explain the other truth was 3 pages away and noone ever did read your replay.
nope...no matter how good the programmer made it (it is good work)...that make the failed approach for a "problem" not better or right.

I forgot to add one more point...The system is inconsequent. When i want to replay to a replay i cant use the system...so this nest function with just one level is not meant for discussion but like a recomand button with explenation. For discussion i need the possiblity to re-answer an replay.

Free content sniffed at...

You have no data at all of how many looked at how many comments so your justification is vapid.

You may have data on pages turned but that is all.

Meanwhile what is the data regarding number of comments made?

Up or down?

And really your description of interesting comments is solely defined by those comments replied to?...

Bad design is bad design.

"They’d see that a comment had four responses, and then be dismayed knowing that they might have to pick through another forty or fifty comments, and remember the username and time of the comment, in order to put the replies into context"

Well Martin, under the new system there'd probably be eight replies but six of them would be insults and your mate probably wouldn't have seen them anyway because they'd have been added after he'd read past that point in the thread.

I was looking at a Polly Toynbee thread last Thursday night. When I came back in the morning there'd been at least 150 comments added before the point I'd left it and I was absolutely buggered if I was going to trawl through 80+ sub-threads over those four pages to see which had new comments.

It's just a mess for those of us that like to actually follow threads that interest us as they develop.

Then try charging people for comments and see how the content falls.

You ignore the rest of my post.

Says it all really.

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