With the recent introduction of the new top bar on SO, I thought I'd ask why all the fuss over the elimination of the meta/main links. Why are some people so upset about a little extra effort to switch between sites?
What is meta?
- Any Stack Exchange user can ask a question
- The community provides support, votes on ideas, and reports bugs
- Your voice helps shape the way Stack Exchange operates
The single-click allowed it to be functionally a toggle: click in a certain place on the screen and you flip to Meta; click in the very same place and you flip to main.
Conceptually, this made main and meta two views of the same site: the front and back, the outside and the maintenance tunnels inside, whatever. They felt like two sides of one coin.
Moving the meta/main links to a separate "sites" menu and putting them beside each other breaks this mental model, separates the sites, and make it laborious to flip between them. And let me tell you, when meta is suddenly active on a small SE where You Have Opinions on governance, you are flipping that toggle a lot.
(I wonder if this will decrease Meta participation. It seems silly that something so small would, but that's what UX studies are for: to uncover the multiplicative effects on behaviour of small UI differences.)
I have something like 3 years of muscle memory telling me to click in a certain place. A place which now takes me to /review. That's not at all a good reason not to change things, but it does make getting used to the change take longer. I don't doubt that many others are in the same boat - the frustration will wane over time.
The bigger concern here is that folks who aren't already used to going to meta won't find it. That would be bad. We didn't create these meta sites so that a handful of old-timers could sit in a smoky back room and bitch about the newbies; it's supposed to be the place where the community can come together and talk to itself, hash out disputes, come up with plans and strategies to improve the site. If that isn't happening, things will break.
But there's no way to know ahead of time if that concern is warranted. We're now linking to meta from three different locations on every page: the Site Switcher, the Help menu, and the footer. Each of these locations provides the same link but with different context: one as a sort of subcommunity, another explicitly marked as a place for help and discussion, and the last for providing feedback. This could actually end up improving the ability of folks to find their way in...
The only way to know is to try it and see...
Even though your question is obviously biased (details in comments), I'll explain why it bothers me:
I go to meta very often, for example to find our Text Building Blocks thread that contains many useful sentences and links. Therefore now, I have to do one extra click with most questions and answers that need a comment. You can check that on TeX.SE, this is used for quite a number of questions.
The chat link is not such a big deal, still, I hit it several times a day.
So far I've refrained from making any customization to the top bar, I'm giving it a go.
I do find the lack of a direct link to meta very annoying for my daily use. I wouldn't mind if it had merely moved, but the sequence “move mouse, middle click” has turned into “move mouse, left click, move mouse, middle click” which is almost twice as long and more than twice as complex as the old one. I often leave comments refering users to a specific meta thread, and the first step is for me to find that meta thread, which begins by visiting the meta site. The disappearance of the meta link is disruptive for this workflow.
A solution to this particular workflow could be a box to search meta directly from the main site. But it's a use case for power users, not something I'd want in the default UI. And it wouldn't solve other concerns about the lack of a meta/main link.
It's a bit less common, but a “main” link is useful when participating on meta to go and dig for example posts. Again, the more complex workflow is annoying, and feels gratuitously so.
For me, those links were like the levers that rats use to self-administer morphine. More specifically, it was like having one bottle which switched between morphine and cocaine with each push.
While the difference in time is only a second or two, the ratio of effort is at least order of magnitude, evident if you were to consider switches/doses-per-minute of a highly addicted user/rat.
For those that don't understand how an extra click can involve an order of magnitude more effort, consider the following additional steps that are required after clicking on the top bar link:
Whereas one can click at roughly six clicks per second, I contend the above sequence of operations takes at least a couple of seconds, which is more than ten times longer.
Further, one's brain is occupied during that time, as opposed to the instant of time that is occupied for a single click. It represents a much more significant distraction.
The good/bad news is that these links/levers can by easily replaced outside of SO/MSO. :-)
On an iphone, having to open a difficult to hit menu and then hit the appropriate link to switch to meta (or chat) is very cumbersome and impractical IMHO. Right to the achievements symbol, there is plenty of space to put back the links to meta, chat, and even the logout link would fit in there.
So why not put those links back there (and improve the meta top bar in a similar way with links to main, chat, and logout)? These 3 functionalities have from a logical point of view absolutely nothing to do with navigating to different sites inside the Stack Exchange network (so hiding them in the Stack Exchange menu is illogical), but are important for people to navigate inside the environment and context of the site they are presently looking at.
There are good usability arguments in the other answers. I want to propose a slightly different angle.
We want users to visit our Meta. In particular new ones so they can educate themselves on policy and open new discussions if they have a problem. The link to Meta was never very prominent, but now it's gone. The big Stack Exchange drop-down is probably the least interesting (if you are new, not very active and/or only using one site) so the link is effectively hidden there. (Does it even show up if a user has never visited meta?)
It's difficult to tell now whether there are fewer visits to Meta than before the new top-bar (not least because of the winter break) but I'm afraid that reducing it's visibility will make it less likely for users to go there. It's hard to add exposure; in particular, beta sites (which have long since become the normal case) don't have site ads.
I know, that link has been moved to the StackExchange menu now. I still can't get used to it. However, even when you consider the new design on its own, without historical considerations, it's still confusing.
From the main site, you can switch to the meta site via Help → Meta.
From the meta site, I try to look for Help → Main… but where is it? I'm stuck!
The asymmetry leads to a poor user experience. Please, either add Main to meta's Help menu, or get rid of Help → Meta altogether. Frankly, I'd be much happier if the main/meta switch were reintroduced on the top bar itself, as in the previous design.