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Elaborating on feedback from the Hanselminutes podcast with regards to

a UI that works for programmers may not work for SE2.0’s world domination plans

I personally think the average UI for phpBB is incredibly dense and complex.

Also, the fixation on the front page is a bit strange if you consider that any real user will start on a question page (from a web search) and spend most of their time on question pages.

Kind of a red herring overall.

Let's compare the homepage of Server Fault to the homepage of the average web bulletin board software, in this case, vBulletin

(click through to see larger)

Which one is more "incredibly dense" to you? I know which one I'd pick as the complicated one.

I maintain that our homepage is not any less "confusing" or "complicated" than the average web-based bulletin board homepage.

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Tricky this one ;) –  ChrisF Apr 24 '10 at 20:51
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'I maintain that our homepage is not any less "confusing" or "complicated" than the average web-based bulletin board homepage.' I think you mean... more –  user146448 Apr 24 '10 at 21:18
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There is nothing confusing about a solid clean design that presents a lot of information. –  Josh K Apr 24 '10 at 21:51
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After about 2 minutes on StackOverflow, I bookmarked the questions page, and have never seen the "homepage" since. –  Lawrence Dol Apr 24 '10 at 22:16
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fwiw, i mentioned a while ago that the homepage looks too much like a spreadsheet, and suggested at least removing the number of views (who really cares about views?) meta.stackexchange.com/questions/26051/… –  Kip Apr 25 '10 at 0:40
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@kip views is important -- as I said there "Views represents popularity from the anonymous masses, which may or may not have anything to do with how many answers and upvotes something gets. It's staying, forever" –  Jeff Atwood Apr 25 '10 at 0:57
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I don't use the homepage (at least not the question lists)...I either search, or go to the "Unanswered" tab. –  Jonas Apr 25 '10 at 1:04
    
I think the SO home page is fine. Also, I think all this talk about how SO is designed in a "techy" and "nerdy" way isn't really true. It's minimalistic, and that is something that appeals to non-technical people a lot. –  Pëkka Apr 25 '10 at 21:18
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there's a home page? –  Steven A. Lowe Apr 28 '10 at 3:13
    
I, for one, prefer the "everything on the front page with tags plus search" approach to the "forums 1-4, forums 5-9, [click], forums 1.1-1.5, [click] post list" approach. –  Randolpho Apr 29 '10 at 18:31

18 Answers 18

Most definitely vBulletin. The Stack Overflow interface is nice, clean, simple, and presents it on a clean, white background...Personally, I love it!

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The SO homepage doesn't show any unimportant information. If you "simplified" it, you'd be making the site harder to use for dedicated people, without making it significantly simpler for the casual user.

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I think the SO interface is very clean and effective, I just wish I could get that homepage look on the questions page also, as per this request.

Though looking a little closer, I wonder how useful the tag cloud is.

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Yeah, the tag cloud provides more noise than benefit IMHO. If you're looking for something to remove, that would be my recommendation. –  Kyle Cronin Apr 24 '10 at 21:23
    
@kyle I just normalized the homepage tag "cloud" based on Robert's excellent suggestion. –  Jeff Atwood Apr 25 '10 at 1:47
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@Jeff That does look better (less clutter) so it's probably OK. But I've never actually used the recent tags and I can't think of when I ever will. –  Kyle Cronin Apr 25 '10 at 4:22

I maintain that our homepage is not any less "confusing" or "complicated" than the average web-based bulletin board homepage.

But while that might well be true, the issue at hand was

SE2.0’s world domination plans

It's not enough to beat the current incumbent, if the current incumbent hasn't actually got the crown you want!

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Stackoverflow have a clean good looking layout, i dont have any problem with her control and i think the most users say same as me about this topic.

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On vBulletin homepage are too many useless information for anybody, like "last post" in thread.

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The tag cloud makes SO/SE look more complicated and messy than it really is. It's not the worst thing in the world, but if it were entirely up to me (which it obviously isn't), that would be the first thing to go for a non-programmer-oriented site.

The phpBB (and really any BB) style gives the appearance of being easier to use because it's organized into a hierarchy. But ultimately this makes the site less usable. I know - I've posted and still post on a number of different forums - and there are always problems with off-topic discussion and topics being posted to the wrong place. Inevitably they all become completely unusable for looking up information.

The forum approach is fine for socializing. It's not very good for Q&A. And if you don't have either a list of sub-forums or a list of questions on the front page, what would you have? The alternatives - splash screens and that sort of crap - would be unusable.

Just because Scott Hanselman said something doesn't make it 100% true. There may be some stylistic changes that would make the SE front page seem less "busy", but overall I think it's just fine. Remember that a lot of the users on Stack Overflow aren't exactly hardcore programmers or even tech geeks, they're line-of-business folks or hobbyists. If they don't find it too difficult to use, then it's probably OK.

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It'd be more interesting to ask Moms and Dads the question. Anyone have one they can show this page to? ;) –  Scott Hanselman Apr 24 '10 at 22:40
    
I don't know from moms and dads, but I have shown autos.stackexchange.com (disclosure: I'm a Diamond there) and photoqna.com to normal people (car geeks and photographers, respectively) ... And they "got it." –  John Rudy Apr 24 '10 at 23:26
    
@Scott: Which site are you going to show them - Stack Overflow? There's a chicken and egg problem here, you can't get feedback from "moms and dads" (I assume you exclude the numerous moms and dads already on the Trilogy) until there's already a site with subject matter that would interest them. –  Aarobot Apr 24 '10 at 23:36
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Am I the only person that finds tag clouds completely useless on a homepage (as in, I click through on a tag link from there like once every year. maybe) –  Earlz Apr 25 '10 at 6:17
    
@Earlz - I think tag clouds can be useful on a homepage, especially for a SE site: it's probably the fastest way to get a clear idea of exactly what the site is all about. –  Zac Thompson Apr 25 '10 at 6:32
    
@Earlz: Of course you're not the only one, that's what my first paragraph said. Perhaps I communicated it poorly, but I don't think the tag cloud adds anything that a simple sorted list wouldn't be much more effective at. –  Aarobot Apr 25 '10 at 14:22

vB4 is horribly bloated anyway. vB3 versus SO would have been a fairer comparison. IMO for the Q&A format, SO is far superior, but for a discussion forum, vB3 actually does its job quite well.

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There is a lot going on on the homepage:

  • The list of questions, each of which is a link and has several tags which are links and there may be a tooltip on the answer count.
  • The account or login bar (four or more active bits)
  • The search box
  • The logo and the main buttons (all of which are active)
  • The tabs (active)
  • The "Looking for more" line with three links
  • The bottom permalinks
  • Ads
  • Recent tags and badges
  • The RSS feed icon link

No one is going to "get it" all at once.

I think that the use of whitespace is pretty good and discoverability is also pretty good, but we shouldn't imagine that it is a simple interface. Compare to the google frontpage. Even the modern one with all the little links.

That said, it certainly compares well in your images, and I think it does what you want it to do.

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Not only is the vBulletin more dense and noisy, but you haven't even reached any information, yet. Good luck trying to figure out which "Forum" has the information you need. The Server Fault home page lays it right out there, easy to read.

But I think the preeminent view of the trilogy is this one (below).

I prefer the the expanded question summaries and the "block of stats" to the left. The questions are nicely spaced out with enough text to see if the content is interesting. Yet, the layout lets my eye easily scan through any piece of meta data I'm interested in (votes, answers, views) without cluttering the interface.

I always felt that the "question" page would make a better home page, with a checkbox to hide the question text, if you want. The information could certainly be combined into one view. Just a thought.

alt text

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+1 for the checkbox comment, just what I'd like. –  Lance Roberts Apr 24 '10 at 22:20
    
excellent point, simpler, more consistent, cleaner .. I changed this on meta take a look and see what you think. EDIT: by "this" I mean the homepage "tag cloud". Compare the way Server Fault homepage looks now with the screenshot, above. –  Jeff Atwood Apr 25 '10 at 1:47
    
I like this view as well, but I think it needlessly stretches the page vertically. I would relocate the "asked 15 mins ago" and "13 views" text in such a way as to allow a bit more vertical compression. Perhaps move them to the right (or left, I suppose) of the user info? Even if you like the spacing and don't want to show more questions "above the fold", I think the whitespace is being wasted above: a rearrangement would make things a bit more elegant and readable. –  Zac Thompson Apr 25 '10 at 6:29
    
@Jeff Wouldn't it be more useful if the tags were sorted by popularity (exclude obligatory and mods-only tags)? "These are the topics we discuss here." Right now the list seems pretty random. –  badp Apr 25 '10 at 10:10
    
@bp (you have a 2 letter name, sadly, so this response may never be seen) it's a chronological sampling of the last 600 upvoted question tags. –  Jeff Atwood Apr 25 '10 at 10:14
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@Jeff: I like this look better. Way cleaner and more useful than the tag cloud. Personally I don't see a problem with the vertical expansion of the page, as long as there's no horizontal scrolling and the most important information is at the top, which it is. useit.com/alertbox/20050711.html –  Aarobot Apr 25 '10 at 14:18
    
@Aarobot -- I read alertbox as well. Here's a more recent article : useit.com/alertbox/scrolling-attention.html "the real estate above the fold is more valuable" ... I claim that this layout (while otherwise excellent) under-utilizes it. In particular check out the very relevant "sofa" page in the link above. "the material that's the most important for the users' goals ... should be above the fold" –  Zac Thompson Apr 27 '10 at 5:55
    
@Zac: Seems to me that the most important information is above the fold - navigation, newest questions, tag filters, etc. What specifically would you propose to be placed higher on the page? –  Aarobot Apr 27 '10 at 11:06

StackOverflow certainly has the cleaner home page in that example, but since when do you stop there? You can do better.

For the broader audience you're looking for, remove the list of questions, and the Ignored and Interesting tag lists. Shrink or remove the Recent Tags and Recent Badges lists.

It's worth getting even cleaner than that. Think back to what Google's home page looked like 5 years ago, and how that was such a selling point.

It's hard to remove features from software when you've put so much love in to creating those features, but it's usually a win for everyone. So, get some courage and clean up your home page!

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The explicit Q and A format is key to user engagement and making the service useful and on topic. I liken it to the requirements for participants in a court case to have "standing", ie skin in the game. Also questions lead to engagement and learning. It worked for Socrates.

As for the design, the BB forum doesn't get to the meat, and distracts with all that stuff. Just a mess, unclear, doesn't commit to the site's purpose.

The SO design could use some polish, no site is ever "done". But it does a good job of getting to the meat and telling users what the site is about.

As for "will SO's design work for regular non-techie people", the design as-is adequate, just adjust it over time based on testing, user feedback, and insight from designers.

Hanselman specifically mentioned "too many stats" but I don't think it's a problem. I visually ignore them, going right to the questions column. Users quickly learn to find what's most relevant, assuming good visual hierarchy.

Anyway, the most important thing is that the SE sites are useful, delivering value up front. Wikipedia is a triumph of utility, not design.

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the criticisms of the homepage "tag cloud" were spot on and I have normalized the styles for them based on Robert's suggestion. Seems obvious in retrospect.. –  Jeff Atwood Apr 25 '10 at 1:49

I think that the most confusing part of the homepage is that it is very similar to "questions" page. The posts also show a part of the body there, but tabs are nearly the same. I think this is rather confusing.

Of course it will only confuse anyone who explores the site, navigates somewhere and then wonders why everything looks subtly different than on the page where he started. (There is no path back to the homepage besides clicking the logo, but the questions page is similar enough to be confused with the home page. A new user then wonders why there are two slightly different versions of the same page.)

So I have no complains about the home page itself, I just think that it's slightly confusing to anyone who starts to explore the site. But then again this might encourage people to explore the site further, trying to find out why there are these little differences.

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I like the homepage as it is, but I would prefer one small modification: remove the "views" column.

I don't generally find the number of views to be very interesting information when looking at the page; certainly not enough to warrant equal screen space with number of votes. If you want to keep it on the homepage then why not move it to small text (as it is on the Questions list pages) but put it with the "8m ago" area?

Fewer questions would have the title forced to wrap, as well, which would also streamline the page in my opinion.

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There are some questions which get a LOT of views but don't have many votes. This is an important metric of how well the questions are working for the mass of anonymous users who don't ever vote, but only view. It's probably 98% of our audience. Bottom line, popularity still matters -- the vast silent masses don't "speak" through votes or answers. –  Jeff Atwood Apr 25 '10 at 6:23
    
@Jeff: It's an important metric in various ways - but is it one which a new user is actively interested in? Even if they should care about it, do you think they really do? –  Jon Skeet Apr 25 '10 at 8:04
    
@jon one of the implicit goals is to build content that garners pageviews -- that's a metric of "breadcrumb trails of awesomeness". If it's awesome, it should be something other travellers are regularly finding, even those who never vote or answer.. ever. –  Jeff Atwood Apr 25 '10 at 9:57
    
@Jeff: Yes, it should be something grabbing page views from complete strangers - but I suggest it's more likely that that will happen via a search engine. Do you think many irregular visitors actually care about the number of views? A number can be important to some people but not to others. –  Jon Skeet Apr 25 '10 at 16:18
    
Remember, we're only talking about the homepage. The views are more significant (to my way of thinking) in combination with the age of a question -- 100 total views means different things to a year-old question than to an hour-old question. I can support showing the number of views for the "hot/week/month" tabs -- it's part of the point of those views. But I don't think it should be so prominent in the default ("active") homepage layout. It's even less meaningful for the "featured" tab. –  Zac Thompson Apr 27 '10 at 5:42
    
@Jeff: if those questions with "a LOT of views" but not many votes are already showing up on the homepage, why do you need to display the number of votes so prominently? Obviously it already has an attention-grabbing title. So give the title some room to shine! If you need more convincing, the existing Questions page layout (which answer is currently getting a lot of votes on this question!) also minimizes the views metric in relation to the votes/answers count and question title. –  Zac Thompson Apr 27 '10 at 5:58

I think the Interface could be a lot more clean if we got rid of the tag cloud and the recent badges bit. It could be placed somewhere else other than the home page, but I for one never click through on tag clouds, but I do click through on the tags of questions. And the recent badges section. That's nice, but I don't care about badges.

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I've just had an idea which may be awful, or may be helpful. I'm quite prepared to be downvoted to smithereens.

Should the home page actually be representative of the site at all? Who sees the home page, anyway? Do any regulars really go there rather than the questions page?

Why not have a home page which is almost entirely different to the questions page? In particular, there's nothing on the home page which says, "This is what the site is for. Here's why you might want to use it. Here's how you can use it." Something closer to the "about" page in some respects - but more focused on the newcomer than on the SO team and moderators.

There should be "quick exits" to the questions page, user registration etc - and it certainly wouldn't hurt to have a short sample of recent questions there... possibly even with freehand circles overlaid to show what each of the bits is about.

In short: consider changing the home page to simply be an entry point for new users, rather than something which is meant to be immediately useful to existing users. (If you wanted to do make sure the home page is useful for existing users, you could always display the questions page if you detect that the user is logged in...)

I completely agree that the UI for phpBB is awful. But being "better than awful" isn't a high enough bar to set yourself :)

EDIT: Yes, I know there's the top bar for first time visitors - but the rest of the page is still very busy (with information which is entirely useful for non-first time visitors, yes) and you have to click to get at the basic premise of the site. When I go to the home page of a new site, I don't want to have to navigate to a FAQ to get the general idea.

If regular users do genuinely still use the home page (and I'm obviously not the only one who goes straight to the Questions page - see Software Monkey's comment) and want it to show questions rather than a general intro, then I seriously suggest that the home page shows two radically different views based on whether the user is known or not. Don't just put a title bar up - change the entire contents. Yes, show some questions to give a sampling of what's on offer - but within a context which is more useful for a first time user.

I would suggest that if you were designing the ideal landing page for a first time user, the current home page is not what you'd come up with. So why not design that ideal page?

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what you're describing is the function of the first time visitor sidebar notice and topbar notice. Try visiting the site in chrome's incognito mode to see what I mean. Also -- I use the homepage pretty much exclusively across all the sites, as I expect many other "dabblers" do. You might ask yourself who the outlier is, here. :) –  Jeff Atwood Apr 25 '10 at 9:55
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-1 cause I've always wanted to downvote Jon Skeet :) –  Earlz Apr 25 '10 at 9:59
    
Also, even on SE sites I'm new to, I still find their front page useful because you get a quick skim of a lot of information. What kind of questions are being asked, How active it is, etc. and also I'd hate to have to tack on /questions to ever SE site I visit –  Earlz Apr 25 '10 at 10:00
    
@Jeff: See my edit. I'm sure I'm an outlier in many ways, but I don't think I'm the only one to have a bookmark to the Questions page :) I think it's worth looking at the home page - in Incognito mode - and trying to imagine yourself as a first time visitor, and a non-engineer at that. It's not a matter of whether it's too complicated to be understood with an effort - it's whether it's the absolute best experience it can be. –  Jon Skeet Apr 25 '10 at 11:23
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@Jeff, any figures of how many new (never-seen) visitors land on the homepage, compared to those who arrive at some specific question they were looking for in some search engine? –  Arjan Apr 25 '10 at 12:04
    
(Hoping against hope) that the new API is done and released at or around the same time that SE 2.0 comes out, it would be very very simple to pull in elements from questions.domain.com to domain.com, where domain.com presents the kind of stuff you are describing. Even now, without the API, this is possible with RSS. In the case that you describe, its better to just put the SE site on a subdomain. –  Tim Post Apr 25 '10 at 14:22
    
I think I'm on board w/ the landing page idea. For the "question sampling", there could be a sidebar w/ a list of the 10 most recent questions. Or like Yahoo answers: shows what to do at the top and has sample questions below the fold. I usually get to Yahoo answers via Google anyway, but if I was a first timer, I'd just click [HOME] reflexively to see what it's all about. –  hyperslug Apr 25 '10 at 20:30
    
I believe the "toddler sized barrier" of the information dense homepage is necessary and important to protect everyone involved. My philosophy is that you want to turn away some users. Scary, but bear with me: it actually doesn't help you to have masses of semi-clueless users -- you are FAR better off if you "let the right ones in". It's like Joel's philosophy when hiring folks; they'd rather turn away 10 "good" hires in favor of that one magical "just right" hire. –  Jeff Atwood Apr 26 '10 at 6:44
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@Jeff: I believe a low-ish barrier to participation may be reasonable - but the barrier to just understanding what the site is about should be as low as possible. People casually browse to many, many sites these days - so if something isn't obvious in seconds, they may well go elsewhere. (At this stage consider they may have little reason to believe the site will really appeal to them - and they may have many other alternatives.) I believe this applies more to non-engineers, too - I suspect their information-density pain threshold is lower. –  Jon Skeet Apr 26 '10 at 10:02
    
@jon what could possibly be more obviously "what is this about?" than seeing a simple list of questions real people are asking, right now? –  Jeff Atwood Apr 26 '10 at 10:05
    
@Jeff: How about a paragraph describing it? Explaining why there are quite so many numbers next to all the questions, users etc? The bar on the RHS is a good start, but I don't think it's "front and centre" enough. If it were genuinely a simple list of questions, that would be one thing - but each question has 8 pieces of information associated with it, which I don't think is simple if it's the first time you've seen it. It's not that any of it is particularly hard to understand if you take the time to try - it's that it's sufficiently daunting to put some people off trying to start with. –  Jon Skeet Apr 26 '10 at 10:57
    
@jon see useit.com/alertbox/activeuserparadox.html "users start using the software immediately; they are motivated to get started and get their immedate task done. They don't care about the system as such and don't want to spend time up front on getting established, set up, or going through learning packages." –  Jeff Atwood Apr 26 '10 at 11:29
    
@Jeff: I would be interested to see how that applied in the web world where you don't really know whether a site is going to be useful to you or not before you start, and the "manual" in question can be a single paragraph of text just to make things that little bit friendlier. I get the feeling we're going to have to agree to disagree though... –  Jon Skeet Apr 26 '10 at 11:36

I've knocked up what I think is a "more approachable" home page design. Maybe it's not right for Stack Overflow, but it could work for the "Joe Moustache" style sites that Scott talked about on the latest Hanselminutes.

The idea is to grab the list of "hot" questions but categorize them by common tags, so that it's not a flat list of questions with lots of statistics. Even the username and reputation could be omitted if you wanted a cleaner look.

I've included some freehand circles and some comic sans to appease the gods of meta.

Proposed home page layout

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this is interesting, thanks for putting it together. One quirk of this -- wouldn't the most popular tags dominate the top of the page indefinitely? Since there will always be at least 1 or 2 recent c# or java questions, it's effectively like docking them or stickying them to the top. –  Jeff Atwood Apr 28 '10 at 3:14
    
@Jeff yeah, that's a potential problem. Although ... if you look at the questions on the current home page, there's a diverse array of tags there. Maybe the same algorithm could be used to grab "hot" tags to keep them cycling. –  Matt Hamilton Apr 28 '10 at 3:46
    
I'm also not 100% happy with the styling on the tags in my mock-ups. It'd be better, I think, with a "Hottest asp.net questions" subheading (and "Hottest android questions" etc), where the tag name inside the subheading is a link. –  Matt Hamilton Apr 28 '10 at 3:48
    
Well @Jeff you could always steal Quora's style of first asking what they find interesting and serve those first. –  Ivo Flipse Apr 28 '10 at 6:46
    
If you made it easier and more intuitive to hide/ignore tags then this approach might work really well. It took me a few weeks to setup a list of interesting and ignored tags since there is no easy method of setting up these lists. –  Greg Bray May 4 '10 at 17:24

Well, one thing that might count in favor of vBulletin is this:

When I look at the screenshot of vBulletin, I see text.

When I look at the screenshot of StackOverflow, I see numbers. Ratings, votes, rep count and all that.

How obvious is it to a non-technical person unfamiliar with the site what these numbers mean? They're very prominent, which might just make some feel it is "too complicated". (of course, in that case, a simple fix would be to make the numbers a bit less prominent. Perhaps put the question text first, and the vote count after it, to the right?

Another factor might be as simple as familiarity. More people are familiar with the vBulletin format, even though it sucks.

I think the SO layout is basically very good, and much cleaner than the alternatives. But for non-technical audiences, there might still be improvements to make.

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