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If poll/fun/discussion questions are so critical to avoid on SE sites, why isn't there a big slogan pasted on the page header:

The place for specific, technical questions about programming.

Users may not read the FAQ, but I generally feel a big stamp on the logo is harder to avoid. Not all user issues have to do with documentation; a lot of it has to do with site branding.

On first glance, stackexchange sites look like any other Q and A site. They work much better than that, but in the wide world of the internet, the distinguishing focus of these sites should be readily apparent to a new user on first glance.

In a recent comment Jeff made the point that its okay to "slap a few wrists" to avoid yahooanswerfail.com (amazing site btw). But why slap wrists if you can avoid it? The other comment was that it's better to have 100 of the 'right' users than 1000 of the wrong ones. In teaching, we call this the fallacy of the gifted student. It's true that some people are predisposed to success, experienced, polite, preternaturally forum-ready, but the vast majority of people just don't know what's going on. I think the best way to get them on the same page is to make it very visible what the site is about and then to continually direct people to good resources that explain it.

The internet is full of crap, and people with contrary intentions, but there's still room for turning those "1000 users" into "good users" with a little documentation, good user interface design, clear moderation (with explanations), and some friendly guidance.

This is going to be more and more important as SE expands outside of its niche of relatively hard-core coders and computer users. The rest of the world is less inclined to intuitively understand the focus which these sites are based on. There might be enough SOFU users to 'seed' the hundreds of area51 betas, but eventually they're going to have to fly on their own and fend off hordes of average folk who just have a query. Make it easy for them.

note: This is not about better notification for the FAQ. I literally mean, add the words: "The place for specific, technical questions and answers about [cooking]", to the main page, header logo on every StackExchange site. FAQs are another issue. This is about clear, up front branding--communicating directly with the user in a way that doesn't require them to 'read' or think. To make the unique focus of the site immediately, explicitly apparent.

Mockups (MS Paint) site logo with slogan

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Perhaps rather than being a banner on the site, relevant messages could be used on users first actions? "Before asking this question, are you sure that it is A, B and C. Off-topic and repeat questions can lead to a loss of reputation". "You are making your first comment - please make sure it is X, Y and Z". I'm also seeing a rise in the idiot questions that have plagued other forums (the ones that could be summed as less 'Help' than 'Can you do the job for me?'). –  JulesLt Aug 13 '10 at 20:36
It's certainly better to start with 100 good users than 1000 bad ones. It's easier to expand a good forum than to clean up a bad one. Feed bad users into a good forum and social pressure will make some good and keep the others from gaining rep. You can't feed good users into a bad forum, as they just won't participate for long enough to make a difference. –  David Thornley Aug 13 '10 at 20:45
@Jeff Atwood. Here's the mockup. I did it with stackoverflow, just because all the SE betas have names which are redundant with the slogan. –  Ocaasi Aug 16 '10 at 12:15
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3 Answers

Ah, but we do notify new users.

See screenshot of new user experience (replicate yourself by using "incognito" or "private" browsing mode).

I've dimmed everything except the relevant areas.

new user alert demo

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Ah, but it's not working... We need more cowbell. Why make people click through for it? You probably lose 60% right there. Of the remaining 40% probably half get the point. By my expert analysis, that means only 20% of new users have any clue how to ask a question. Assuming half of the rest guess right and go specific, we wind up with 40% of new user questions which are crap. Sound about right? Forgive me, I was a polisci major. –  Ocaasi Aug 13 '10 at 21:48
@Jeff But this isn't about numbers, it's about being clear. I don't want to have to read the manual to know how to use the product. Guidance should either be built into the UI or politely flashed in the user's face when they need it most. New users don't want FAQ. They want to ask a question, my question, now. That's good. Curiosity and enthusiasm are good. But it could be more intuitive for them to know what to do. So maybe try being more explicit. Subtle is great if it's doing the job, but since it's not quite, maybe more visible guidance would set the right vibe. –  Ocaasi Aug 13 '10 at 21:50
@ocassi what you want is impossible; see codinghorror.com/blog/2009/10/treating-user-myopia.html –  Jeff Atwood Aug 13 '10 at 22:05
@Jeff I'm not talking about changing the habits of users. I'm assuming users won't read FAQs and therefore will only respond to direct, embedded, propaganda. The slogan idea is not an FAQ writ small: it's part of the logo. People are indeed trained not to think, but that is the very basis on which branding/advertising rests. The first thing a reader will see every time they come to the site will be (specific and technical, specific and technical). It's not magic, just a continual suggestion and an upfront declaration. Why bury the lead? –  Ocaasi Aug 14 '10 at 4:44
@ocassi pretend I'm from Missouri, the "Show Me" state. Show me a mockup of what you think will get users to read help. –  Jeff Atwood Aug 14 '10 at 7:09
@Jeff You wrote: "I have one iron-clad design guide: this is a site for programmers, so they should be comfortable with basic markup. None of that nancy-boy GUI toolbar handholding nonsense for us, thankyouverymuch. If you can sling code, a little bit of presentation markup is child's play." Most comments seemed to agree that a combination of WYSIWYG and better placement for the formatting tips would have resolved most of the problem. So I don't see the same lesson from that example that you do. If anything, it's even more important to handhold, now that new sites are code-slinger free. –  Ocaasi Aug 14 '10 at 11:39
@Jeff. I think we're talking about two things at once. My post is literally about adding the following words to the logo of every StackExchange site::"BlankOverflow: The place for specific, technical questions and answers about blanking". I'm hoping that by embedding the message in the branding itself that the message will sink in without users doing anything at all. I have no graphic design skills, but my mockup is in the OP on this thread. Right underneath (or above the logo), just like that. –  Ocaasi Aug 14 '10 at 11:44
@ocaasi I guess by your metric, Wikipedia is a complete failure -- have you ever even tried to edit anything there? It makes our editing system look like a child's toy. I think we'll have to agree to disagree here. –  Jeff Atwood Aug 14 '10 at 18:38
@Jeff Your site is a success, obviously. I'm only thinking how it could be even better. Wikipedia is a failure in terms of being accessible to many people: "Wikipedia attracts writers who have a moderate-to-high level of technical understanding, but it excludes lots of smart, knowledgeable people who are less tech-centric," said Wikimedia executive director Sue Gardner." (news.smh.com.au/technology/…, mediawiki.org/wiki/WYSIWYG_editor). –  Ocaasi Aug 15 '10 at 3:26
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It's a good thought - really, it is - but it won't work.

Jeff doesn't explicitly call it out, but there is actually a well-documented psychological phenomenon called inattentional blindness. You can put an important message in 72-point flashing red text if you want; it won't matter, they'll just find a way to get rid of it and never read it.

As I see it, there are four basic categories of users on a site like this one:

  1. Technology-oriented users with very good instincts or a lot of experience on other Q&A sites (i.e. Yahoo answers), Wikipedia, etc. These people don't need a banner or FAQ at all; if they don't instinctively and immediately understand what the site is all about, they will learn by lurking for a while and watching how the community operates.

  2. Eager but inexperienced. These people want to contribute, to make the site and the community better, but don't always immediately know how. They'll make a few mistakes and be "reprimanded" (downvotes/closings), but it's OK, as long as they're treated respectfully and are able to obtain reasonable explanations for the community's behaviour, they'll take it in stride and soon become productive, valued members of the community.

    These people don't benefit from a tagline because they won't understand its exact meaning until they've had a little more experience. They'll see it, certainly, but they'll need to read the FAQ or meta forums to figure it out, and this particular group would read those anyway.

  3. Clueless. These people have no idea what they're doing and don't even really understand that there is a community. They probably were searching Google for a similar question and didn't find exactly what they were looking for but noticed the "Ask Question" link and decided to fire away.

    These people often write as if they're texting from a crappy cell phone, and are almost always "hit and run" users - no matter whether or not they get what they want, they won't be back until they have another inane question, and almost certainly won't participate in the voting/accepting/answering process. It's useless to put up a tagline for these people because they don't care enough to notice it (inattentional blindness).

  4. People who think they're knowledgeable/experienced but actually aren't. They occupy the bottom rung of competence and, as such, don't recognize their incompetence and overestimate their abilities more than anybody else. If they don't get what they want, they'll bitch and moan. They'll swear and curse. If you close their questions, they'll ask identical duplicate questions. Suspend their account and they'll create more accounts and throw tantrums, and in so doing demonstrate their total unwillingness to listen or be educated.

    Unlike those in category #3 (and possibly someone from #2 who has had a particularly nasty experience), they won't just pack up their bags and leave. Unless they find an easier target, they'll keep coming back to make everybody else's life more difficult. They're practically trolls, except that they're not doing it intentionally. Putting up a tagline for these people is pointless because they believe the world revolves around them and will always find a reason to justify their actions.

I'm generalizing, of course. But I happen to believe that there is no non-trivial group of users on any Stack Exchange site who would be positively influenced by the addition of this text. All it does is make the place sound geekier, especially when you include the word "technical".

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+1 for link to inattentional blindness, since that's what's going on. –  djechlin Apr 16 '13 at 21:25
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This is a response to Aarobot, but it broadly addresses the claim that users don't read.

Ok, here's why that's not true, though your analysis is pretty sound and a useful breakdown.

1) Users do read, if it's part of a logo and placed top left on the screen. That's why all nearly all webpage title images go there.

2) People do read, if it's branding. Repeated exposure to text can be as effective as intentional reading. People reliably glance at things in their line of sight, and an 8 word slogan is unlikely to breach any limit. More importantly, people read when text is not 'flashed in red', because that over-emphasis acts as a counter-signal that something is nagging them. This tagline is polite. It asks to be read, doesn't yell.

3) People do read, when they first come to the site. Newcomers currently see "...site for programmers...read the faq". Nothing in that message addresses the unique scope/focus of the site. Branding is not for users, it's for shoppers--people who don't know what the site is, but might be tempted to join it. It influences the self-selection of users who would be interested in such a site. Currently, they come primarily from area51/sofu, but one day they will just wander across it from a google search. And they will know nothing unless someone tells them.

4) Branding is also for users. Because people come to expect certain things from a site, and though branding can be incidental or irrelevant, if it integrates seamlessly with the UI, FAQ, moderation, etc. it all adds up to more impact. Branding isn't magic, but it helps. I don't even like the term really; this is just plain communication.

5) The most persistent complaint about these sites is that people ask too many open-ended and vague questions. If there was a road that people constantly sped on, might you put up a speed-limit sign? It baffles me that despite the persistent complaints about what doesn't work on this site, nobody wants to spell it out.

6) My biggest caveat with your analysis is group number 1/2. From what I have seen, people don't lurk enough, the moderation is not friendly or explanatory enough, and they are frustrated. It's easy to lurk and find out what questions are acceptable, but much harder to lurk and find out what's not. To me, that is usability crime #1, leaving users open to making mistakes which could be prevented. Groups 3/4 are perennial problems, but I think a segment of each of them could be converted to either a 1/2 provided they don't get off on the wrong foot.

7) Miscellaneous: 'technical' is optional, but might have added benefit. I'd be happy with 'The place for specific questions about programming.

note: I know there's a kind of Tommy-boy quality to what I'm saying, that if we just slap a warning on the box that people will understand what's inside. It's certainly more important that the community actually is about specific, technical questions rather than that there's a slogan which says it. And, a good UI typically doesn't require any instruction. But. but, but, but... maybe this is an exception.

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@Aarobot responded to your post. Take that! –  Ocaasi Aug 17 '10 at 1:21
People don't read. –  djechlin Apr 16 '13 at 21:24
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