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?

  • 22
    The key to good user interfaces is the minimization of clicks. Dec 5, 2013 at 17:37
  • So no footer links then
    – random
    Dec 5, 2013 at 17:38
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    I'd counter by saying The key to good user interface is reducing visual complexity. This means hiding features that aren't used by 80% of visitors by default. I'd say that applies to the SO->Meta link at the very least, if not the reverse.
    – Geobits
    Dec 5, 2013 at 18:29
  • @random Could you explain? Are you referring to the fact that footer links require navigation before they can be used (i.e. key strokes or scrolling)? Dec 5, 2013 at 18:32
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    Footer links don't require any more than what the header links did before. Plus, they deal with actions that happen when you're done with the main content.
    – random
    Dec 5, 2013 at 18:37
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    @GenericHolidayName 80% of visitors are not logged in and already had those links hidden from them. Dec 5, 2013 at 18:42
  • @LanceRoberts I've always though that was a bad rule; better to minimise the time between a user wanting to do something and it being done; good organisation achieves that in a way just having loads of buttons doesn't Dec 5, 2013 at 18:44
  • @SevenSidedDie SO has 2.6M registered users. Meta has 94K. Assuming most of the registered users visit while logged in, 80% is still very generous to meta.
    – Geobits
    Dec 5, 2013 at 18:45
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    @GenericHolidayName We don't design against only StackOverflow anymore, now that all the Stacks need to be served by useful design. On the smaller stacks, the ratio is much, much closer to 1. Dec 5, 2013 at 18:46
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    @SevenSidedDie I get that, but not only is the new bar "cleaner", but the meta link is now logically grouped in with similar actions(changing sites in-network). Why should we have two different ways to change sites within the same bar? It adds complexity for no purpose other than saving long-time users a single click. Personally, I don't see why the people that switch that often don't just keep both open in separate tabs. I do, and it's very easy to change sites that way.
    – Geobits
    Dec 5, 2013 at 18:51
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    @GenericHolidayName See my answer below: changing sites is exactly the wrong metaphor for navigating to a site's meta. (Note the possessive there.) Dec 5, 2013 at 18:54
  • @RichardTingle, I agree it's ultimately all about time. Dec 5, 2013 at 18:54
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    @random Maybe it's just the questions and devices I'm dealing with, but the footer is almost never visible to me, so accessing it involves an additional action to make it visible, let alone use the links. In any event, if this isn't your argument, I don't see how a principle of minimizing clicks leads to "no footer links". ?? Dec 5, 2013 at 18:55
  • Why can we go to meta by clicking help, but not main? Dec 6, 2013 at 0:11

8 Answers 8


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.)

  • 3
    +1 Very good thought on the position of the button. There were complains about people getting into meta through help and not knowing how to get back. However, this shows that the problem might be a bit deeper than that. And I agree, for me, meta is in a sense the B&W side of my beloved main :)
    – yo'
    Dec 5, 2013 at 18:41
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    I like the analogy, but disagree with the conclusion. If anything, the new switcher immediately shows the sites are related(being nested/indented) better than a simple text "meta" link ever did.
    – Geobits
    Dec 5, 2013 at 18:58
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    @GenericHolidayName That's very true. But that's an information-presentation consideration. Interface-use has very different rules about how to organise functional elements in order to convey information and be metaphor-correct at the same time. The old meta link could have been improved, but this is a step backwards. Dec 5, 2013 at 19:01

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...

  • Good points. I'm curious to know how you guys plan to measure this, but assuming you can, I look forward to the results. FWIW, while I think there's value in having the meta link available at more places, I think all those additional places pale in their impact as compared to the in-your-face presence of the top bar "meta" link. Dec 5, 2013 at 18:23
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    Oh, footer. Does anybody ever check the footer? ;) Dec 5, 2013 at 18:32
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    Maybe it's time to jettison all content and links below the fold
    – random
    Dec 5, 2013 at 19:30
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    Yes... beyond the discussion of "extra clicks" and "moving my cheese" — My main concern of removing the "support forum" from the main menu was one of discoverability. I'm still a bit nervous that, if incoming users don't know the feature exists, meta will become a fading legacy system used only by the old-timers who still know its there. I'm sure we'll be watching for such behavior changes closely, fingers crossed. Dec 5, 2013 at 19:56
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    My own journey on Meta started over three years ago when I wanted to ask something about comments. The memory is dim, but I'm pretty sure I had no idea what "meta" meant and took me a while to figure I'll just try clicking it and see where it leads me and if it's the correct place to ask. Now I would just click "help" and the "Discuss the workings and policies of this site" is crystal clear. It will most likely bring more people here, in my opinion. :) Dec 6, 2013 at 0:19
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    @RobertCartaino I had a similar concerned, but Sha Wiz Dow Ard makes a good point that “meta” meant nothing to people who weren't veterans, whereas it's now under “help” with a legend that says what it is. Dec 6, 2013 at 1:08
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    " We didn't create these meta sites so that a handful of old-timers could sit in a smoky back room and bitch" You must be new here...
    – Pollyanna
    Dec 11, 2013 at 20:06

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.


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.

  • Curious as to why/how you think my question is biased. Did you see the question I authored and linked to in my question (and the associated comments)? :-) Dec 5, 2013 at 17:41
  • "fuss"? I'm not a native speaker, but I do say "he makes fuss" and I don't say "I make fuss". Then, "some people" etc. It's passive-agressive, which I obviously can't prove since it can't be proved. However, in the end, the only thing that is incorrect is me saying: "based on your self-answer", because it's more based on the question iteself; the fact that you self-answered it only somehow finishes the picture.
    – yo'
    Dec 5, 2013 at 17:45
  • Sorry, but I'm still not clear. :-) Are you suggesting that there is, in fact, no "fuss" (independent of why people are fussing)? Do you realize that I am talking about myself when I'm referring to addicts, fussing, etc? I don't see how I can be passive-aggressive against myself. :-) Dec 5, 2013 at 18:19
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    Maybe I see too much in it. I, in general, don't like the sort-of humour you present here, especially with all the morphine/cocaine "jokes" in your answer. TBH, it's not funny, it looks like you treat "those who don't like +1 distance to meta" as "drug-taking idiots/rats". That's as well, IMHO, the reason why the answer gets downvoted (I don't know how much since I don't have enough rep to se +- here): it's simply rude. As for "fuss", for me it has a significantly negative undertone, but I might be wrong with that and look for something that is not there.
    – yo'
    Dec 5, 2013 at 18:25
  • Thanks for the thoughtful response. To at least partially address the concerns you raised, I updated my answer so that I was explicitly referring to myself and only myself. Dec 5, 2013 at 18:30

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:

  • Wait for the popup to appear
  • Visually locate the new link
  • Move the cursor to the new link
  • Click the new link
  • Return the cursor to the top bar link for the next "dose" (optional, but likely for the addict)

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. :-)

  • 5
    I would really love to get that morphine/cocaine lever back though... Dec 5, 2013 at 17:26
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    Don't forget chat. Not only do I have to wait slightly longer to get the morphine, but they moved my bottle of Everclear as well!
    – Shog9
    Dec 5, 2013 at 17:32
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    It's two clicks instead of one. Is 2X an order of magnitude in binary? Dec 5, 2013 at 17:41
  • @BilltheLizard See updated answer for explanation of order-of-magnitude remark. Dec 5, 2013 at 18:10

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.

  • The new top bar is not optimized for mobile, since we're in the process of developing Stack Exchange mobile apps.
    – Laura
    Dec 6, 2013 at 3:31

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.

  • You're most likely only looking there for a link simply because that's where the link to the main site used to be (approixmately) in the top bar. As shog mentioned, this is simply your muscle memory. The help drop down is in no way a logical place to have a link to the main site from meta, as there is no information to provide help with meta on the main site. See Add “main” link to “help” drop menu on “meta” for more info.
    – Servy
    Dec 12, 2013 at 21:41

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