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We just had a question posted on UX Meta asking why the review counter displays a misleading and rarely accurate numeric value, so I got my thinking cap on and thought: "Instead of just complaining about something, why don't I think of an alternative?".

So, based on no real research or evidence at all I made a bunch of assumptions:

  • The purpose of the indicator is to show that there are reviews in the queue
  • It has a number in there is to indicate the overall severity of the review queue
  • The numbers are cached and not personalised so are never accurate.

Then I bodged up some concepts in paint.NET:

Concept 1 - traffic light approach to review count:

Have the indicator take the form of a coloured shape, a different shape for each colour status. Kind of like a traffic light, but with different shapes to help with accessibility.

What the thresholds are would possibly have to be configurable, as different sites (StackOverflow in particular) will have constant RED otherwise, but the general idea being - red status means there are lots in here, amber means things are OK but need looking at and green means the review queue is pretty well under control.

The aim would obviously be to keep the queue in the green.

enter image description here

Concept 2 - Severity 'gradient' indicator:

If the previous idea is a bit too 'in your face' (which I kinda think would be the case myself) we could just highlight the 'Review' item differently depending on how severe the queue is. Something like the above perhaps.

idea 2

So yeah. What does the community think? Will this retain the general purpose of the review counter but remove the ambiguity of the numbers? I think so, but am open to suggestions or reasons why my half-baked ideas don't pass muster.

  • @VotetoClose: That may just be because of my crappy design skills, but yes, I agree that the second one is probably more suitable. – JonW Jul 25 '14 at 10:28
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No, absolutely not. It would be a major UX throwback.

Concept 1

These shapes and colors violate the “don't make me think” rule. A number next to the word “review” is quite plausibly a number of reviews; even if I don't know exactly how that number is calculated, I know enough to not worry more about what it is. What the hell does a yellow triangle mean?

Furthermore, you're removing information. With the numbers, I might notice that the number increases on a page load — that means more reviews have come in so I ought to take a look. Without the numbers, chances are that I'm going to pretty consistently see the same symbol during the period of time when I'm online (but, if the symbol variation is to have any use, I'll see different symbols in different sessions or on different sites).

These symbols would cry out in an otherwise fairly consistent color scheme, and in three different WAYS! The inbox is red, the achievements box is green — these stand out for good reason¹, because there's something I need to know about. The number of reviews stands out a bit less but still has a color of its own; that's fine. Now there can be three different colors and three different symbols, all for the same concept: this makes the concept the most important one on the page, visually speaking. That's completely inappropriate.

Furthermore, you want to introduce three colors for a symbol, two of which are identical to the color of an unrelated element; and making a color distinction for intensity clashes with the color distinction already made for type. That's bad.

In summary, concept 1 is horrible.

Concept 2

Concept 2 avoids several of the pitfalls of concept 1. It's nice visually speaking, except that I'd use a different color so that it doesn't look related to the inbox. Use yellow, or the current beige. It doesn't make me think, even less than the number because it's so clearly related to reviews.

Still, I don't like concept 2, because it hides the information. I can't passively notice that the number is going up the way I can do if the number is displayed: it would often come to a pixel-sized distinction.

Hiding the information doesn't serve a useful purpose. If you feel that the number is not tied closely enough to the word “review”, reduce the space between them, and make “reviews” plural when there are 2 or more, so that the text smoothly reads smoothly “N reviews”.

Most damning, this doesn't solve the real problem! The real problem is the inaccuracy of the number, and mostly the fact that the number can be nonzero even when I have nothing to review. The progress bar that you propose would lie just as much.

Alleviating the problem

The most bothersome aspect of the review indicator is that it shows that there's stuff to review even when there isn't. I don't really care if the indicator shows 150 when there are only 120 items that I can review, but I do care if the indicator shows.

Barring an accurate count (which is prohibitively expensive), the count could be make less inaccurate by keeping track of when I last reviewed. At the very least, if I'm in the review interface and there are 0 items left for me to review, record the current value of the last review item ID, and don't show me the indicator until that value changes. As I understand it, this would not add a database request on page load outside /review.

Furthermore, the inaccuracy should be explained in the tooltip. Instead of showing ”~42 review items“, show “42 total pending reviews” — still reasonably short, but hints that it's not counting just reviews that you can do.

¹ Well, at least the inbox but that's a whole 'nother debate.

  • 2
    If it shows when I can't review a thing, I don't wanna see it at all. Better to get rid of it until it gets displayed when you can actually review something. Pointless to have it show otherwise. – Jonathan Drapeau Jul 25 '14 at 18:43
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    Good call, re: tooltip. Starting with next build, it'll say "X total posts awaiting review". – Adam Lear Jul 25 '14 at 18:45
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    The thought process for the first concept is really - use colour to indicate status, but not colour alone (which is poor accessibiltity) so hooking it to a different shape - with different number of edges / corners signifying priority. The more edges the 'harsher' the look and therefore the higher the priority. My designs are pretty OTT though so a more subtle approach may work better there. But the 2nd concept probably works better overall. If we can't have accurate numbers then using numbers in general is a bad choice, and clearly confusing (as shown in several questions). As for... – JonW Jul 25 '14 at 19:12
  • ...the tooltip; that's only going to be useful for people using a mouse to interact with things. Using hover to get information across is not really the most ideal method. My ideas are not perfect, they were hastily done, but my main issue is with showing a number when that number is almost always incorrect. The number 120 means something - it is a specific indicator of something. If 120 doesn't actually mean 120 then we should think of a different way of imparting that information. Hence my suggestions. – JonW Jul 25 '14 at 19:14
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    The only inaccuracy that hurts is 0 vs >0. The indicators have the same flaw: the bar flush can be somewhere in the middle even if there's nothing to review. There is a major loss with no gain. – Gilles Jul 25 '14 at 20:03
  • I've never understood this number, the only place I've ever seen it is on SuperUser and it's always been 5 when it's been there on my screen... – Graham Wager Jul 30 '14 at 16:31
  • Can you spin off "if I'm in the review interface and there are 0 items left for me to review, record the current value of the last review item ID, and don't show me the indicator until that value changes" into a new feature-request? I'd do it, except that I find the indicator so useless it's always hidden at present. – Nathan Tuggy Dec 7 '15 at 21:54
  • @NathanTuggy Shog9 proposed something similar here. But nothing's happened. Evidently SE doesn't care. – Gilles Dec 13 '16 at 23:21
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Address with the October 2017 rollout of the new top bar review indicators: pending task counts replaced with colored indicators for queues most in need of attention.

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