I made a quick change to Area 51 recently, and it had a profound effect on how people used that site, so let's discuss.
The basic building blocks of every SE site are the QUESTION and the ANSWER. They are clearly portrayed as such, so if anyone puts "something else" in that space, it's such an obvious UI gaff, folks have no problem spotting it and fixing it — we have nearly 100% compliance.
Comments are something else. We have a section inviting folks to simply "add comment" (definition: respond? gossip? talk?), and yet we yell at them if they do it wrong. Then we spend an inordinate amount of time (and resources) cleaning them up (with barely a dent, I should add).
Comments actually have two primary use cases — to ask for clarification or to suggest improvements to a post. If you disagree with that characterization, maybe suggest something more succinct below.
So looking at Area 51 for a moment (our site-creation process), users are asked to post "example questions" (with comments) to help define the proposed site. Unfortunately I also flag dozens-to-hundreds of posts daily simply to remove misplaced answers and other minutia from comments which simply don't belong there. It's very time consuming, and largely ineffective.
But it never stops.
Only recently, I changed the comment prompt in Area 51 from "add comment" to "suggest improvements" (the primary use case for example questions), and that number dropped to essentially… ZERO!
- Change "add comment" under the question to "ask for clarification" (or suggest something better)
- Change "add comment" under the answer to "suggest improvements"
This isn't an exact match for all possible use cases for comments, but it's enough to give a user pause when they're about to post something that is (as it turns out) wildly outside what we generally consider valid comments. These cover the PRIMARY use cases for comments. You may disagree, but I welcome wording improvements. We just have to be a bit wary of making this too wordy (or obscure), and end up trading one misuse for another.
Before you respond:
The current UI is a trap. It lures in unsuspecting users to do one thing while those who live in meta enforce something else. That's the rub — there's a real-world understanding of what it means to "comment", and then there's Stack Exchange.
Unfortunately we can't let comments become a free-form chatting forum in the current implementation, so my suggestion is to at least provide better signage about what the feature is meant to be used for in the current implementation.
You can't change ingrained user behaviors with larger FAQs and more meta posts. You have to get it right in the UI. A prompt change will not cure every problem folks encounter with comments, but this simple "fix" largely amounts to a copy change — and now it's been field tested and shown to be extremely effective.
Let's do this!