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Now seems like a good time to remind ourselves of why we started making dramatic changes to the design of every site on the network. From Joe's post on meta:

We're introducing a new product, Teams (née channels), and doing the requisite research and design thinking to get it right. In addition, early on we realized that we have a unique opportunity to pay off technical debt that prevented us from serving Stack Exchange communities as well as we should have been.

There are something like 60 similar, but not compatible themes plus ~100 sites that share the "beta blue" theme. In 2016, our designers pushed out one design a month in an effort to catch up with the rate sites were graduating. In 2017, we had zero new designs. We've painted ourselves into a corner and need to give our designers some space to work with. We never again want to utter the words:

It turns out that when you try to pick a color to match 40 different site designs, you quickly realize you only have one real choice: black.

To get an idea of how the standard theme is implemented, you can look at the CSS and pattern library documentation. (We've never had design documentation in the past, in part, because there is so much variation in site design.) Standard design frameworks have proved an effective way to squash long-standing design bugs in the past and I expect the standard theme will eliminate many existing problems and prevent many more in the future.

Giving sites customized designs is a big part in our ongoing effort to rationalize the site lifecycle. (Opening more sites to moderator elections is another piece to the puzzle.) Unique community designs (and, by extention, brands) is one way we can invest in the Stack Exchange network. Not so obvious right now, but a standard theme also allows us to port Stack Overflow-exclusive features to other sites; new features that target Stack Overflow, Enterprise or Teams will probably stay locked into those platforms as long as we don't have a common design to target.

I would have liked these changes to be rolled out with the custom question list feature. That would have given everyone something to like about the changes other than a promise of fewer design bugs in the future. I know this state of affairs is not very satisfying.

How we get feedback

Reading the responses to What does constructive criticism of a design change look like?, it occured to me that people might not understand where meta feedback is most valuable. Meta was started, in part, due to my suggestion on UserVoice:

I know this has been declined multiple times, but I really think it's time to consider the problem of meta-discussions on the site.

In those day, nearly a decade ago, Stack Overflow was growing quickly and active users were an important source of ideas and feature requests. But, as you can see from the quote, most suggestions were declined. Usually they were declined with no explanation or terse pronouncements. Meta, by contrast, has turned out to be incredibly useful for working out certain types of features like the review queue indicator. It gives developers and users space to discuss the workings of the site in detail. Reasoned arguments on meta provide feedback that can't be reproduced elsewhere.

Unfortunately, we haven't always used that space to its best advantage. Jeff has talked about this in Listen to Your Community, But Don't Let Them Tell You What to Do. In contrast to his habit of declining suggestions quickly, we've swung to the opposite extreme. Ideas languish on meta. Once in a while, we'll dig up an old idea, but more often your hard work convincing us to do something goes unanswered. That doesn't mean it lacks value, however. When I wrote that UserVoice suggestion, I just wanted to have a place for meta-discussions even if the company ignored them.

In the last couple of years, we've cultivated other types of feedback. For instance, the blog post that introduced the navigation changes incorporated feedback from user interviews. From these tests, we can observe what happens when people try to use the interface. Direct feedback as people learn about the changes can only be reproduced on meta if the user is very diligent to record their own experiences in detail. Even then, it'd be just one of the ~5 individuals you need for good results. Since we do user interviews more frequently than in the past, we often have a good idea of what does or does not work in the UI before presenting it to meta.

We also use A/B tests and usage statistics. In the case of the left-hand sidebar, it's easy to spot when we made the change on Stack Overflow:

Stack Overflow navigation usage

Meta feedback such as "I have a hard time finding the questions page" is especially useful if the data shows this is a common problem. If your concern happens to be less common, it requires more information about what makes your use case notable. Even then, it might be impossible to fix without breaking something for others.

By the way, the other sites that have received the new theme show a pattern unlike Stack Overflow:

Non-SO navigation usage

Since Stack Overflow is a critical part of many programmers' workflow, we get criticism from outside the community. Traditionally, we've ignored that input because people who are not active on the sites tend not to understand how the sausage is made. Recently, however, we've heard criticism that we've taken to heart and responded to. If you can find the truth buried within misunderstandings of outsiders it can be useful to hear from the largely-silent majority of people who use the site passively.

Finally, there are internal considerations such as input from other parts of the business. Adding navigation support for Teams was a key reason we embarked on this round of changes, if you recall. We strive for transparency, but don't always succeed. Then there are trivial issues like the way our code is structured or people going on vacation or disagreements about how to do things that can have outsized effects on what we are able to do. Sometimes we fail to predict what information is most relevant.

Working with you to improve the feedback cycle

The sense I get from reading answers and comments here is that the frustration many of you feel stems from a lack of agency over the features, design and operation of the site(s) you love. The express goal of the standard theme is to support Teams, a feature many people will never get to use and probably will never be deployed to most sites. I'd guess everyone who uses meta regularly has a pet feature or bug that they wish we'd spend time on.

In addition, while the change will help sites without designs get their own distinctive brand in time, the predominate effect so far has been to water down existing site designs. Since Stack Overflow was the base upon which the standard was built, sites like Math and TeX look a lot more like Stack Overflow than they used to. And let's not underestimate the very real cost changing a UI has on people. It should be no surprise that people feel angry and helpless.

Both the DAG and community teams are working on ways to make the transition less shocking and get important feedback sooner as we continue converting sites to the standard theme. To quote Tim:

We're still a growing and relatively small company with limited resources. While we don't struggle and thrash around in the name of profitability, we're still going to struggle and thrash around as we encounter even scarier problems that come with becoming more established. We're way more public and open than anyone else and as you can see, it has been a heck of a ride. We wish we could do everything, right now, and make everyone happy. We'll get there.

You know how companies that put you on hold always say "Your call is very important to us"? Yeah, I don't believe it either. Then again, you gotta feel for them since many companies do care about keeping customers happy, but can't afford to have a call center full of people waiting around to give individualized service. So they gotta say something while you wait. Fortunately, as a software company, we can do more than ask you to reboot your router (as my ISP invariably asks). Sometimes we can fix things twice and get at the root problem.

At any rate, we can do better and maybe you have some practical ideas. How can we serve you better while still meeting our goal to standardize all 174 site themes?

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    I believe this is a bit against the planning philosophy within the company but I do think posts like the one from the DAG team with their month planning help a bit but that is only a month worth of work and a single team. If you had a publlc (single) prioritized backlog (with features and bugs) that shows all the work that you expect to be in scope users will have the right expectation. I recall Shog9 mentioned once there were over 7,000 open bugs. Showing a (rough) public plan can help a bit to communicate goals that are over the 6 to 8 weeks horizon .... – rene Aug 29 '18 at 7:07
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    Recently, however, we've heard criticism that we've taken to heart and responded to. Thats really bad timing considering the community has felt for a while that their concerns aren't taken to heart, but apparently the concerns of outsiders with no stake in the site or its future are. I think this is primarily what has caused the massive loss of trust and goodwill. Right now, meta feels like a battlefield most days. – Magisch Aug 29 '18 at 7:30
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    I understand listening to criticisms from those beyond the registered users. Even there, though, please be careful which criticisms you respond to. I'm increasingly convinced that some of the critics have their own agenda, and it is not to make SE a better place, even if they say so. – S.L. Barth Aug 29 '18 at 7:42
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    Slightly off-topic, but: Stack Exchange's USP (Unique Selling Point) is immediate solutions to practical problems. That is how people find these sites: they Google a problem and find a workable solution on SE. They don't initially come here to find a nice/welcoming/etc environment - there's enough of those already. They come here because we have an answer to their problem. – S.L. Barth Aug 29 '18 at 8:10
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    @S.L.Barth I have a number of friends who use SO passively but will not use the the site actively - or even create an account - because of the ugly or snarky comments, bandwagon downvoting, and other various misconceptions about the users and the site. One of the most enlightening thing for me in talking with these passive users is hearing them explain "how SE works"... they're almost always completely wrong - just like the linked Twitter thread of someone describing Harry Potter. These are potentially great users with years of experience in programming, but they're scared and confused. – Catija Aug 29 '18 at 13:18
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    Some of them may never become active users for various reasons and that's OK, but if the reason they're not active is because of the site culture (even if it's only a few people who are causing harm, which it seems to be), the system actively preventing them from participating based on initial struggles that we caused by failing to teach them, and not knowing how to do better, we should fix that. It will help the long-term users and the new users to do what we do best - building a repository of great questions and answers that will help the world. – Catija Aug 29 '18 at 13:24
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    We're having that discussion. @S.L.Barth . That's what Jon talks about in the question. Those user interviews are with both veteran and passive (or scared) users who want the site to improve. These users have reached out to us either internally, as through the link at the bottom of Jay's first welcoming blog post or externally (contacts by email or twitter). We're also seeking feedback from moderators (a survey) and having them and others evaluate comments. – Catija Aug 29 '18 at 13:40
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    @Catija Thanks, that's reassuring. I'm just surprised about the constant references to Ms Wensels blog. I do not believe that one was written in good faith. There are other criticisms, like this one and its comments. These seem a lot more impartial to me. – S.L. Barth Aug 29 '18 at 17:29
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    @S.L.Barth: I sat down one evening and wrote up a long response to Suffering on Stack Overflow. I didn't publish because my objections boiled down to ways we've failed to explain the system. Maybe she's got an agenda, but that doesn't matter too much since her criticism represents real problems people have getting started on the site. Notice how many quotes April Wensel gathered from others. We aren't just doing what critics tell us to do, but trying to use data and our best judgement to fix the underlying problems. – Jon Ericson Aug 29 '18 at 17:47
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    @JonEricson I don't envy the job y'all have trying to convince the severely mistrusting community members that no bad faith is involved. Seems like it's anything but working at the moment – Magisch Aug 29 '18 at 18:35
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    @Magisch: I've been doing this for 5 years now. I've seen these sorts of controversies come and go. If you spend any time at all on meta around the network, it's pretty clear people mistrust us all the time. I gotta tell you, it's a nice change of pace for people to distrust us because we're moving too fast with changes that have real impact. It's even better that we have research and data playing a part in our decisions rather than just hoping a change will make a difference. The only way to earn trust is to do our best, communicate often and demonstrate our good faith with results. – Jon Ericson Aug 29 '18 at 20:03
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    @JonEricson I don't think the pace of the changes is the problem. It's that they're introduced along with accusations of sexism and racism. I have never seen constructive dialogue follow such accusations. The Welcoming blog is where trust was lost. – S.L. Barth Aug 30 '18 at 4:20
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    @JonEricson Regarding our "failing to explain the system"... SO has done everything from a Help Center to a Pluralsight course to a question checklist. I think people just ignore these until they get their first downvote... because then they realize that not following the rules has consequences. Can't blame the new user... many online communities have extensive rules, that aren't enforced at all. It probably comes as a surprise to the new user that SO does enforce its myriad rules. – S.L. Barth Aug 30 '18 at 4:54
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    I'd like to know whether the disastrous font destruction whereby you force ELU to use Arial instead of Georgia is non-negotiable. Might as well just use comic sans and be done with it. You'll drive people away this way. What makes all this worth so much alienation? – tchrist Aug 31 '18 at 22:29
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    @Catija «We're having that discussion. \@S.L.Barth . That's what Jon talks about in the question. Those user interviews are with both veteran...» Okay... but there's already tons of feedback from veterans. It's in public, on the Metas; it's been commented and voted on by other users. It's very difficult to understand why more input on yet another (private!) channel is so important. I'm not doubting good intentions, but all I can wonder is "when will it be enough to take action?" – Josh Caswell Sep 1 '18 at 14:38
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It seems to me that the timing of all of this is just deeply unfortunate.

In my some three year experience with Stack Exchange as a whole, new features had to be fought over. You had to have broad community support, a highly upvoted meta post, a sharp and unassailable argument and business case, and quite a bit of luck to get your feature implemented. It was a unforgiving process that frustrated many people because it seemed like nothing was getting done, but it felt fair, because everyone and their pet feature request had to go through it. Now

Since Stack Overflow is a critical part of many programmers' workflow, we get criticism from outside the community. Traditionally, we've ignored that input because people who are not active on the sites tend not to understand how the sausage is made. Recently, however, we've heard criticism that we've taken to heart and responded to. If you can find the truth buried within misunderstandings of outsiders it can be useful to hear from the largely-silent majority of people who use the site passively.

That timing is incredibly unfortunate. I don't assume any malice of intent, I think y'all heard criticism you've really taken to heart and I'm not about to try and discredit that criticism or its validity in any way, but after years of being utterly unapproachable in the way of letting public suggestions affect large changes, you start to roll out a bunch of them. Not because the community asked for it (actually despite large contingents of the community asking you not to do it), but because outsiders with seemingly no stake or contribution to the success of the site asked for it.

This has a really bad and demoralizing PR look for all the people who've been patiently chipping away, spending their time, making their cases, for their suggestions to go nowhere. Now suddenly someone makes a few tweets or a blog post and you're reacting? Regardless of what it actually is, it just feels unfair and contemptuous. You have to really stretch and force yourself to assume good intent to not be insulted by that.

I'm not sure what the solution can be, but in the three years since joining this site and all the meta activity I've read before then I've never seen this amount of outright cynicism and dislike towards SE the company. It seems like the majority of the default trust and goodwill y'all used to have has been spent and replaced by cynicism and negativity. It is really sad to see rational discourse go off a cliff so dramatically.

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    These users are less "outsiders" than they are "non-contributors". They're the equivalent of Wikipedia readers rather than editors - people who use the site regularly - often daily - who rely on the site for their work. They may not know how the sausage is made but that doesn't make their input invalid - particularly when we hear many of the same input from toiling contributing users who often get shouted down on meta and are understandably shy to try again. Part of where we may have failed is in not pointing out that their concerns are echoed by long-time active or disaffected users. – Catija Aug 29 '18 at 15:25
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    @Catija Several of the high profile people who made complaints against stack exchange that were taken seriously (or had the appearance of being taken seriously) are distinct non-users of the site and it looks like they have an agenda. It's not that you guys are wrong in listening to them, as I've said, it's that it comes across that way. – Magisch Aug 29 '18 at 15:27
  • I understand that's how it looks. What I think we're trying to understand is how we can convince y'all that we're basing these changes on way more than a few high-profile non-users. I'm regularly saddened by the attitude towards some users. We, as a network, have an "assume good intentions" policy and we're extremely forgiving when it comes to behavior-based rule violations but we are so very unkind to people who try and then fail because we've done nothing to prepare them better. – Catija Aug 29 '18 at 15:35
  • @Catija I think a large part of that is that meta looks so unapproachable and unforgiving. People come in with the best intentions and maybe a lil angry that their post was shut down and leave dejected because they got voted down to -20 and scolded by 10 different people for not having read the sum of previous feature requests of their type. The same happens on main to a lesser extent with duplicates. Meta in particular is really unforgiving though if you're not used to it. – Magisch Aug 29 '18 at 15:57
  • I know this probably feels new, but it's more or less the same response we got from Documentation, the Summer of Love and, to a lesser extent, Teams (original flavor). It's not uncommon for us to get pushback on money-making products, but people seem more understanding of those. And then there are the short-term outrages when we say anything political in an official capacity. I see a common thread. – Jon Ericson Aug 31 '18 at 18:43
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    @JonEricson I was there for 2 of the political post fiasco's, but i've never seen quite so much cynicism and outright distrust until now. Maybe I'm projecting and just percieving it differently. – Magisch Aug 31 '18 at 18:47
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    @JonEricson I have to agree with Magisch. I've been here through docs, the original teams, the gay pride banner, Joel's elections post, the license posts, and on and on and on. Yes, each change and "discussion" brought out a lot of discussion, arguments, and pushback. But nothing has ever brought out the level of distrust, hurt, and perhaps anger that I see now. Actually the fact that you try to dismiss it as "normal people complaining" instead of, ya know, listening, just reinforces it more. – ɥʇǝS Sep 1 '18 at 18:10
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    And personally I find that offensive. Not that I think ya'll care. From what I've seen SE is well beyond that. I'm not exaggerating when I say the only thing keeping me here at all is my community on my site. I came here from the MSE newsletter because I keep hoping maybe something will change, but even that feels more and more hopeless. – ɥʇǝS Sep 1 '18 at 18:15
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    I think it's also worth pointing out that both the original teams and docs failed. And the community gave you lots of reasons why it wouldn't work from the get go, reasons that were mostly ignored. There's nothing wrong with failing, you gotta try, and experiment. But both of those events hurt the community. It let Q/A languish even more to pursue projects lots of people saw as destined to fail. They did fail and then you come back and say "While we don't struggle and thrash around in the name of profitability", but that's exactly what happened. – ɥʇǝS Sep 1 '18 at 18:19
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    @ɥʇǝS: I don't think anyone should stick around for the sake of the company alone. We will fail y'all and that's a fact. I'm not dismissing this round of distrust and hurt. I'm sorry that's the impression I gave. Truth is, I've recently come to the conclusion we have had an unhealthy relationship for some time now. Our strategies (both the company's and the users') for getting along aren't working too well right now. That's way I'm trying to change them. (And yes, our struggle with profitability hurt the sites. It was frustrating for me too.) – Jon Ericson Sep 4 '18 at 18:30
  • @JonEricson In that vein, it certainly seems like a large part of the established userbase does not believe this shift in relationship with the community will work out to their benefit, quite to the contrary actually. I assume this isn't intended so what are y'all trying to do to correct that assumption? – Magisch Sep 4 '18 at 18:49
  • @Magisch: I can't speak for everyone at the company, but my strategy is to connect developers and designers with the community's concerns. It sure helps when disagreements are respectfully presented. I'm reluctant to point people to comments and posts that challenge their competence. It's just another layer we have to fight through, you know? Some of this is complicated by the fact that we've got some new folks on the team who don't have a long tradition of interacting on meta. – Jon Ericson Sep 4 '18 at 19:07
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    @JonEricson The problem is that defensive reactions like what we've been seeing and what people have been suspecting ala "Screw meta they're always so negative anyways" not only doesn't help, it actually makes it worse. Significantly. I wonder if y'all ever venture into the chat rooms of some of the sites that dislike the new design, it seems like all faith in any ability of the company to do anything right is lost entirely. I don't know where that comes from, but I've never seen anything close to it, not with any of the hot button issues of the past. – Magisch Sep 4 '18 at 19:11
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    @JonEricson Honestly I just want meta to lose some of the trademark negativity as of late. It's become a chore to keep up with and I don't even work here. One of the reasons I stuck around here is because SE was comparably drama free and when there was drama it was at least conducted mostly devoid of hyperbole. Now I'm seeing the site I really like descend into what looks like a flat out civil war to an extent I've never seen before. I don't even know what I'm arguing for here anymore, sorry for wasting your time on this. – Magisch Sep 4 '18 at 19:39
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    consider editing this answer with reference to recent example of what looks like a severe disservice to core community – gnat Oct 22 '18 at 13:10
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I think part of the problem is the disconnect between effect and availability.

For years, feature requests have had to have one of two properties to stand much of a chance of advancing:

  • be an improvement on most sites, or
  • be limited to a few sites, do no harm to others, and be easy to implement

Examples of this second case include:

  • MathJax on selected sites
  • the Hebrew keyboard on Mi Yodeya
  • different rules for collapsing comments on The Workplace
  • the photo of the month on Photography (ok, I don't know if that was easy to implement)
  • the professional-services disclaimer on Mi Yodeya, Health, and Law
  • runnable code snippets on Stack Overflow

As you noted, there are feature requests that have been languishing for years despite being well-supported and beneficial. You can't do everything and you have to prioritize; I get that. And it's not all about the users; you have a company to keep afloat too.

Against that backdrop, though, we have a miscalibrated cluster of features. The driver for the left nav is Teams. Teams are only available on Stack Overflow, but everybody has to take the Teams-motivated left nav. When Teams were first brought up there were requests to enable them on other sites, and SE said no.

So here's my request: when there's a major feature that affects everybody, that's driven by one site and either does harm or is unpopular to the rest of the network, step back and ask if you can offer the motivating good thing to those sites too. Why not have the Moderator team here on Meta.SE where it makes more sense for its members? Why not allow companies to have teams on DBA or Software Engineering or Writing or Quality Assurance? Why not allow other groups (that are willing to pay the modest fees) to have teams on RPG or GameDev or Seasoned Advice or Board Games or Music? I don't know if there's a market, but I hope that the cost of turning on the feature on other sites isn't high, so in the interests of sharing the bounty along with the costs, could we not start with "no"?

I'm using left nav as a recent example here, but that's not the only case where earlier thinking and communicating about the broader network would have been helpful. Too often, it feels like things sink or swim on the basis of what Stack Overflow gets out of it. Sure, SO is the flagship site and has more users and activity than the rest of us put together, but it's pretty easy to come away from those discussions with the sense that the rest of us don't matter. I don't think that's what you think or mean to communicate.

When people ask "can we have X?", please look for ways to say "yes". When people ask "must we have X?", please look for ways to say "no".

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    With all the effort spent to make theming and navigation unified across the entire network, it really takes effort to believe that enabling Teams for arbitrary sites amounts to more than toggling an on switch. In light of that it's really not understandable why this isn't even taken into consideration. Even the few people who'd make a Team on ELU are a few people less pissed by left-nav. And even the few people paying for a Team on Writing are a few dollars more income. And all that for enabling a feature across the network, something the design unification is selling us as a piece of cake. – Christian Rau Oct 10 '18 at 16:08
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    In the ideal case, a Team isn't tied to a single site to begin with. A dev team likely has interactions with SO, Server Fault, Software Engineering, QA, Writing (for documentation), Workplace, and more. If I'm on a team I'd like to see that in the left nav anywhere on SE. But since they didn't do that, it would be better to at least not tie it to one particular site that doesn't always apply. – Monica Cellio Oct 10 '18 at 16:12
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After writing out this post a lot of this feels like a people/communication problem.

I guess it's about balancing the things that are going to take a little work, and make an impact over picking the battles you're willing to lose to win.

Practically - the bigger aim, of a standardised platform for the design for the sites is a given. I think it is a goal which has common sense basis and would help on the longer term.

However - I think SE occasionally (maybe as a small company) suffers from a certain degree of tunnel vision over current projects. It is not just what you need to do - it is how you do it, and how you communicate. At this point, the first we see of a new theme is the mockup and well, at this point costs are sunk.

While it's impossible to keep everyone happy - I guess the core questions are:

  1. What matters to users actually using the site and how do we actually manage to reconcile it with the new, standard site design plans.

The reasoning behind things like removing more unique design elements and voting arrows for example - makes things easier to do, but it's literally something that's part of the site design anyway.If it is something you do once, and it makes the site a LITTLE more unique - that means a lot to users. Every win we can get for both "uniqueness" and standardisation helps.

So.. if you guys realise site designs are watered down, and its having an adverse effect, and your community is less engaged erm... things are not great.

  1. How do we do this right once.

Cause really, if someone has themes they really really hate and you guys go "hey, they're right!" you're essentially designing two themes at once. Especially with the mature sites some of the unhappiness seems to be around the designer not actually 'getting' the site culture and what's important to them.

I'd say, especially on the first rounds having a slightly longer design process, and 'borrowing' a few staff or mods familiar with a site to point out the stuff users love and trying to balance between "we need to keep standard" and "the stuff we can include to make each site unique"

Or better yet start by asking users which aspects of their current theme is important to them. In many cases these are smaller things that fit into the current framework. Getting them engaged to start probably saves work, and you only need to do it for the initial stages/caddy style sites. Once the older sites are done, I suspect things will be less rocky, especially with newer sites.

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    I definitely agree with the last bit (well, the whole answer, yeah, but this part especially). I would be very much okay with waiting one or two weeks longer for the design process to start if it means we can avoid the possibility of a longer, more exhausting meta fight further down the road. No one wants to see that. – HDE 226868 Aug 29 '18 at 13:46
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    This is all very nice, but it doesn't take into account that the new site design, for a lack of better words, sucks balls. There are plenty plenty plenty of posts that point out the design mistakes. So yes, this is a communication problem, but no, it's not just that. – Maarten Bodewes Nov 13 '18 at 16:26
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A lot of the frustration that users have with the changes could be reduced by being a little more upfront with how the change fits in the bigger picture and giving some preview of the end goal.

Some of the recent changes carried out, such as the left navbar, the black hand of the welcoming bandwagon, and the change of site themes, have been purported to be the "first step" of a "major overhaul". However, this wasn't clearly communicated, and in some cases, not at all communicated. As a result, these changes seem to be an unnecessary gimmick which nobody asked for.

Instead, for example, if the idea of custom lists was mentioned when left navbar had been introduced, and it had been clearly stated that the left navbar is in preparation for the custom list, the community would have likely given it a better reception.

The same goes with the black hand of the welcoming bandwagon, which too, not surprisingly, has got mostly hostile reception, so much so that the announcement post had to be locked. While we have been told that "further steps will be taken", we don't know what those are and how this black hand of the welcoming bandwagon fits into that bigger picture.

Hence, to reiterate, I suggest that the announcement of these changes give some preview of the future steps and describe more concretely the bigger context into which this change fits (even if the exact details are not clear). Otherwise, it just looks like the company is constantly working on the "gimmick of the month" while ignoring feature requests pending for several years.

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    Digging a little deeper, the problem does not seem to be that we didn't communicate, but that the communication didn't reach the people who needed to know before we'd done quite a bit of work. It's unlikely that, say, a TeX user would have paid any attention to a blog post called How We’re Designing Channels. So our plans are hidden in plain site, as the saying goes. I certainly agree we've done the "gimmick of the $timeperiod" for a long time and it doesn't build confidence we know what we are doing. All we can do is do better. – Jon Ericson Aug 29 '18 at 7:12
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    @Jon It certainly seems that the plans are hidden, but not exactly in plain sight. For instance, the New Contributor indicator post doesn't mention (or at least I didn't see it clearly) it being the first part of a series of changes. That was only mentioned in the comments later after it received a fair amount of criticism. Improving things like those is likely to bring the community onboard, as against making it a "company vs community" battle every time a new change is rolled out. – Masked Man Aug 29 '18 at 7:38
  • I have no idea what happened but I am so so sorry. We interacted just once, briefly, but you left a positive impression on me. – Mari-Lou A Oct 20 '18 at 15:56
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I assume you're talking about concerns related to content quality (which naturally appears to be primary focus of the site "core group"). This may sound a bit paradoxical but I think the best way here would be to figure why you would need to address these concerns and serve this group.

Let me explain...

  • To start with, look at two efforts which appear to consume most of company resources: standardizing themes and engaging new users. For both, you have some underlying theory explaining what is for better and what is for worse for the company, you have certain expectations of what you want to achieve by making particular changes and ways to estimate progress in achieving your goals.
     
    And you have metrics to estimate impact of the changes you make (granted you weren't explicit about metrics for UI standardization but if you use a decent issue tracker you could easily have it - I did something like that in one of past projects and it wasn't much complicated).
     
    Simply put, you have reasons to invest efforts into making changes and ways to assess results of the changes you make. Your reasons and assessments may be inaccurate or even mistaken but that's manageable - you can review, revise, adjust your approach and keep making progress, knowing that you are indeed moving towards goals you consider necessary to achieve.

  • Now, compare that to content quality / core group needs - there is nothing like that. You can't tell why investing effort in this could be useful for the company, and you have no idea of how to estimate if things get better or worse (that is, better / worse for the company, not for some abstract global mankind which apparently only wants content to be better and doesn't care how much effort it would take of the company).
     
    This puts quality related matters in an extremely weak position when negotiating about investing efforts. When it comes to justifying these, the only reason you can provide is probably to just decrease meta noise. This leaves them no chance to stand when it comes to deciding where to put limited company resources.

A while ago I even wrote a post explaining why it makes sense for company to abstain of addressing quality matters (and instead, just keep pretending that they care)...

they will face a bunch of uncomfortable questions: what can be done at their side to keep site sufficiently nice, what could be the root cause of the snark, what can help to really improve things etc.

These would be difficult questions and I can understand why they would prefer to stay away from addressing these. So far, other options I've seen that could help were: giving more power to experienced users to handle an inappropriate content and / or improving guidance for new users. Both these options seem to be quite effort consuming and rather difficult to do right...

You see, the way to better serve the quality / core group needs seems to be to prove above wrong and start by finding a compelling reason to invest company efforts in addressing these needs.


- This is probably difficult and I can't tell you any concrete recipe but there is a knowledge source that looks worth studying: Stack Exchange features change log.

It lists multiple examples of past implemented features that focus on content quality. You can closer study these examples and try to find out if these carried any benefits for the company and maybe there are some worthy patterns or, I dunno, some manageable things that can be estimated and reasoned about and further used to justify investing company efforts into changes of that kind.

- You can also try to learn more about site visitors. Traffic stats suggests that there are millions visits a day, this is many orders of magnitude more than new question askers - what do we know about them?

As of late, company studies appear to be mostly focused on new users asking questions, but from perspective of long-term content quality this is just a dead end. This category of users is (naturally) primarily interested in getting immediate answers to their immediate questions and they have no reasons to care about them being searchable nor understandable to others nor duplicating what is already easily available.

Now, what about those others who don't ask questions but make such an overwhelming majority with their millions visits. Could they be interested in content quality (and thus get connected to concerns of site core group)? Why do they visit the site, how do they use it? How can company leverage their visits (they probably improve search rank of visited pages and company brand recognition, how can this be made useful for the company). Etc etc.

3

How can we serve you better while still meeting our goal to standardize all 174 site themes?

This is an interesting but somewhat contradictory question. It juxtapositions design changes with service. Design, in this case, is about a sense of identity, while service is... Well not really about a sense of identity. I don't think these two things really overlap all that much.

It turns out that when you try to pick a color to match 40 different site designs, you quickly realize you only have one real choice: black.

I truly love the idea of "any color as long as it is black" as a quandary. It is a fantastic encapsulation of the the dichotomy between trying to customize, while still trying to economize. Because, most will state that their preference is customization, but when given a choice in which customization costs are presented, will usually choose economization.

This quote from Henry Ford:

It is strange how, just as soon as an article becomes successful, somebody starts to think that it would be more successful if only it were different.

It kind of sums up that question... But... Is that the question here?

I don't think so. What you are really facing is more to the notion of:

resist all temptations to raise expectations

You (Stack Exchange) has tried hard to develop communities. This has allowed you to capture, otherwise very expensive, labor to help your cause. One of the things that helped here, was the branding (customized styling) of the communities involved. But you long ago raised those expectations.

So while this question somewhat addresses the need to lower expectations around custom designs, it is not clear to me that it does not do so explicitly...

  • 1
    On the contrary, we are looking forward to a future where we can raise expectations of having a brand for the vast majority of our communities who do not have any customizations. Yes, the cost comes at the expense of some of our oldest sites which will lose some of their identity. It was a service we provided years ago and it clearly was meaningful. That's the very reason we want to extend that service to other communities within the network. – Jon Ericson Aug 29 '18 at 7:07
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    @JonEricson Yes, the cost comes at the expense of some of our oldest sites which will lose some of their identity. It was a service we provided years ago and it clearly was meaningful. That's the very reason we want to extend that service to other communities within the network. So that's a definitive "The current unhappy people will just have to eat the fact that they're losing something they've had for years" then? Because then I'm unsurprised that there are increasing calls for the community to move to a different site on sites like math and latex SE. – Magisch Aug 29 '18 at 7:33
  • @Magisch But that's what they have been saying the entire time, that some sites will have to step their design down in order for others to get their designs. That's not a sudden surprise. That doesn't have to be liked, but there was never a doubt that this would be the outcome and they didn't make a secret of that until now. – Christian Rau Aug 31 '18 at 14:59
  • My comment was a response to your final sentence. It's totally understandable to be angry with the current state of affairs, but I hope it's clear we have a goal other than taking away cool stuff from users. It might help your argument to talk about how we might make the calculation between making some sites that have essentially no customization versus removing a measure of customization that other sites already enjoy. Continuing to focus on just the negative impact isn't really move the conversation forward. – Jon Ericson Aug 31 '18 at 18:29

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