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:
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:
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?